The other night when we were all winding down, as I tidied up my eldest’s desk, I looked at all her things, and thoughts ran through my head at Olympic medal speed. Prior to the declaration of this pandemic, we hadn’t had WIFI for several months in an effort to cut costs. We were able to get WIFI connection through Spectrum for free for 60 days because Nnenna is a student. The WIFI had to be connected in their room, so I rearranged their room to create a barrier to the modem that’s situated on their floor. I love the way their room is arranged now. The way her desk lamp provides the soft light in their room at night to create the perfect warmth. How I can see all of them when I pass by the French doors to their room. Before, I couldn’t see her at her desk because of where it was tucked. Her Mimi gave her this desk as a gift last year. Being the oldest and sharing a room with her two significantly younger siblings, having her own space is important. I noticed how her space is organized just so, from her art supplies to her variety of Bath & Body Works hand sanitizers to her Bible. Her space tells a story of her heart. In that moment, I connected with her heart, and it hit me. Like a ton of bricks, with no mercy. It crushed me in the best way, because it woke me up.
One thing I’m faced with during this time of quarantine and staying home is that my firstborn and me, we are like two ships from the same harbor. I mean, yes, I already knew that. We are all paying much closer attention right now though, aren’t we? Growing up, I was the sensitive child. I’d cry so much my mom would warn me I’d run out of tears if I kept it up. I’ve always been a feeler. Nnenna has this gift too. It is a gift, although growing up it felt like a curse because no one at home could help me unpack it. They wanted it to remain in a neat, pretty package. It’s a gift that has to be nurtured as well as disciplined. Disciplined in the sense that I had to learn that as powerful as my feelings were, they couldn’t get me to shore. I’d drown in them if I couldn’t find a way to use them to inform me on how to build a safety raft to get to the other side. I had to learn this on my own. I don’t want Nnenna to have to learn this on her own. Since being home, her ocean of emotions have rolled in a few times. Going to school to become a therapist did not prepare me for this. Heck, going through the therapy I have up until this point hasn’t either. Nothing prepared me for confronting generations of trauma.
My mom did the best she could. She couldn’t hold space for me the way I needed. She was surviving. Up until last year, I knew of her mom, my maternal grandmother’s suicide, how her family disowned her when she married my dad, and some of my dad’s experiences. Connecting with my mom’s distant cousin through Ancestry, I learned more about my mom’s history, and that my dad’s blood line is largely from Nigeria, and of the cities and states here, where his family line was likely enslaved. Here is an excerpt from the first messages between my cousin and me:
Your great-great-grandmother Rose (originally Roeschen) and my great-grandmother Marie (Marisa) were sisters. Due to a lack of work in the Samter area, they were sent to America to work as maids in the 1880s. This may sound cruel but bear in mind that the alternative may have been starving. In any case, most of the family that remained died in the Holocaust, so getting out early was a pretty good idea.
You will be "proud" to learn that the family has a long history of disowning relatives. I knew next to nothing about Rose and her descendants, because Rose and Marie had a falling out in the 1890's - because they didn't approve of each other's husbands.
All of this is lingering in my bones. The same surviving. If you know anything about epigenetics, this is what comes to mind. If you don’t, I encourage you to do some research. So the part of me that sees all the things my children have is wrestling with how much my daughter and me share in our bones, in our genes, in the fiber of our being. Because I thought my tears flowed from the lack and the loss I experienced in my early, formative years. Poverty, homelessness, emotional disconnectedness, verbal and physical aggression inflicted on me, the passing of my father when I was 9 years old, my brother’s mental illness—none of which Nnenna has experienced. Have I been perfect? No. Has her life been perfect? No. Still, I always thought based on my experiences: It’s no wonder I was emotional, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, my emotional response was proportionate to my experiences, and part of what makes me who I am. No, because my baby sister and I grew up with similar experiences, with unique emotional processes.
I have done all the things. I obtained higher education. I’ve been in therapy. I have overcome many obstacles. I am married. I have three children. Our basic needs are met, and beyond that. I am blessed. We are able to give our children things we did not have. But material possessions are only acquired band-aids. Rip the band-aids off, and who we are underneath—every fear, every hurt, every generational wound is there. How poor we were, and how despite having more money now, we are in debt and struggling to steward our money well. How we are first generation college graduates with rich experiences, learned skills, and lifelong social connections, and we still revert to the aggression, the avoidance, the yelling, or shutting down we were on the receiving end of as a child.
But we said we’d do things differently. Didn’t we? Yes. We did. And honestly, yes, we are. And what our generation has is the desire to allow our awareness to transform us. We crave something different. We are doing all the things. We want it at our core. We want to change generations to come. We have so much to unpack. We have so much to heal. Sometimes we stop at all the things, and it’s time to shift our awareness to our being, not just our doing.
It’s time to rip the band-aids off and let those wounds air out and scab over, to lather them in healing balm and nurse them. Scars are proof that a deep wound has healed. Don’t be afraid of scarring. Be afraid of remaining wounded, of allowing that wound to fester and affect everyone and everything around you. We are ready. We are already doing the work, aren’t we? Woo-sah!
We are well-informed. We are birthing our babies at home with a doula, breastfeeding, and filling our homes with the healthier foods. Signing our child[ren] up for all the extracurricular activities. Raising our babies in the church. On a macro level, these are all wonderful things. It feels good to check things off a list. On a micro level, we need to step it up. The slowing down, the noticing, the apologizing—yes, apologizing to our child[ren]—the conversations, the uncomfortable things we skip doing when we only focus on feeding the body and mind of our child[ren], and not their heart and soul. Breast milk, organic food, probiotics and vitamins, essential oils, sports and church involvement are amazing foundational offerings, or doings. They don’t account for, equate to, or substitute presence and warmth, leading by example and with love. The micro moves, the things no one often witnesses, the intangible, are what change our being.
A few nights before the bricks came falling down, my firstborn was overwhelmed with emotion, and that ocean came crashing up and over those bricks. She cried for hours. It was…ummm…a lot. I did not know how to hold space for her. I just didn’t. I couldn’t. In those moments, I saw myself in her, and I felt my mom, and her not knowing how to be there for me, in me not knowing how to be there for Nnenna. There I was. Full circle. Almost out-of-body. We all know almost doesn’t count. I was in my body. It was real, and I could feel all of it. Thank God circles are continuous, that they are infinite. I didn’t have to stay there. That night was ugly. That night, I stayed there. I’m tearful at the thought of it. Yet, I’m grateful for the sting. For how that wound was opened up, demanding attention and care, demanding healing.
I don’t have any concrete action steps or answers. I’m on this journey learning as I go, just like you. The fact that children are so forgiving and love us so unconditionally is God-breathed, and we cannot take it for granted. It should spur us on in the work we need to do to guide the trajectory of our legacy. What I can encourage you to be mindful of is:
The same fear, love, hopes, and responsibility you took on as a first-time parent, are likely parallel to your first born’s emotional experience. That being said, set limits, and be gentle. Strive to leave them feeling safe, loved, and equipped. Will discipline hurt their feelings sometimes? Sure. That’s why we follow-up with them, which leads to my the next point…
You will continue to make mistakes. That is okay. Don’t stay there. Pray, journal, apologize, have the hard conversations. I started a Mommy + Me Journal with Nnenna on her 10th birthday, inspired by a Facebook post. I wrote a love note to let her know she could tell me anything in the journal, and I’d write back. Since November of last year, she has written to me about a handful of times. We are both internalizers and getting creative through drawing and writing is our go-to, so this has been helpful, though it can’t replace verbal conversations and physical affection. I know this won’t work for every parent-child relationship. Let me know what other ideas you have.
Getting honest with yourself, and tending to and healing those wounds requires support. You can’t do it alone. You were never meant to. You wouldn’t go to the doctor or the Emergency Room, then put on all the gear, and take all the measurements, and start the IV, draw the blood, and prescribe all the meds for yourself. There’d have been no reason to make that trip. You go there because what you’re experiencing is outside of the scope of your home remedies. You go there because you trust the people there have the skills, tools, and knowledge to help you heal. You go there to connect. To open yourself up to the guidance and support of others. Pray for God to show you who and send you accountability partners. Go to therapy. Strengthen your relationship with your spouse and close family and friends. Go to safe people, and let them in.
Realize that you can give your babies every single thing you didn’t have, and at the end of the day, generational wealth that is based in material possessions will not last. Generational wealth that is based in emotional and spiritual wellness and wholeness, the daily work, is what will last.
Epigenetics doesn’t only carry the trauma. Epigenetics carry the overcoming, too. You are a warrior. You come from a lineage of warriors. The battlefield may look different in our lifetime, however, we have weapons they didn’t have and new strategies. You are not a victim to your circumstances or your experiences. You have everything you need inside of you to do the work. Are there real obstacles? Like systematic sin (i.e. racism) and epigenetics? Yes, there are. God is above all those things, and nothing is impossible with Him. He is our ultimate example, and He is the end all-be all of the love we desire. In and through Him, we have all we need to heal.
Don’t discount the small victories in this fight. I remember when my father passed away. My mom cut her hair short and dyed it auburn, and she stopped putting on makeup. She had always used a drugstore powder compact and her signature orange-toned lipstick. Those changes were significant to me. I remember those things when I’m going through, and it reminds me to push myself to get dressed, do my hair, do my skincare routine, put a little makeup on, pull myself together. My babies are watching, and in these small ways of showing up for myself, I show up for them. As we make meaning for ourselves, our family’s story is shaped. Those small victories are revolutionary acts on this battlefield.
Forgive your parents and the generations before us for what they didn’t know, and what they didn’t do, and focus on how hard they fought so you could be in a position to affect change today. My mom didn’t have “the talks” with me. True, I may have a difficult time having them with my babies. I can dig into that arsenal of weapons and strategies she didn’t have. That’s why I share which books I have purchased for Nnenna about the hard things. Books can do the basics; our walk and our talk will do the teaching. See number 2 to begin the forgiveness process.
…And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? Esther 4:14. Esther, by becoming the queen due to God’s favor, was able to speak to the king at that time. He listened to her, and the Israelites were spared. She was fearful, because making a direct suggestion to the king was not the thing to do, especially requesting he spare the Hebrew’s lives. She stopped the genocide of her people. You are in a similar position, Queen. Collectively, we are in a similar position.
Jennifer J. Jones