What navigating intergenerational trauma feels like, as a daughter, mother and woman over 40.
By Joan Jothi Saldanha
My grandmother died suddenly at a very young age, leaving behind four children, my mother being the youngest at two years old. I will never know just how deeply this sudden loss of her mother must have impacted my mother, but I know that my mom has always felt sad and alone with a deep void in her life. My grandfather, who was an alcoholic, got married soon after and had five more children with his new wife. My mom and her siblings were separated and grew up in boarding schools. She only saw her paternal grandparents over the holidays. I know that this early childhood trauma of addiction and loss stayed with my mom and her siblings.
There are seven of us women in my generation and we know nothing of our grandmother and very little of our grandfather, like they never really existed. We also feel their loss. It is difficult to even bring up the subject with our parents without tears and grief over their lost childhood. My mom and her siblings’ sense of family and identity were shattered that day when my grandmother passed away. With the exception of my mother’s older sister, they have all been through divorce and faced addiction, mental illness, and even domestic violence and infidelity.
At 19, my mom had a relationship with my biological father. They were not married and, surprise surprise, I came along. Bangalore, India, in 1971 was not the time nor the place for an unmarried young woman in college to have a baby. My mom didn’t even know she was pregnant at first and even proceeded to hide it, me, for as long as she could. My mother’s step-mother locked her away, kept her hidden so that the outside world would not know what was happening and the family would not suffer from this shameful circumstance. My mother did not have a mother of her own to nurture and guide her during this time of need and she continued to feel alone. My mom’s friends eventually helped her to run away and go to a nearby home for unwed mothers, where she was taken good care of and gave birth to me in a very supportive environment. With the help of her friends, school nuns and professors, she was able to finish her exams and receive her degree. With great courage and strength, my mom carried me, delivered me, and then pursued a life for us in Canada. For approximately two years I stayed back at this home in Bangalore while she built something for us in Toronto.
There is so much more of the story of my beginnings, along with the trauma around it, that I have yet to fully know and understand. I have asked my mom to share what happened with me, but it is so incredibly painful for her to talk about that she often cannot. We even went back to Bangalore, to the home where I was born. It was the perfect full circle opportunity for us to face this pain and heal. I was overcome with so much gratitude for what my mom had to go through and I let her know it, but I could see and feel the sadness that my mom was experiencing. It was still difficult to talk about it, even though we were right there where it all happened.
Today, I’m in the process of healing from these early traumas that I know have impacted me on a deep level. I have carried this shame and sadness connected to my unexpected arrival, along with abandonment issues associated with early separation from both my mom and dad, for most of my life. As a child, youth, and young adult, I continued to experience negative disruptions in my life that I now see as traumas too. Witnessing the destructiveness of alcoholism and addiction, domestic violence, sexual violence, and mental illness, all contributed more shame, sadness, grief, abandonment, and anger to my life.
I asked my friend, Mosa McNeilly, what intergenerational trauma feels like for her. “I carry four histories of persecution in my blood,” she wrote to me: “the West African history of the Maafa, the Jewish Romanian history of the Holocaust, the Scottish Celtic history of British oppression, and the Grenadian Kalinago history of genocide. I believe these histories have been passed down through genetic memory, and the impacts have echoed through time in the form of intergenerational trauma. My experiences of trauma in the contemporary moment have further been prescribed by the lethal technologies of colonialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, how they determine the scope of the nuances of my lived experience, and are designed to thwart the life possibilities of the Black woman, born and raised in Canada.”
Another friend, Kerry Goring, who also experiences intergenerational trauma, described the complicated nature of this kind of trauma. “Living under the veil of tension, the expected screams and anger from the past becomes commonplace,” she wrote. ”It is a place of unbalance, unspoken pain as entrenched as the darkness of my skin, my melanated hue. These tendrils are interwoven into the love, the strength and fierceness of the women who raise me.”
I constantly ask myself, “In what ways do I shine and show up fully as me to honour the women in my family and in what ways do I break the cycles of shame, abuse, dysfunction, pain, and trauma?”
In honouring myself, I honour them. I am here because of them. I am here, a daughter still healing from the wounds of my childhood. I am also a mother and possess these gifts of choice, to hide the dark parts of me and bury them further down inside, or to crack them wide open, shed light and warmth on them to heal—really heal—generations of pain and trauma.
I choose to break the cycles of abandonment and addiction as I raise my children. I heal in front of them, letting them know that I am perfect in my imperfections and that facing my pain and my fears brings me strength and light to live fully. My grandmother, mother, and I did not have voices, felt alone, and abandoned, but now I have chosen to nurture, listen, hold, and see my children. I acknowledge their voices, feelings, perspectives, and spirits. I support them when they fall and let them know every minute of every day that they are loved and not alone.
At 48, I am approaching my healing and recovery, which is grounded in reconnection to self, Spirit, and my ancestors along with wellness, as if I am on the other side of things, equipped and ready to break the cycles. I have come through the storm and I can now rest, heal, and restore all of the years that the locusts have eaten. A very still, open, and fertile space. This liminal space, a threshold space of quiet recovery and growth. It can be very scary and lonely at times and I often find that I subconsciously distract myself from this space because it feels so uncomfortable. I recently walked into yet another therapy session at the beginning of this year with very low expectations because I have seen more therapists in my life than I can count on both hands. I am so grateful that this therapist is different. At the end of the first session she let me know that when I arrived she saw an older woman in a beautiful sari walk before me laying flower petals at my feet as I walked in. I feel that she was my grandmother and represents all the women that have come before me. Now, four sessions in, I am learning techniques around mindfulness, visualization, energy healing, mirror work, and gaining a better awareness of where I sit within this liminal space of healing pain and trauma from generations before me, working to pass as little of that trauma on to future generations as possible, and how to accept this position fully, within my body, mind and soul. I am creating beautiful art to express the emotions I am feeling within in this space and it has been transformational. I feel a sense of freedom that I have never felt before - I am healing wounds that have existed for generations.
I was recently part of showcase celebrating women creatives named The Wild Nellies at the Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery where I exhibited a series of artwork called The Liminal Space – The Fantasy Garden Series. I had the beautiful opportunity to share the story of my healing journey at the event. Many women shared that day. We spoke to gender violence, trauma, and creative expression. My children, 12 and 10, had many questions, their innocence at stake. “Mommy, why do people hurt each other? Did you ever get hurt like that? What happened to you, Mommy?” That day at the dinner table I told my babies what I witnessed as a young child, how it hurt me, and how mommy is healing now. They both stood up, walked over to me and held me as I sobbed in their arms and said “Mommy don’t worry, you are in a peaceful and loving home now.” My daughter expressed her sorrow for that time in my life. I felt that I had come full circle and that the choices I had made had brought me to this very moment in time. My children affirmed me in the most profound way that day and I know that my ancestors were pleased.
I continue to find myself in the space between being a daughter and being a mother entering into eldership in very powerful ways. I am finding a new sense of being for myself. A new sense of self-awareness like never before. I am currently engaged in soul work, an inquiry into my life’s purpose; who am I now on the other side of trauma; how do I see and navigate around some of the ways that my mom manifests her trauma; what are some of the choices I have as a mother to teach my children how to heal and be empowered; how do I move as a woman of colour into eldership as an artist, leader, and community builder. I feel so grateful for all of it—I am grateful for all of my experiences and how my healing journey has brought me to this powerful place in this present moment in time.
My godmother gave me my middle name, Jothi, which means light or spark in Sanskrit. I only now can fully appreciate and embrace what this name truly means to me. My arrival was and continues to be a light in this world. A spark where there is so much power present and where transformation takes place. As I continue to find the courage to shed my light on these dark places within, I use visual art and writing to express myself. I feel led by my grandmother and all the women that have come before me to face this darkness and nurture my inner child. As a daughter to my mom and all the women who have come before me, I am a survivor, I am a warrior, and I carry this light as a torch in honour of their legacy.