I recently wrote this article for an ACEs forum in Fife, Scotland.
It tells a bit of my personal story of historical trauma being passed through the generations.
We have serious problems within humanity and we need serious people to address them. I believe we are each accountable for dealing with our own issues to prevent us shifting them on to others, which usually causes issues for them that could have been avoided if we dealt with our own stuff.
I get that many of us are living with the effects of trauma on our brains and in our lives. And I’m compassionate to trauma survivors. But I don’t enable avoidance and projection. My issues in my life have all been the result of people shirking the responsibility to deal with their own issues by instead causing problems for me.
We’re all adults, and we must put on our big people pants, deal with our own stuff, and stop making life more difficult for others.
I look forward to hearing what you think of my article.
Intergenerational Trauma Relayed Across the Pond
My Gran’s father died when she was 5. He wouldn’t have been home much anyway since he was the captain of a merchant ship. But the loss of her father initiated the downward spiral of her life as she would have known it.
Her mother remarried, an Irish Catholic. Naturally her Grandfather disapproved and took the 2 young children – my Gran and her younger sister – to live with him and his maiden sisters on the Isle of Skye.
I’m sure my Gran had no idea what was happening in and to her world. She discovered at 18 that although her mother had tried to keep in contact, her Grandfather had intercepted the letters. So my Gran grew up thinking her Mother had abandoned her.
Gran left Scotland when she was 18 after she discovered the betrayal by all the adults in her life. She never returned.
She met my Grandpa in Montreal in the early 1920’s. He had come to Canada after WWI, leaving Glasgow behind. His father had abandoned the family there years before through a ruse of going to America to make a new life saying, “I’ll send for you” which he never did.
Gran and Grandpa had a great relationship. I used to watch them when I was growing up. They smoked like chimneys and it was always exciting to see if the ashes growing and bending at the end of the cigarette Gran had hanging out of her mouth would fall onto the pastry she was kneading on the counter.
I never heard them raise their voices. They always seemed to be in rhythm. They flowed through life together smoothly, coming together and moving apart gracefully with seemingly little need to even communicate. At least that’s what I observed until I was 12 and Grandpa died.
But my take on them is different from the stories I heard from others. And it had to be different for my Mom growing up, because she caused major issues for me.
I was child number 5 for my parents. The mistake. The pregnancy that should never have happened. The pregnancy that was proof that my parents lacked self-control and were irresponsible. At least those are the messages I perceived during my development and heard as an adult from siblings telling me what my grandparents were really like.
They had resented my Dad – a grade 10 educated farm boy. But they never accepted accountability for threatening to disown my mother if she married the Jewish doctor she met in medical school. She gave up those dreams, married the boy next door instead, and never achieved “good enough status” with her parents.
9 months after my arrival, Mother undertook teacher’s college. She passed me off to my aunt to care for. That was in fact the best thing for me because she became my one supportive relationship throughout my life.
But my Mom leaving her kids after my arrival made me the cause of the loss of their mother to my siblings. So even though I was a cute baby and my older sisters took the lead in looking after me at home, resentment, jealousy, competition for resources – were in the air I breathed.
I wandered through my early years mostly detached. I wanted to be close to my Dad but all the adults putting him down threatened my security if I attached to him. Although my aunt was a key figure and she made me feel loved and important – she gave me responsibilities and included me in the daily tasks of the family – I couldn’t really let on I loved her either because my Mother put her down too. She was a nobody like my Dad – farm girl married to my Mom’s favourite brother.
My Mother didn’t want me but she didn’t want me to have anyone else either. She punished me for existing. I figured out a way to survive and somewhat thrive in spite of the barriers built up to hem me in. My aunt and her family became my refuge, even though all the adults said she was just using me to look after her kids. And I spent a lot of time with my best friend at her house.
I knew I didn’t have the best childhood possible, but I didn’t realize it was that bad until after my life crashed down around me at age 42. When I realized I had built my adult life on lies, I had to go back to ground zero and figure out why and get to the core so I could build the rest of my life on a foundation of truth.
I’ve been on that journey for 18 years and finding out about ACEs in 2014 was the last clarifying piece to my puzzle.
Connecting with ACEs champions in Scotland has brought my journey full circle.
My ACEs didn’t start with my Mom or my Grandparents. They started before then – my Gran was raised by people 2 generations older than her. My great great grandfather learned to be harsh and judgmental and prejudiced long before he banished his daughter from his life and absconded with her children. Sure he must have still been dealing with grief over the loss of his own wife at a young age, but still, that didn’t justify betraying his own daughter and granddaughters.
Collectively humans have a history of being cruel to each other, and when we’re cruel in the environment where our children reside, they internalize it, and either feel it or adopt it for themselves.
I’m thankful I had my aunt who taught me kindness and compassion and how to actually love and nurture children. I was fortunate because I experienced two alternate realities while I was growing up. In my birth family I was invisible. In my aunt’s family I was integral. My younger cousins have always considered me their older sister. My own siblings have never understood my position in my aunt’s family. They also don’t understand my experience of my birth family. I’m working on not letting that bother me anymore.
I don’t care to imagine how I would have turned out if I had only had my birth family’s input during my development. My aunt mitigated the effects of my ACEs but she couldn’t possibly prevent them, because although we loved each other we weren’t permitted to thoroughly attach. She was a buffer, not a savior.
I think that is a very key point in the Resiliency field that professionals don’t talk about. The extent of the relationship influences the level of protective factor. We can’t settle on the panacea of just one supportive adult. We have to address the level of attachment and the nature of the communication between that adult and child.
It was only when my aunt was in her 80s that she told me she knew I had it tough and she should have adopted me. I wonder how things might have been different if she had validated my feelings of isolation when I was a child. Even if I couldn’t have told anyone else, I may have been able to be more present if I could have at least shared my secret with someone.
One of the most shocking realizations I have had in the last few years is that I have no memories of food or meals in my childhood home. I don’t know where the food is kept. I can imagine the kitchen and the rooms in the house but there are no other people there. I don’t know how the 7 of us sat around the table. I don’t know where the Cornflakes are. I wasn’t consciously present with my birth family for the first 11 years of my life.
But I can smell the coffee and hear the toaster rise and taste the maple syrup on my pancakes, and feel the weight of the quilt keeping me warm in the spare room bed in my aunt’s house. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin as my cousins and I play in the fields while the sound of my uncle’s tractor assures me there’s an adult nearby if I need one.
My Gran told stories of the sheep on the Isle of Skye. My Mom told stories of catching crayfish and tadpoles in the stream beside their summer home in The Laurentians in Quebec. I have a few memories of growing up in my village, very few in my family home, but numerous memories of my experience on the farm.
Where were the adults in these young girls’ lives? All of us Elizabeth by the way – 3 generations of intelligent, powerful, tenacious women that due to prejudice and circumstance were impeded from reaching their optimal potential.
I like the image that’s made its way around social media showing the egg of the grandchild inside the grandmother. Our ancestors carried us and we carry them.
I find it serendipitous that I have spent my life advocating for respectful, loving, nurturing treatment of children, and as I find myself finally being able to speak my truth, I’ve found kindred spirits in the homeland of my ancestors.
I can only conclude that it’s evolution. We’ve done the best we could, even though it wasn’t the best. But as Suzanne Zeedyk tweeted recently, if we, as a society, as a culture, (and as the human species) don’t take this opportunity now to transform our relationship with our children, we will not get another chance in our lifetime.
We have the opportunity now to learn from the past and actually make a better future for the children who exist now and for those yet to come. I truly believe preventing ACEs for the new generations and helping affected adults recover is our best chance.