Making peace with emotional inheritance
thoughts on family culture, trauma, and epigenetics
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We were visiting my parents over the Thanksgiving holidays and Stella emerged from the garage with a giant net bag full of plastic pails and shovels over her shoulder and announced, “Oma, it is time to go to the beach.”
My mom, Oma, dutifully obliged and the two of them headed out the door, leaving a trail of sand behind them. As the sun set and the turkey neared perfection, my husband started to worry that they hadn’t yet returned. I texted my mom to check in, reminding her that we planned to eat in 15 minutes. Her cell phone, left behind on the counter, dinged cheerfully. I reassured John - neither my mom, nor Stella, are particularly into, well let’s just call it, linear notions of time. They are fine, I said.
And they were — they were fine and full of stories. As we all sat down to dinner and got the download of all the beach happenings, Stella explained: “Instead of making our own sand castle, we built onto a sand castle other people had already built and left behind.”
As I was falling asleep that night, belly full of stuffing and head full of Taylor Swift lyrics (my other daughter’s obsession), I couldn’t stop thinking about that sand castle. The image of my mom and Stella building onto someone else’s sand castle seemed like the perfect metaphor for the peculiar, profound experience of generational emotional inheritance.
That’s a mouthful, I know. Basically I just mean this wild and very real fact that so much of our emotional infrastructure was actually built by generations past - the proverbial people who hung out on the beach before we ever arrived. I’m talking both about family culture (of which stories are the basic building block), but also epigenetics—an emerging field of science that looks at how the ways in which the circumstances that your parents and grandparents weathered can alter the genes present in your body decades and even a century later.
The most commonly referenced example of this is a 2015 study of the children of Holocaust survivors by Dr. Rachel Yehuda and a team of researchers. They found, in short, that trauma experienced by the parents was present in the DNA of the children, who had never been exposed to anything comparable. Some have taken issue with various aspects of the study, but the fundamental questions it raises are worth continuing to explore. As Dr. Yehuda puts it:
“The implications are that what happens to our parents, or perhaps even to our grandparents or previous generations, may help shape who we are on a fundamental molecular level that contributes to our behaviors, beliefs, strengths, and vulnerabilities.”
This is so counter to our national mythology. We live in a country that is especially invested in the idea that we are each self-made—in control of who we become and what we do, how we cope and thrive, or fail to, who we love, how we love, what our bodies look like, how our minds work, or don’t, how we age and die. It’s all up to us.
But none of us actually experience life that way. (If you do, my hunch is that it is because the story you are telling yourself about your ability to control your destiny is strong enough that it overrides your actual, lived experience of being out of control in various ways.) Americans so often pretend that we show up to the beach and build our own sand castles from scratch. In fact, we show up to the beach and build on psychic and physiological infrastructure that was already there, some of it washing away as the tide comes in, some of it remaining—forces as big and vast as the ocean determining what remains and what washes away.
When you start to look closely at the potential materials of your own inheritance, it’s daunting. My mom’s dad, her person, died suddenly when I was in utero. How did her shock and grief impact me? My dad’s mom came from a family filled with secrets and suicide (two of her four siblings died by suicide, she attempted many times, and one brother—a psychologist, of course—was the one who appeared steady). Did something traumatic happen to them when they were young that created such grave mental health struggles in adult life? And did that trauma impact the DNA my dad passed on to me? These are just some of the tip of the iceberg questions in my own lineage. There are dozens more.
I look at my two daughters, who are building on the sandcastle of my family, and also understand that they are building on the sandcastle of my husband’s family—which is also filled with big, complex, and powerful questions of epigenetic legacy.
This inheritance goes both ways, of course. Though my daughters’ emotional wiring may be altered by trauma that happened in Colorado Springs back in the 1930s, it is also influenced by the therapy my dad went to in the 1980s. Though Stella may be building on a sand castle of traumatic secrets that she’ll never know, she is also building on a sand castle of resilience, care, and courage that has lived in the bodies of her mother, grandmothers etc. It’s all here—in two twisting, dancing strands of DNA and one brief and wonderful life.
It’s overwhelming to start to trace these lineages, but it is also freeing in its own way. I feel lighter when I know I am not fully in charge of my body or mind. I am an amalgamation of familial forces with plenty of creative force of my own to turn and pivot and invent and resist. I have agency, but I do not have control over my entire destiny.
Likewise, I can raise my daughters with as much self-awareness and grit and nurturing as possible and so much of what is psychologically available to them has nothing to do with my parenting. That’s not because my family is damaged, or my husband’s family is damaged. All families are damaged. We are not special and we are not broken. We are beautiful and subject to both the tides of trauma and love. Each generation, then, builds on what has come before, hopes that some wounds get washed away, and works to shape new, more generative legacies.
BTW, There’s a lot of beautiful wisdom about trauma and how we can work with the pain of it in this week’s Slate How To! episode with my beautiful co-host Carvel Wallace. Highly recommend it.