There was a period in time in which I accepted my mother and I would never be close. I made a point to keep our phone calls short and sometimes avoided speaking to her for months. I resigned to believing our relationship was beyond repair, that she would never fully understand me or be a safe space for me emotionally. I was not allowed the space to express my feelings nor boundaries. I could not disagree with my mother without her viewing it as disrespectful. In conversations with sister-friends and learning other Black women’s stories, I learned that strained relationships are not uncommon between Black mothers and daughters.
I had many false starts to healing my relationship with my mother. I went to therapy but made no breakthroughs. I tried expressing myself respectfully and tactfully but still found myself in explosive arguments, bringing out a side of me I hated. It wasn’t until I started to look beyond our relationship for answers that I began to feel some semblance of personal resolve. I began devouring books on spirituality, and self-healing and stumbled across ‘It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle’ by Mark Wolynn. As the title suggests, the book explores generational trauma and epigenetics — the study of heritable phenotype changes in the DNA. In this book, I learned how a person’s traits and characteristics could be carried on through their parent’s reproductive organs long before procreation. For example, your grandmother could have experienced a significant trauma while she was pregnant with your mother that leaves a marker on her DNA and passes down to you through your mother’s DNA. Epigenetics impact things such as substance abuse, mental illness, phobias, and obsessive thoughts. It was this book that made me dive deeper into my family history and understand what happened before my mother and I were born that influenced our relationship.
As it turns out, my grandmother struggled with alcoholism and endured several abusive relationships, and my mother repeated this pattern. While her trauma may not have been inherited, the way she chose to process it definitely could have been. I managed to break the cycle but not without suffering the wounds of mental health and self-esteem issues that were likely impacted by my home life and possibly passed down through epigenetics as well. I began asking my mother more questions about her upbringing and how she dealt with things like being a poor teenage mother and being assaulted. She didn’t really deal with the trauma she endured, she compartmentalized to survive, all while raising my sister and me on her own. She experienced things I could not have fathomed going through and came out on the other side of them stronger and resilient — a common way of navigating adversity for Black women that certainly has roots in our collective history.
While Wolynn’s work is groundbreaking, it is a relatively new field of study and has its limitations. It’s a work created for the masses, so there is little to no information about how epigenetics impact descendants of enslaved Africans, but it wasn’t hard for me to fill in the gaps with the information I’d already known. In learning this, it became even more clear to me how and why Black women establishing themselves as the matriarch who should not be questioned or challenged is a means for survival. Much of Black motherhood is rooted in the inherited fear that if their child does not know how to fall in line with authority figures, their livelihoods and lives become at-risk. Our children are conditioned the way we are conditioned.
In learning this, it became easy to trace every cliché of Black motherhood back to slavery or systemic oppression. When a mother is in the store and tells her child “don’t touch nothing and don’t ask for nothing,” is it because she cannot afford it, she doesn’t want someone to think her child is stealing, she wants to ensure her child is viewed as respectable or well-behaved or a combination of those things? When a mother views a child expressing their feelings as disrespect is it because they are actually being disrespectful or is it because we have a deep-rooted history of being violently punished or killed for expressing ourselves that has been carried on through our DNA for generations? I find myself examining these things when TikToks spoofing Black mothers come across my timeline, or I see a mother in the store clapping back at a stranger who has violated her child. There is a reason Black motherhood is so specific.
In studying this work, I replaced the anger and resentment I held onto for years towards my mother with compassion and empathy. My mother and I turned a new leaf when I was finally able to let her know that she was understood, and her feelings were valid even if the way she expressed them was not always in the most constructive manner. From then on, we have done the healing work together of committing to understanding one another and allowing space for our boundaries. I shared the Wolynn book with her, and it was just as transformative for her as it was for me. We now talk on the phone for hours and go on trips together. We have more patience and grace for one another because we know that no matter how much we may disagree, we will always agree on loving and respecting each other.
I realize that this is a privilege, especially considering we did not have to attend therapy for this breakthrough. However, I will say that if we can heal our broken bonds, I have hope for the countless mothers and daughters out there with strained relationships. For the women out there who struggle with Mother’s Day, for these reasons, I see you, and I feel you. I cannot guarantee you will mend broken bonds but, I can tell you that there are reasons they exist that may have absolutely nothing to do with you. Start there are hopefully your relationship can heal, or at the very least, you can find peace in knowing you have the opportunity to break the cycle.