I wanted to share the following excerpt from Mark Wolynn’s excellent book on inherited family trauma : It Didn’t Start With You. It is one of the most important books I have ever read, just sad I heard about it over 2 years ago and only just bought it. What he shares of his own experience and understanding with healing multigenerational trauma in both his own life and lives of his clients is nothing short of remarkable. He also uses the latest research conducted into epigenetics to support his claims showing how early stress and lack of nurture affects our neurological structure even in the womb, as well as how inherited trauma of a grandparent or great grandparent can be carried and communicated even along paternal (as well as maternal) streams of inheritance. It is changing the way I am thinking about my own mother nurturance wound and the addiction that grew out of it.
To put it simply, we receive aspects of our grandmother’s mothering through our own mother. The traumas our grandmothers endured, her pains and sorrows, her difficulties in childhood or with our grandfather, the losses of those she loved who died early – these filter, to some degree, into the mothering she gave our mother. If we look back another generation, the same would likely be true about the mothering our grandmother received.
The particulars of the events that shaped their lives may be obscured from our vision, but nevertheless, the impact of those particulars can be deeply felt. It’s not only what we inherit from our parents but also how they were parented that influences how we relate to a partner, how we relate to ourselves, and how we nurture our children. For better or worse, parents tend to pass on the parenting they themselves received.
These patterns appear to be hardwired into the brain, and begin to be formed before we’re even born How our mother bonds with us in the womb is instrumental in the development of our neural circuitry. Thomas Verney says, “From the moment of our conception, the experience in the womb shapes the brain and lays the groundwork for personaltity, emotional temperament, and the power of higher thought.” Like a blueprint, these patterns are transmitted more than learned.
The first nine months outside the womb function as a continuation of the neural development that occurs within the womb. Which neural circuits remain, which are discarded, and how the remaining circuits will be organised depend on how the infant experiences and interacts with the mother or caregiver. It’s through these early reactions that a child continues to establish a blueprint for managing emotions, thoughts and behaviours.
When a mother (or father) carried inherited trauma, or has experienced a break in the bond with her mother (or father), it can affect the tender bond that’s forming with her infant, and that bond is more likely to be interrupted. The impact of an early break in the mother – child bond – an extended hospital stay, an ill timed vacation, a long term separation – can be devastating for an infant. The deep, embodied familiarity of the mother’s smell, feel, touch, sound, and taste – everything the child has come to know and depend on – is suddenly gone.
“Mother and offspring live in a biological state that has much in common with addiction,” says behaviour science writer Winifred Gallagher. “When they are parted, the infant does not just miss its’ mother, it experiences a physical and psychological withdrawal… not unlike the plight of a heroin addict that goes cold turkey.” This analogy helps to explain why all newborn mammals, including humans protest with such vigour when they are separated from their mothers. From an infant’s perspective, a separation from mother can be felt as “life threatening.” says Dr, Raylene Philips, a neonatologist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital. “If separation continues for a prolonged period,” she says, “the… response is despair…. The baby gives up.”
In my early life, I knew that feeling of giving up. It came from my family. What my mother didn’t get from her mother affected what she was able to give to me and to my sibling. Although I could always feel her love shine through, much of her mothering was infused with the traumas in our family history – specifically the fact that her mother, Ida, lost both of her parents when she was two.
Orphaned at two, my grandmother was raised by her elderly grandparents, who earned a living peddling rags from a pushcart in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. My grandmother adored her grand parents, and often lit up with she shared memories about how much they loved her. But that was only part of the story – the part she could consciously remember. A deeper story lay beneath her reach.
Before Ida was a toddler, perhaps even in the womb, she would have absorbed the sensations of her mother’s distress caused by the constant arguing, the tears and disappo8ntmets. All this would have had a profound effect on the crucial neural development taking place in Ida’s brain. Then, losing her mother at age two would leave her emotionally shattered.
It’s not only that my mother was raised by an orphan who couldn’t give her the nurturing she never got from her mother, my mother also inherited the visceral trauma of Ida’s separation from her mother at an early age. Although Ida was present physically in my mother’s life, she was unable to express the depth of emotion that would support my mother’s life. That missing emotional connection also became part of my mothers’ inheritance.
In order to end the cycle of inherited trauma in my family, and ultimately for my own healing, I realised that I needed to heal my relationship with my mother. I knew I couldn’t change what had happened in the past, but I certainly could change the relationship we had now.
My mother had inherited her mother’s stress patterns, and so did I. She would often clutch her chest and complain about feelings of agitation in her body. I realise now that she was unconsciously reliving the fear and loneliness that rippled through our family, the terror of being separated from the one she needed most – her mother.
There is much more to the story of family patterns Mark inherited and finally uncovered and discovered after a long journey of seeking outside for answers to his own psychological anxiety and trauma issues. Reading his account has made so much sense to me of the symptoms of separation anxiety I experience at exactly the time of day my own grandmother, widowed in her early 30s, left my own mother (aged 8) alone to go and clean offices. The two times of day were 4 to 8 pm and in the early hours of the am. These are the times of day I experience my own anxiety/panic issues. I had a growing sense developing in later months that what I was experiencing at those times was not mine alone, that it didn’t start with me. And that was the exact time of day I had my head trauma injury in 2005 a year after my husband and I separated as I ran from him and my mother out of fear they would not support me in my own deep grief which I now know relates to a mother separation wound going back 4 generations.
Mark’s evidence and experience of his own and in his clients life (which I will share more remarkable examples of in a following post) backs up my own. His work with inherited family patterns is so important that I am going to make it focus of my following posts. This is important knowledge so many of us need to have, in order to heal and end deeply entrenched patterns of emotional blindness, ignorance and blame that keep us separated from a profound psychological understanding.