Memories of childhood can be sparse…difficult to pull forward into the present. It’s hard to accept that some of those memories, as we re-engage with them, are still colored by the fears of a 7y/o or the anger of a 15y/o. Even though we now, as adults, can reframe them. Those memories don’t have to keep us as victims. We are grown now. We can look at them again from a different viewpoint…and heal.
I’ve been immersed for a few years now in examining family of origin stuff, generational trauma, and how those experiences (both the bad and beautiful) are passed onto our children. Some close friends and family have said to me that exploring the past is not helpful. Being present in the present is the way to live. I agree for the most part, except the past is still with us in the present. I don’t want the past to mess with my present…or the future of my children and grandchildren.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending an Allender Center conference on our family of origin story. What a treat to sit under the teaching of these wise therapists and hear how to engage the memories of our childhood. This is not at all about blaming parents for mistakes they made raising us. However, it is about confronting what we continue to carry with us from those days. We often say, “They did the best they could…or knew to do.” That may be true. As I look at my own parenting, I sometimes didn’t do the best I could or knew to do. Sometimes I did wrong to my children. It is part of life along with the beautiful, so we reckon with it and wrestle with it, for the sake of the good that is possible.
We can learn from our mistakes and our parents’ mistakes on a path to healing. In the conference I attended, Allender, Loerzel, and Young all called for three components necessary in engaging our family of origin stories:
Curiosity, Kindness, and Community – We don’t just leave the past “in the past”. It is always with us. However, to heal from the hard of our past, we must gaze into our memories with curiosity and kindness and within a trusted community. Sometimes memories seem few and spotty, but as we engage them, recalling them, they will come more to our consciousness. The adage, “If we don’t learn from the past, we’re bound to repeat it.”, is truer than we think.
I have appreciated taking a deeper look into my own family of origin (thanks to the helps and guidance of these therapists, Dr. Curt Thompson, and others).
Here’s part of my story. Consider examining your own. You might be surprised at the freedom that comes.
My parents grew up in the American South at the end of the Great Depression. They knew poverty. I know next to nothing about my paternal grandparents, but my mom’s parents were very much in our lives. That’s grandma in the picture below surrounded by some of her grandchildren. Grandpa rarely made it into a picture. He was a loner and alcoholic who clearly experienced terrible disappointment during those years of under-employment. 5 children, all boys except mom who was the middle child. Her role in the family was a buffer for her dad’s anger, and the boys all left home as soon as they could get into the military.
My biological father didn’t work. He grew up on a farm, but when he and mom married, he just couldn’t quite hold down a job. Mom worked long days, but instead of my father caring for us, she had to hire babysitters. He didn’t want the responsibility. I don’t know much more. They divorced when I was 5 or 6. I saw him only once after that.
Abandonment and neglect were part of my mom’s childhood and part of mine. She loved us and did what she could to feed us and house us. While we were growing up, we didn’t feel particularly poor. I did somehow experience food insecurity and fear which led to a life-long struggle with food and fear that I hoped not to pass on to my children.
Generational trauma has become a fascination for me in recent years because of the therapists above and others and because of its frightfully common occurrence. It is a concept that winds its way through human history (“sins of the fathers revisited on their children to the third and fourth generation”). We know from personal experience that we learn habits and responses from our parents (and they learned from their parents). We have the capability, as parents ourselves, of continuing healthy expressions of care for our children. We also have it in us to stop the succession of wrongs we have endured in family relationships…if we are attuned to them in our own parenting and grand-parenting.
Therapist Adam Young podcasts on these processes regularly. I’ve learned much from him as well as Dr. Curt Thompson’s podcasts. Young talks about something he calls “The Big Six – What Every Child Needs From Their Parents”.
- Attunement – our parents’ ability to read how we were doing/feeling
- Responsiveness – our parents’ willingness to respond to our upset (whatever it might be)
- Engagement – our parents’ desire to genuinely know us (at a heart level, whatever age)
- Affect regulation – our parents’ ability and willingness to soothe us, whatever our emotional state was at the time – scared, angry, shut down, etc.
- “Strong enough to handle your big emotions” – our parents’ ability to stay with us when our emotions were potentially uncomfortable for them; not taking these big emotions personally but welcoming them rather than shaming them.
- Willingness to repair – our parents’ willingness to own and right any harm they may have done to us as children (whatever the age).
My siblings and I grew up much loved by our Mom. She did what she could to give us a safe and secure childhood. One of her struggles was having had a childhood that leveled its own share of hard. She brought that forward without knowing. She knew abandonment and didn’t want us to experience it. I believe this is one of the reasons, ironically, that she divorced my biological father. We wouldn’t have to experience up-close his own lack of care for us. Never knowing him or his family, I have wondered in recent years what affected his own neglect of us.
You can tell it’s all very curious for me. I hope you are curious as well. Not to blame a parent but to understand your experience growing up and the impact of attachment in your relationship to your parents and their relationship with theirs. With the hope of setting a foundation of deep love and care for your children and theirs. It doesn’t have to be the situation of where “hurt people hurt people”.
Would you consider journaling your family of origin story and processing it with trusted individuals? Curiosity, kindness, and community – Be curious about your family as far back as you can take it. Treat those memories…those family members…with kindness. It’s very possible those memories will have greater meaning as you explore them as an adult. Where they were painful, repair and healing are possible…if we don’t just try to stuff them somewhere out of sight, out of mind. In community, our stories help us to understand each other and ourselves…and find the beauty and freedom there in the discovery.
Even Hollywood gets it right sometimes. In the TV show FBI (S6, E2, “Remorse”), the last line of the episode is so pertinent. A father (who struggled with alcoholism) talking to his teenaged son (who had begun drinking and was repentant):
“Mistakes are just part of the game. What’s important is what we do next.” Owning your part. Asking forgiveness. Treating each other with kindness, not contempt. Repentance and repair.
I’ll come back to this another day…hoping to learn from your journey as well. Thanks for stopping by.