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Healing the Maternal Line: Unpacking Intergenerational Trauma

Angela Johnson | February 21, 2022

Halfway through my first pregnancy, I started to panic. Motherhood is a huge responsibility, and I didn’t want to mess it up. So I started reading pregnancy books like I was preparing for the SAT. I was determined to be ready for anything this baby threw my way.  

On one of my prenatal visits, the nurse who came to take my vitals literally laughed out loud when she saw me reading. “You can read all the books you want, but the babies don’t read them. Somehow, you just figure it out,” she said. I didn’t know it then, but that nurse was right. A big part of parenting comes from on-the-job training, but there is also a lot about being a parent that is already inside of us. 

All the eggs a woman will carry form in her ovaries while she is a fetus in her mother’s womb. In other words, when your mother was in your grandmother’s womb, she carried, at that time, the egg that eventually became you. This means that a part of you, your mother, and your grandmother all shared the same biological environment at the same time. In a sense, we were all exposed to the emotions, experiences and life events of our grandmothers even before we were conceived.

Intergenerational trauma refers to a type of trauma that does not end with the individual. Instead, it lingers and passes down through one generation to the next. We are all impacted by it. Whether we know it or not, the impact of adverse life events  that our mothers and their mothers experienced is lodged deep within us and affects how we live and how we parent. Our need to be held closely or kept at arm’s length is directly influenced by the way we were mothered. And how we care for our children is influenced by what we loved and longed for as children.

Growing up, I felt smothered under my mother’s oppressive rules. Throughout my teenage years, the early curfew she imposed and the perfect grades she demanded put a strain on our relationship and motivated me to finish college and move as far away as I could. I was determined to do things differently with my children. I would right all of the wrongs and be the mother I never had. It wouldn’t be hard. All I had to do was abandon my mother’s “because I said so” approach to parenting for a more collaborative method.  

But when my children arrived, the reality was a different story. There was a lot for me to learn and unlearn about being a mother. Suddenly, the world was a scary place full of people and influences I didn’t want around my children. And it became clear that my mother’s high standards were deeply rooted in her life experience and her own journey to motherhood. The daughter of an alcoholic mother who was often unavailable, my mother’s instinct was to protect me at all costs. And as a single mother whose teenage pregnancy forced her to defer her college dreams, she was intent on making sure I didn’t follow in her footsteps. She was more concerned with giving me a chance at life than being my friend.

Now that I have children of my own, I’ve been able to have a lot of healing conversations with my mother. And these days, it’s a lot easier to let go of some of the pain and see all of the things that were actually pretty great about my childhood. I’m grateful to my mother for teaching me the importance of education and maintaining family traditions like Saturday pancake breakfasts and summer vacations. And I know that I’m more than ready for my children to help me continue along my healing journey. 

Resources for Healing Generational Trauma:

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