Empowered Womanhood,  Gender,  Gender Trauma,  Religious Trauma

Healing My Ancestors

I can’t count the times I was told as a child I had an amazing mother. The comments always bothered me, but it wasn’t because I had a terrible mother. My mom really loves her children and gives herself to us. It wouldn’t be until I was in therapy at 30 years old that I would realize it was because these comments always pointed to her being a good mom because of what she did and never who she was.

People would praise her for making us meals and washing our clothes and setting herself aside. No one said anything about her being passionate or talented, or powerful, brave, wise or confident in herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t have good qualities, its just that as a woman in the evangelical church – no one sees them.

Growing up, I received a loud message that whether or not a woman is “good” – especially if she has children – is based entirely on what she does and not who she is. No one seems to care about the latter: who a woman sees herself to be doesn’t matter because the most important and all-consuming part of her is being a wife and mother. Rarely did anyone see or know who was beneath the label. I think often the mother herself wasn’t sure, after years of this erasure.

I grew up watching my mother live in a box and it made me afraid to grow up. My mom was always contained in a box metaphorically and physically, because while the world was my dad’s oyster, the house was her domain.

I was free to tag along with my dad as long as I was a child, but my freedom came with a ticking time bomb that little boys didn’t have.

My mom’s life consisted almost entirely of household work – she didn’t have much time to do anything fun. Granted, I’m not sure how much of it was necessary and how much was her refusing help or creating work to do to feel useful – because that is where her identity lies. As an evangelical mom, that’s the only place your identity lies. It wasn’t my dad’s fault, he tried to help and encouraged her to get out and do what she loved, but I don’t think she knew what that was. How could she? Her entire life had been filled with caring for others.

I never saw my mom have a hobby or passion. She didn’t really have any friends or any aspirations that she talked about openly or pursued. She isn’t a bad person, but the church made sure she was hardly a person at all – beneath the role she played there’s no substance. I don’t know who she is. She’s just a wife and mother. I can’t find anyone underneath the title or the duties.

I was afraid to get to close to my mother because the limits she lived under felt contagious. She made comments occasionally about me needing to learn to be a good wife and mother someday, and I was scared about which parts of me I would have to give up to do that.

When I participated in less traditionally feminine activities like adventuring outdoors, she was a worry wart, putting limitations on my freedom, wanting me to hold myself back to be supposedly safer. Even when there was no real risk. I wondered if safety was a facade. No one seemed to worry about the boys being able to handle themselves.

If I ever voiced frustration, I was always told me that’s just how moms are, they worry, they take care of their kids, they are selfless (void of self) – and that’s it. They can’t help it.

I didn’t want to become a mom. Why would I? What was presented to me was the antithesis of everything that makes me, me. I don’t blame this all on my own mother. She is the victim of overbearing sexism – being raised in a large Catholic family to be a second mother to her seven brothers. She was never given the same freedoms they were, and often blamed for their misbehavior. She was raised by a woman who experienced an even higher level of abuse and restriction; a woman who didn’t know how else to exist in the world, raised a woman who wouldn’t either. Somehow the cycle broke with me – leaving me feeling lonely, confused, and like an anomaly.

Most of my life I have felt very uncomfortable with my heritage. I have no role model of a powerful healthy woman. I can’t proudly say “I am my mother’s daughter”. I can’t look back at a lineage of women who created me and want to be anything like them. Admittedly, I am ashamed of my ancestry. Sometimes even my very DNA feels contaminated. I’m blazing a new trail completely on my own. I don’t know how to do this, and I cannot be proud of where I came from.

I feel like an orphan.

But… maybe that’s not the full story. I come from a long line of injured women who submitted to survive. I wonder who they could have been if dealt a different hand.

Maybe I can heal my ancestors. Maybe they would be so happy and hopeful to know that generations down the line their own flesh and blood would be independent and powerful like me. Maybe it’s redemptive.

It’s a common story arc for the hero to rise up from an unlikely place or family or bloodline. That’s partly what makes them special. Maybe I’m the hero of my mother’s story and our motherly line. I’m still writing chapters, and my daughters will write chapters, and their daughters’ daughters. We will be the authors of our own stories – starting with me.

I know I’m lucky to be born into a time where there are more opportunities for women. I know I’m better equipped with resources available to me – ones my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother never had. I carry the weight of generations of oppression and abuse, but I have education at my fingertips and communities to turn to, to learn what to do with it and how to heal it.

Maybe when I save myself, I save those who came before me and whose trauma is wired into my DNA. Maybe as I heal my body, that trauma loses its grip on our family line.

I am healing my ancestors – starting with me.

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