Honoring the Ones Before

Photograph by Michelle Engberg With my mother at Kiwanis Park in Tempe, Arizona

Photograph by Michelle Engberg

With my mother at Kiwanis Park in Tempe, Arizona

A mentor of mine asked me a question that would mark the first time in my adult life, beyond the privacy of my home, that I cried:

"What would you do if your future daughter treated herself the way you're treating yourself?"

A little girl I cherished flashed into my psyche. Little feet turned out, little curly-haired head bowed vulnerably beneath my line of sight. I shook my head, desperate to protect her as if she were my own flesh and blood, from the prison of self-abandonment that I've inherited. And while it took me years to realize the connection between self-love, self-nourishing, self-healing, and the ability to thrive— at that moment I knew they were vital. It was then that I sensed the legacy of thriving I could pass on to my future daughter began with thriving myself.

We carry generations in us—generations of women before us who have given us ways to live and die: physically, psychologically, spiritually. These women were mothers to the core of their being. They sanctified and protected our homes. They felt our rhythms—hunger, thirst, longing. They knew beyond the limits of human language or reason what we called for, and they answered our calls, whether we cried as babies cry, or whether we screamed unknowingly and silently within our bodies. They loved fiercely. And when they had the will, they revived whatever and whomever had life left, even small and wretched animals. 

But in the tangle of lives to which they belonged—children, husbands, relatives and friends-- they gave life and died in the giving. Some gorged or starved to fortress the flesh and curves that would otherwise attract invasion, or repulse the ones to which they belonged. And if they didn’t “protect” their bodies with food, they still denied themselves the pleasure of their own appetites: for the novelty of a new dress made well and made for them, for adventure in the world that called them to love, nourish, and heal it, for the love that would sustain them...

Their homes and lives were defined not only by the primal and necessary calls of their husbands, children, relatives, and friends—but also, by the money and the authority of their men. Their relationship to these men, especially to their fathers and husbands, remained like patriarch-and-child throughout their lives. By their men’s work and strife in the world, these women were given the means to sustain their bodies and the household. Yet, the appetites for adventure, for purpose, and for expressing their sensitive and sacred bond to their bodies and to the divine— these murmured quietly beneath the distant gaze of their men. These women called desperately, quietly, violently, however they could, for the men to recognize them and to satisfy their appetites. As though these men were the only ones who could feed them. Like fathers would feed their diminished little girls. So without the agency to explore and to satisfy their own appetites, these women lacked the aliveness to keep them fully present in their homes and lives.  

We have the same appetites. And while there are women the world over who still suffer as the women before us have, many of us are growing with the capacities and the choices to explore our appetites, to define them, and to allow what we use to satisfy them to cultivate our own selves. We've inherited the unique gift and calling to nourish, to heal, and to love others, so we can learn to trust we won’t forsake that in giving the same to whom we’re becoming. Rather, in honor of the women who came before us, and whom we still carry within us, we can commit to returning what those mothers gave to others-- to our selves.

We must be vital and be present in the homes and the lives these women strive in spirit to help us build. 

What aspects of self-care have you longed for the elder women in your life to develop for themselves, and to have taught you when you were younger?

How has this absence of self-care affected the ways you care (or don’t care) for yourself? 

What are several questions you long to ask one or more living female relatives, as to how they've both struggled and succeeded to fulfill themselves? 

What are the gifts that the women before you have given to you physically, psychologically, and/or spiritually, that you want to emphasize in your own life now?

Consider several habits, values, and/or lessons you've learned in exploring the questions above. How would you pass this information down to the younger women and girls in your life?

I learn to thrive as I continue to reconcile with the women before me. In owning the narrative of what I've inherited from them, I move towards the legacy I long to create for us, for our mothers and the women who have raised and guided us, and for our current and future daughters. This is the gist of the story and questions through which I've begun to own my past, a past I believe many of us share. May this story, and these questions, inspire your own path to vitality and fulfillment.

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