The theme of this year's gathering is "self-compassion," featuring University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff, author of the 2011 book "Self-Compassion." Neff's family's journey into autism, with her son Rowan, is chronicled in the 2009 movie "The Horse Boy."
The Mothers Symposium takes place Saturday, March 9, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at Cubberley Auditorium at Stanford University.
"Our premise is we want to be inspiring," said Jane Gee, among the original organizers of the symposiums, which began in 1998.
"The power of the camaraderie when you get 300 or 400 mothers together is one thing by itself — and to hear the speakers is very comforting."
Gee had just had her second child and was wrestling with the question of whether to return to her real-estate career.
She gathered friends and acquaintances around her Greenwood Avenue dining room table to organize the first Mothers Symposium on the theme of "a delicate balance," helping women with decisions on how balance career and motherhood.
"At the beginning we had a lot of brand new moms there, trying to figure out this new journey," Gee said.
Over the years guest speakers at the annual — and later biennial — symposia have included Nebraska psychologist and author Mary Pipher and Zen Buddhist writer Karen Maezen Miller, author of "Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood."
"We had a lot of fun doing it," Gee said.
"But we're getting older as mothers, and a couple years ago we realized we had to get some younger moms at the table because a lot has changed in the 15 years we've been together.
Stanford genetics counselor Nicki Chun was among the younger women to join the organizing group.
Taking a Stanford Continuing Studies course on the "science of compassion," Chun wondered whether the achievement-oriented local culture "undermines our compassion instinct."
The class studied Neff's work on self-compassion, and Chun began "taking small steps to slow down, reflect and simplify."
"As my children approach their high school years, the educational machinery is shifting into overdrive," she said.
"How will we navigate our culture's fixation with GPAs, stacked AP classes and multiple extracurricular activities?
"We don't need to get our kids to a predestined school or profession. We need to give them space to breathe and reassurance along the road so they can find their own equilibrium."
Palo Alto parent educator Stephanie Agnew, among the original symposium organizers, helped to recruit Neff as this year's keynote speaker.
"She's done research on the benefits of self-compassion, about how people are more productive, happier and have much better lives if they honor themselves in the same way they try to honor the people they work with or care for in all areas of life.
"I talked to Kristin on the phone and thought it would be a good message.
"The Mothers Symposium is designed to be a rejuvenating, inspirational morning for mothers. We want them to come and feel really good about themselves, about being together as a group. So topics always center around self-help type things and just feeling good, being uplifted," Agnew said.
More information is available at www.motherssymposium.org.
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