Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma
“Over time, feeding and caring for my being this way, along with nourishing other diverse aspects of my life, built my fortitude to transform family meals into a time of warmth and care, ending a legacy of trauma and neglect.”
I awoke in an unfamiliar room in my ancestral country—though a country I barely knew—México. Determined to reclaim the cultural heritage that my family had kept from me as they sought to assimilate, I had enrolled in an immersion program during college that included a homestay with a local family. The aroma of fresh tortillas, black beans, and fried eggs saturated my early morning senses. I approached the breakfast table and Reyna, the mother of the home, asked me, “Josefa, ¿cómo quieres tu leche? ¿Tibia o caliente?” (How would you like your milk? Warm or hot?)
I was befuddled. No one had ever prepared such a warm and delicious breakfast for me, let alone expressed so much care for how I would like my food prepared. I readily embraced Reyna’s maternal warmth and care.
My own mother grew up in a large, impoverished family in the Midwest. While she was wise beyond words, her legacy of intergenerational trauma deeply impacted her ability to nurture her five children. I have a memory of myself at 6 years old climbing onto the stove to cook hot cereal for myself. As a second grader, I remember stopping by my mother’s bedroom to softly tell her I was leaving for school as she slept. Preparing meals felt like a chore to my mother, and she demanded we eat dinner in silence as we soaked in the collective sadness of our family. Doing well in school was my antidote to this dismal situation, and I applied myself to academics with a desperate rigor.
Despite my medical education and the fact I taught patients about nutrition in my integrative medical practice, I struggled for many years to nourish my own family. Each morning, when it was my turn to prepare breakfast, I felt challenged. I could not name what was happening, except that it felt wrong that I did not seem to have a natural capacity to prepare a delicious breakfast for my children with a heart of generosity. If one of my three daughters asked for an extra glass of juice or for her eggs to be prepared a special way, I cringed inside. It took such willpower to attend to their requests.
Once I began therapy in my late 30s, I realized that their innocent needs triggered my own trauma of neglect and sparked feelings of inadequacy. “What is wrong with you?!” I would harshly ask myself. My therapist encouraged me to stop beating myself up and to trust I was a good mother. It made sense that I struggled based on my childhood. While this understanding helped me to become less reactive, mealtimes remained challenging.
One of the tenants of integrative medicine is the paramount importance of nutrition in health and healing. In cold, dimly lit hotel conference centers, I attended many nutritional science conferences. We were presented with state-of-the-art nutritional studies, current dietary controversies, and the latest food trends. While I always learned something new, I left unsatiated, wanting something more than just a scientific understanding of nutrition.
When I first began practicing integrative medicine in 2006 in Ohio, I had great success using food as medicine. My patients embraced changes in their diets, transitioning from processed food lacking in nutrients to a rich variety of mainly plant-based whole foods, and they began avoiding culprits like gluten, dairy, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Their chronic health conditions—such as migraines, prediabetes, heart arrhythmias, and arthritis— would often greatly improve, if not resolve.
When I relocated my medical practice to Northern California in 2014, most of my new patients already followed pristine diets. They understood how to maximize micronutrients and avoid foods that cause inflammation. Despite these efforts, many of their health ailments lingered, and a sense of hypervigilance prevailed over eating "correctly." What I found least helpful were my patients’ rigid attitudes toward their impeccable diet plans—driven more by fear and obligation than an understanding of how to nurture their body.
It wasn’t until I began apprenticing with the yogi and mystic Cain Carroll several years ago that I began to understand my dissonance with this pristine diet approach. He explained that radiant health derives from nourishing all aspects of life, not from simply maximizing micronutrients. What is missing from nutritional science is the acknowledgement of what actually nourishes our spirit and feeds our embodiment: unconditional love and care. True nourishment is much less about guzzling down a cold green juice or eating a packaged kale salad than it is about infusing warmth and kindness into the food we prepare for ourselves and our loved ones.
Cain taught me a simple self-nourishment practice. Upon rising, I grind some fresh whole grains, whisk them into boiling water and slowly cook them into a thick warm porridge. I then sit down, feel into my gratitude, inhale the warm steam, and wait for my mouth to begin watering. With full presence, I pick up my spoon and place the first bite onto my tongue. I chew with my full loving attention, then swallow. I begin again and again, savoring these spoonfuls of nourishment, connecting my mouth to the rest of my body, nurturing myself. Over time, feeding and caring for my being this way, along with nourishing other diverse aspects of my life, built my fortitude to transform family meals into a time of warmth and care, ending a legacy of trauma and neglect.
I invite my patients to cherish nourishment over nutrients, to infuse their whole-foods diet with gentle, kind care. From menu planning to shopping at farmers markets to cooking with joy and creativity, I encourage my patients to express love and care through preparing nurturing meals—fully engaged and intimate. Mealtimes then become a sacred time to connect, nourishing ourselves from our souls to our cells.
These days, after my early morning meditation and rejuvenation practices, I crank some morning folk tunes and prepare a breakfast of organic, thick-rolled oatmeal with freshly toasted almond slivers and nut milk, served with poached eggs and hot tea. I warmly invite my daughters to the table. We gaze out onto the ocean, waves crashing, seagulls overhead, songbirds chirping, nourishing ourselves and each other, savoring one bite at a time, mother and daughters.
Read more on creating a foundation for healing from trauma.