There’s a steady pressure in today’s world to keep moving and keep giving. We’re asked to produce, to sacrifice, and to deny ourselves as a matter of virtue and worth. While the reasons may be different for why we deny ourselves, from the need to get to the top of the corporate ladder to an ascetic sense of morality passed down from our community, the outcome tends to be the same.
Let me introduce you to a figure from the folklore of Japan called the Futakuchi-onna. Her name means “two-mouthed woman,” and she comes from a country facing a crisis of self-care. In fact, at the end of last year, the youth suicide rate in Japan had reached its highest in thirty years.
The stress of a work-centric culture along with a strong stigma against reaching out for mental health care are thought to be major factors for the suicide rates in Japan. Most of us can relate on some level to the fear of those stigmas and the need to appear industrious and ambitious enough. Perhaps then, it is somehow appropriate that we can learn about the dangers and effects of neglecting ourselves through the story of the Futakuchi-onna.
Like many creatures passed down to us from antiquity, there are several versions of her story. The most common recounting begins with a man who hated the thought of spending money so much that he lived a meager life alone, unwilling to pay to support a family. One day, the miser met a hard-working woman who never ate even a crumb of food. He was excited by the prospect of a wife he would have to pay next to nothing for, and so the two were married.
The man continued to be pleased with his new wife, as he never saw her eat, but he noticed that his stores of rice were being depleted unusually quickly. Suspicious of his bride, he told her that he was leaving home, but instead spied on her to see what was becoming of his rice. The man looked on as his wife let down her long black hair. It twisted and writhed, parting away from the back of her skull to reveal a hideous second mouth lined with sharp teeth and cupped by thick lips. The winding tendrils of her hair shoved twice as much rice as an average woman would eat into the gaping and monstrous maw as it rejoiced in an unearthly voice.
The miser was tempted by the idea of getting to have his cake and eat it, too. He hoped to be able to have a wife and a family without having to spend the money and resources to care for them.
His own desires to have it all ended up attracting him to an offer that was too good to be true and left him in a marriage with a monster who cost him twice as much.
While the meaning of the story in its original cultural context may be up for debate, seeing it through the light of my own recent experiences, I feel the Futakuchi-onna is cautioning me against the lure of being a miser with the resources I need to care for myself.
Recently, I was a vendor at an event that was quite stressful for me. Usually when I work an event, I spend the week before in an adrenaline-fueled push to complete everything I need for my booth. I make sure my prints are ordered, my art is framed, and my resin monster figures are finished. I label and price everything, update all of my social media, and get everything packed and in my car.
Looking at the list now, it may not seem like much work for a week, but for someone with poor executive functioning and high anxiety, it can be very difficult to organize tasks and get them done for a deadline. By the day of the event, I’m usually a frazzled mess. My chronic pain tends to flare up from the stress, and it can take me over a week to feel back to myself afterwards as I scramble to get back into the swing of things.
After this show, I decided to take a different approach. I had been contemplating the fact that I often feel like my worth and identity is defined by what I do and not who I am. I’m almost always in the throws of being a workaholic to compensate for the fact that I’m not currently able to work a 9–5 and don’t pull in a livable income because of my physical health and mental makeup.
Somewhere along the line, I picked up the feeling that I had to earn my keep as a person by grinding away as a cog in the machine of production.
I decided to be proactive in fighting that feeling by challenging myself not to do anything that fed that drive for an entire week. I was going to take the time to feed myself the things that didn’t accomplish anything except for making me happy. I played video games, spent time with my pets, and decided to pick up a new skill just for fun. As it turned out, I felt refreshed after just a couple of days.
I decided to finish out my challenge, but if I hadn’t, I probably could have gotten more done than usual just because I took care of myself and decided to give myself time to rest. And while it isn’t all about what we can get done, it’s a good incentive for people like me to get started on self-care. When we starve and deny ourselves, it ends up costing us twice as much.
There’s actually another version of the story of Futakuchi-onna that led me to think about other costs I find myself paying in my life.
In another version of the story, a woman has two daughters, one who is her biological daughter, and one who is her step-daughter. She fed her biological daughter well, but starved her step-daughter day after day. Eventually, the step-daughter grew so weak from starvation that she died.
Forty-nine days after her death (the length of time the soul journeys in many Buddhist traditions), the step-mother felt agonizing pain on the back of her head. Her skull split open into a mouth screeching with the voice of her dead step-daughter. From then on, the woman was cursed to forever feel the hunger of the girl she had starved, and had to feed the mouth on the back of her head as well as the one on the front.
While the first story was a tale of greed, the second is one of cruelty. Most of us are probably not plagued by a hunger from our own cruelty, but we may bear a mouth to feed from the cruelty of another.
You see, life is not as just as the tales we tell, and curses almost never fall back onto the heads of the people who deserve them.
Let me tell you a version of the story of my own invention, a far less vindicating tale, but one you may find more familiar.
Once there was man who was miserly and cruel. He charmed a naïve young woman, and soon the two were wed. The man refused to feed her, saving the stores of food instead for himself. Having no other home to go to, the young woman weathered the hunger and remained with her husband. She showed no signs of starvation, holding herself to become the perfect woman for the devious man. After several years of forcing herself through the burden of emptiness, the woman became ill. She agonized in pain, day after day, until her sweat-soaked hair parted from her skull as it broke into a hideous and hungry mouth.
The wife of the evil man had become a Futakuchi-onna. But the two-mouthed woman did not listen to the deep moaning of her second mouth. She fought the twisting of her hair, combed it back, and tied it tight over the mouth. The next spring, the Futakuchi-onna bore a daughter for the wicked man, but on the back of the daughter’s head were two mouths that cried with the voices of demons. Driven mad with the hunger of her own mouths, the Futakuchi-onna barely fed her newborn daughter.
The daughter grew up consumed with her own hunger, but knowing nothing of food, did not listen to her mouths either. When she bore a daughter to her own husband, the child was born with three mouths on the back of her head. This was the way of things, generation after generation born with more hungry mouths on their skulls.
Eventually, one girl was given food by a kind stranger. For the first time, she felt a little less empty inside. She spent many years then seeking after food to quiet her hunger but found that she was never satisfied. She consumed the food of others to try to fill the void beyond her mouths, and soon everywhere she went, she left others as hungry as she was.
Finally, in anguish, she called out to her mouths, asking them why they were never sated. They answered that while the Futakutchi-onna she had descended from had indeed been starved of food, no food would ever fill the hole left to her children, for the Futakuchi-onna had also been starved of love and kindness. Only by letting her mouths speak and feeding them not only with food, but with love, could the girl be healed of her hunger.
We are all born with a mouth to feed. We have needs that no one else can fulfill. Just like I needed to take some time to relax after a stressful weekend, we all need to show kindness to ourselves or we will pay a greater cost. Sometimes, however, we can be given a second hunger from our circumstances, or the circumstances of those who came before us. If you were born to parents with unhealed trauma, there is evidence to suggest that not only is that trauma passed down to you behaviorally through poor coping strategies, but even on a biological level.
If you have experienced trauma or maltreatment yourself and haven’t healed from it, you have probably found that the wound did not open on the person who deserved it, as in the traditional story of the step-mother who became a Futakuchi-onna, but instead that you were the one left hungry.
I myself carry mouths that, if life were fair, I should not have to feed. It can be frustrating, discouraging, and downright infuriating to realize that through no fault of your own you have to pay a higher emotional cost. But just like I’ve had to learn to let myself rest to take care of myself after a stressful weekend, I’ve also had to learn to take care of myself in other difficult areas. I’ve had to learn to walk away from relationships that were unhealthy, to be kind to myself and my emotions, and to be patient in times when I’ve been less than perfect.
When I haven’t put in the work to care for myself, I have found that not only has my cost been twice as much, but that cost often gets taken out of the stores of those around me.
The cycle is vicious and unforgiving, but we don’t have to be lost in its spiral. The world may always be telling us that we need to produce, keep moving, and be selfless, but living that lifestyle often leaves us hungry. Ironically, it is in the quest to be selfless we often find ourselves starving those around us. So if you don’t decide to take charge of the process of caring for yourself to better your own life, you should be aware that the people around you will pay the price.
Futakuchi-onna’s legend is probably to most just a strange old story about a woman with a terrifying mouth in the back of her head. For me, however, reading the story of the two-mouthed woman reminded me of the necessity of resisting the urge to be stingy with the care we give ourselves– and indirectly to others– by doing so.
I hope you remember to feed yourself the kindness you need, and that next time you hear the rasping voice of an old myth whispering in your ear, you’ll listen to the wisdom of seeing it through the lens of your own life.