I have my mother’s chin and cheekbones—my dad’s eyes and pomposity. I need to worry about diabetes, as it runs on both sides of my family. My mother’s side of the family is riddled with mental illness, and so I have inherited that load. My mother modeled depression and anxiety for me, and from her I learned the art of worrying without cease. As I watched my dad’s bitterness develop, I inherited that as well, though I channeled it through different venues.
My grandmother—my mother’s mother—modeled the same things for my mother and her sisters and brothers. My dad is too insecure to reveal the source of his bitterness, but I imagine he learned that from somewhere as well. Maybe it was merely the fact of growing up in a poor rust-belt community, working hard at a mindless job for little pay, that did him in. I am an expert now, on bitterness, and often it emanates from me. Although I’m not having children, I speak with children daily and sometimes I find myself instructing them with the best intentions, but with advice stemming from deep-rooted acidity.
The sadness and grievances experienced by our parents do not stop with them. We inherit their problems, their poverty, their fears, their beliefs, their sadness. These things move, like a cancerous mass, through the generations. These things don’t dissipate through time. Inequality works this way as well, “a cultural force, insinuating itself into family life and classrooms and replicating across generations.” The effects of inequality are sometimes not seen until the following generation. One of the things that impressed upon me in Toni Morrison’s work was how she showed that while slavery ended, the effects of slavery did not, and that trauma is passed down.
A Swedish study shows that children with parents who are experiencing depression score lower grades in school. Grades are not the be all end all, but this does show an effect on focus and motivation, factors involving stress. The data shows an impression on a social, academic and professional life venue. I certainly remember sitting on my stairs at the age of sixteen, my mother laying motionless in bed several rooms away, refusing to speak with me. I didn’t quite understand what she was going through then, but I certainly do now. But that is the thing, here—I didn’t understand, yet the experience diffused through my developing character.
I just wish a few more words had been spoken, from some source, to help nurture an understanding. Perhaps certain things would have been different for me, if only slightly. Perhaps I could have more to give now, to those I speak to and influence.
It’s very easy to be silent and cover up the issues involving our inherited grief. But, as with most things, attention and acceptance and the brutal power of honesty can help ease the burden of what moves through every family. What have we inherited? What problems do we pass on? What can possibly be helped, alleviated, soothed?
What can we do, about this sadness that moves through our families’ generations?