Have you ever thought of being your own person but also tried to project your mother’s image? You are accepting her reflection on you as long as you inherit her hair and eyes. You might as well adopt her way of cooking, but sometimes even her dark side follows you like a shadow. You want to untie yourself from the angry, traumatized, and villainous parts of her. Eventually, the realization hits that it’s not possible, because you are nothing but your mother’s daughter.
I believe this strange epiphany brought us together on the evening of April 4th at a collaboration event between SOCH – The Mental Health Club and Her Campus at McMaster. With the room full of inspiring and powerful women, we decided to spill the tea on how being a woman of South Asian descent has its own perks and downsides. Trust me, it was our own spicy version of a mental health check-in.
Intergenerational trauma might just be a clinical term for some, and for others, it could be a topic to review for a psychology exam. What we fail to understand is that it lives in a house like an uninvited guest until forced to leave…until one generation decides to break through facets of this cycle. To talk about it more, we invited panelists, SJ*, SiA*, and KG*, three women of South Asian descent to express their thoughts on intergenerational trauma. The main agenda was to discuss how it has impacted their relationships with their mothers and to explore the implications of intergenerational trauma on young daughters and mothers of brown households. We even asked them to share tips on some semi-scandalous topics like how to hide your boyfriend from your brown family. There were moments when we cracked up with laughter, shared seconds of silence as we related to our own experiences, and had a hopeful revelation that we were not alone.
As we began the discussion, the first thing SJ highlighted was the holistic way of assessing intergenerational trauma in a family. It varies per caste, creed, and culture. What one family went through could be very different from what another family had to face. Even the so-called “desi dynamics” have a role to play in this, and the females have an all-over different experience. For example, some grandmothers would want their granddaughters to pursue higher education, because they never got the chance to, while others might not be as supportive.
Even the ideas and values your mother instilled in you are another way that the passed trauma manifests itself in one’s life. For SJ, it was the strict idea of “blood is thicker than water”, perhaps, budded from past betrayals. She mentions how she still thinks about her mother’s words when making decisions, trusting people, and making friends, and often ends up feeling conflicted. As expected, the audience heavily related to getting a very similar pep talk from their mothers.
For SiA, it’s her idealizing her mother. She proudly told us about her mother’s academic achievements and how perfectly she manages work and life. Maybe it was her mother’s past experiences that shaped her that way, but SiA tries to match the high bar her mother set. Just like most of us, SiA was not told but felt obligated to become the eloquent image of her mother. From getting the grades she got to dressing as her mom did. Sometimes it even influenced her opinion of herself.
In my case, it was my mother’s obsession with my academic success. Her regret of not doing as well academically was passed down to me, and it birthed the infamous academic validation monster. I am not mad at her for wanting my success, but there were instances where I wished for her to be content with my mediocrity in some subjects.
From my own experience and listening to their stories, I learned that living under the unhealed shadows of our mothers passes down the good, the bad, and the ugly. You might become a straight-A student, have anger issues, perfect the art of lying, or become the ideal daughter (which is definitely a myth). In the end, all you do is transform into a hybrid of your healing version and your mother’s.
*Initials are for the individuals choosing to remain anonymous.