Helping women to take care of themselves

October 21, 2001|By Susan Reimer

FOR SEVEN YEARS, Johns Hopkins Medicine has offered women a day for themselves.

Each fall, hundreds of women spend a Saturday not in a spa, but doing what women do so well -- gleaning the best health information available so they can take good care of their families.

But "A Woman's Journey," as it is called, focuses on the health of the one member of the family a woman is most likely to neglect. Herself.

This year, the Nov. 3 event offers 32 seminars at Baltimore's Marriott Waterfront Hotel covering topics from sore feet to the everyday benefits of space medicine. At each seminar, an expert from among Hopkins staff and faculty presents the latest research and the most up-to-date information and takes questions from the women participants.

All the topics are familiar to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters -- the multiple roles most women fill. But one in particular, "Mothers and Daughters: How to care for others without losing your sense of self," fits Michelle Leff to a T.

She is 40, and her career is in full swing. So is her husband's, but they started their family later and are juggling the care of a first-grader and a 4-year-old.

While she and her two sisters are flourishing on the East Coast, their parents still live in the Midwest. And though they are well and happy, they are pushing 70, and they are talking about moving near their children.

Leff is a prototype member of the "Sandwich Generation." She may be caring for aging parents before her daughters can care for themselves.

So this "Woman's Journey" seminar has Michelle Leff's name all over it.

As a matter of fact, she is teaching it.

It is Dr. Michelle Leff, and she is a child psychiatrist whose area of specialty is substance abuse among adolescents. She does research and treats patients at a community clinic out of Bayview Medical Center.

She doesn't have a lot of books on her office shelf about the pressures women endure while caring for parents and raising children. But, like most women, she has a pretty clear vision of the future and her role in it.

"My husband is in geriatric medicine," she said over coffee one morning, "and he says his patients that do best are the ones who have daughters."

Dr. Leff plans to talk about the societal pressures on women to flood into any care-giving gap, about the silent stresses that produces, and how women can protect their own health during a time when there is no time.

"We as women seem to gravitate to those roles," Dr. Leff says. "There was a push to raise our kids gender-free, but the fact is, girls stay closer to their parents."

It is not always mothers of young children who are stretched and stressed. Dr. Leff expects there to be 70-year-old women in her session who are caring for 90-year-old mothers.

"You have to take care of your own health first, and that means sleeping and not skipping meals," she said. "But there is more to it than that. You have to have a good grounding in who you are and what you need.

"For most women, that means setting limits, and women aren't very good at that. We feel guilty if we don't meet all the needs of our children, and we feel guilty saying 'no' to our parents.

"And all of that can be complicated by your history with your mother."

Dr. Leff is the oldest of three daughters of Korean parents who immigrated to the United States. The parents emphasized education, and all three girls are married and successful.

"My mother teases us that it is tradition that one of us should have remained unmarried in order to take care of them."

Her mother needn't have worried. The well-being of the parents is assured. After all, there are three daughters.

"A Woman's Journey" takes place Nov. 3 at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel. Call 410-955-8660 or go to www.hopkins medicine.org / awomansjourney.

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