Written by therapist Doxa Zannou
Mother to Son – Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Last post, we discussed the intergenerational strengths that our mothers and mothering figures passed down to us, and we explored how these strengthened our mental wellness and helped us navigate our own lives. This month, we will explore how our mothers’ intergenerational traumas also affect our mental health in the present.
It can sometimes feel dishonoring to point out the ways in which we have been wounded by our caregivers, but if we do not reckon with the ways in which they let us down, we cannot move forward in our healing journey. The goal is not to point fingers and blame or condemn our loved ones. The goal is to acknowledge our hurts and traumas, grieve them and make sense of them if we can, and commit to changing maladaptive patterns and trauma responses that no longer work for us. We cannot heal unless we face the wounding they inflicted on us, whether these were intentional or not.
The Curse of Perfection
Many have been raised by mothers or mothering figures who demanded perfection in everything. If we must consider gender roles in certain cultures, many mothers tend to be even more demanding with their daughters because they are expected to excel in domains that will make them “marriageable.” The world barely rewards women, yet demands so much of them. I imagine that some of these rigid expectations come from the internalized roles and expectations mothers were shaped by as well.
As a result of growing up with perfectionist mothers, we may internalize this perfectionism in our own lives. This could look like having unrealistic expectations in everything we do, and constantly shaming and berating ourselves for mistakes made. We may find it hard to give ourselves self-compassion even though it is the antidote to shame. I have often heard pushback about using self-compassion because people are afraid it will lead to mediocrity. Some believe that to succeed in life, they must criticize and berate themselves the way they were criticized and berated. They believe that being kind towards themselves would mean that they accept mediocrity and have no desire to, “push themselves.” However, the opposite is true. Studies have repeatedly shown that we go further when we nurture ourselves and others, and when we highlight and enhance our strengths instead of getting stuck in a self-defeating cycle of shame. Indeed, harping on weaknesses can often be discouraging because we will never be perfect, and therefore, it is a waste of time to spend all our time and energy trying to achieve an impossible ideal.
Perfection vs Excellence
Of course, this is not to say we should not pursue excellence, but there is a difference between perfection and excellence. When we pursue excellence, we do so from a place of strength. We know what we are capable of, and we are also cognizant of our shortcomings and growth areas. We nurture our potential, spend time enhancing our natural gifts, and we practice self-compassion when we fail. We understand that failure and mistakes are a part of life, and instead of being defeated by these things, we use them to grow and excel in new ways. We take inventory of our wins, no matter how small, and we use these wins to fuel us when we feel tired or hopeless. Contrary to popular belief, and to what our mothers may have said, perfection and shame are destructive forces that work against us and act as chokeholds on our lives. The only way to achieve wholeness and healing is by using the powerful antidote of self-love and self-compassion.
Unfortunately, due to the prevalence of sexual abuse in our society, it is very likely that we have mothers and mothering figures who may have experienced some sort of sexual trauma. Due to the limited access to healing and regenerative mental health care, our mothers often carry these wounds alone, in ways that hurt them, and hurt their children down the road. Survivors of sexual assault who do not experience healing tend to battle with PTSD symptoms such as pervasive fear, hypervigilance, inappropriate guilt and shame, anxiety, nightmares, and depression.
Studies have shown that mothers who are victimized may be harsher and more physically punitive toward their children. Or, they may be more permissive and neglectful, which in turn puts children at risk of being victimized. In other cases, mothers who have experienced sexual trauma can dissociate and become emotionally disconnected figures who emotionally neglect their children.
Emotional Neglect and Abuse
Of course, sexual trauma is not the only reason for emotionally neglectful or emotionally abusive parenting. Ultimately, our primary caregivers often handle our emotions the way their primary caregivers handled their emotions as children. If our mothers experienced physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse, they suffer emotional damage which is passed down to us as well (unless they work on healing and breaking these generational patterns).
Emotional neglect describes a relational pattern in which our emotional needs are regularly dismissed, ignored, invalidated, or undervalued. Mothering figures who are emotionally neglectful do not pay attention to their children’s emotional and developmental needs. Some have trouble understanding their children or being present with them, while others struggle to give adequate attention, love, support, and affection to their children who look to them for that support during times of crises.
Emotional abuse on the other hand, describes a relational pattern in which we are insulted, ridiculed, criticized, shamed, demeaned, manipulated, controlled, mistreated, isolated, and gaslighted. Emotional abuse and emotional neglect can damage our sense of self, lead to increased self-doubt, and pervasive feelings of worthlessness. We may struggle to understand our own emotions, we may emotionally shut down, and we may feel emotionally disconnected from our loved ones.
Chloe B. McKenzie describes financial trauma as the response to “cumulative harming of a person’s wealth-building capability and relationship with money. This form of trauma is rooted in our financial system.” Unfortunately, the system has been designed to advance the wealth-building capacities of certain classes and races over others. While this does not mean people do not find ways to survive and thrive, it does mean that many face hurdles in their wealth-building capabilities that others do not. Women from marginalized cultures often bear the brunt of this financial disparity.
Growing up in poverty and not having access to enough resources creates incredible stress on the mind and body. Many of us come from households where our mothers or mothering figures had to work constantly to make ends meet. Others of us had mothers who depended on unreliable men and felt financially restricted because of this unequal power dynamic. There are so many variations of financial trauma and stress, but the result is a sense of exhaustion, overwhelming stress, decreased rest, and lack of stability. Consequently, it is not always easy for mothers to be attuned to children’s emotional and psychological needs when they are constantly in “survival mode.” Survival mode weathers the soul, limits one’s mental resources and attention, and affects the depth and health of intimacy-building in close familial relationships.
Some children grow up replicating their mothers’ relationship with money and constantly overwork themselves to make ends meet. Others become sacrificial givers who are selfless when it comes to sharing resources with others, but struggle to take care of themselves. Others never learn about financial literacy and end up struggling to make wise, financial decisions for themselves. Others yet again, learn that their value and worth is in their income and may struggle to spend money on things that would bring them joy.
Again, this list is non-exhaustive and does not apply to everyone. Nonetheless, I want you to think critically about the traumas you inherited from the mothering figures in your life. How do these affect you today? How do they affect your mental wellness? What trauma responses must you become aware of so you can change them? What coping tools helped your mothering figures navigate their specific lives and contexts, but no longer serve you because you are in a different time and social context? These are important questions to ask yourself as you explore the various factors that have contributed to a decreased sense of mental wellness in your life.
Intergenerational trauma can bring up a lot of pain, and you may feel hopeless in dealing with all you have suffered in life, especially because you are carrying your own traumas in addition to the traumas passed down within your lineage. Please know you are not alone. If you recognize that your mental health has been affected by your upbringing, and you would like to explore this in therapy, I would love to walk alongside you in the process. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment today!