I have so many thoughts swimming through my head, I will attempt to articulate them and hopefully come to some semblance of structure or sense by the end of this article. I was paired with Luis Carranza Perales for the Friends Who Write challenge, and I couldn't have been given a better teammate. Luis' first piece reflects on the magic within the mundane, and how ancestral wisdom lives through us if we pay attention to it.

Like the ancestral wisdom that flows through our veins, we hold ancestral trauma as well. More and more studies are revealing that trauma is transferred to the children of those who experience it, not just through upbringing, but through our DNA. If trauma can change our genetics, why can't wisdom?

More importantly, if we spend our lives healing trauma, both our own and that of our ancestors, can we spare the future generations from this passed-down pain? Even if we don't have children, how would collective healing alter the future generations?

Mothers and daughters

generated with Midjourney

This week in the RADAR Discord, the amazing VictoriaFutures sent me reeling with a very simple question:

What does femininity mean to you?

To put it simply: everything and nothing.

But don't worry, I'll go into much more detail.

Some of the smartest people I know shared their thoughts, sources, and experiences, and my brain started whirring. One idea in particular stuck with me. Women are like water. Through generations, we've adapted, changed shape, and became what people needed us to be.

Like water, women are shock absorbers. We've seen this most recently during Covid-19. When schools shut down, mothers put their careers on hold at much higher rates than fathers to stay home and take care of the kids.

But this is nothing new. From the very way we're socialized, girls and women are built to absorb the pain of those around them. Because of our developmental patterning, girls are highly likely to absorb the pain and trauma of their mothers. In psychology, the term used to describe this phenomenon is the Mother Wound.

Words from Letter to My Rage by Lidia Yuknavitch,
painting is The Reluctant Bride by Auguste Toulmouche
This process of development of relational self has been posited to lead to an enhanced capacity of empathy in girls and women as well as to more permeable ego-boundaries in women, especially in relationships with women, such as mother-daughter relationships. This may lead to a girl taking on her mother's experiences as her own via the process of projective identification between mother and daughter
- Miriam L. Vogel, Gender as a Factor in the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma, Women & Therapy

This phenomenon happens disproportionately in marginalized communities, where women are more traumatized and daughters take on a caretaker role in their households, especially when both parents work or they live with a single parent. This has been studied at length in African-American communities and Indigenous communities.

Pain eater

Now that I've legitimized my experiences with peer-reviewed research and evidence, I can tell you why I'm writing this in the first place.

Hey tear catcher, that's all that you areand ever were, from the startI swear, I say
- Fall Out Boy, XO
I will eat my mother's painNo matter how sick it makes me
- Something I wrote in my diary when I was 14
generated with Midjourney

I have been my mother's pain eater as long as I've been alive. I've been her secret keeper, her best friend, and the crucible where she synthesizes all her rage.

I am her poppet, stuffed with herbs and placed deep in the earth, so her nightmares can go away.

Why would I allow this to happen?

When it's been happening since the day you were born, it's a habit that's extremely hard to break. However, just the act of writing this is a step towards breaking an ancestral chain that has only ever caused harm.

The other reason is because my mother is an incredible person. She has taught me to love unconditionally, speak even when someone attempts to silence me, and to to be unapologetically ambitious.

She has taught me that she was her mother's pain eater, much like I was for her. As the eldest daughter in a deeply dysfunctional home, she became the secret keeper for her father, the protector of her sisters, and the mother to her mother.

It's no small task, but by writing this, I am starting on a journey to unlearn my duty as my mother's mother. I cannot eat any more pain without poisoning myself.

However, in a similar path that Luis Carranza Perales is starting out on, I hope to do this imperfectly. I want to untangle the beauty from the chaos in the relationship I have with my mother, because I believe it's worth saving.

Back to Victoria's question on what femininity means to me.

Femininity is piercing your best friend's ear with a safety pin in your bedroom the summer after freshman year, because her parents won't let her.

Femininity is the feeling you have one day, around age 12 or 13, sometimes younger, when men start to look at you different when you're out in the world. It makes you feel unsafe, but you don't know why. You want to hide your body in oversized clothing or starve yourself until there's nothing left to look at.

Femininity is your aunt giving you your grandmother's necklace. This is the necklace your Nonna sewed into her dress so the Nazis occupying her home in Italy wouldn't take it, because it belonged to her mother, and her mother before her. The necklace would stay sewn into the fabric of her being while she traveled to Ellis Island on a ship for 10 days with her 3 children, the fourth 9 months along in her belly. Now it's around your neck.

Femininity is drunk girls in the bathroom at a noisy club, screaming compliments to each other and asking strangers if they'd check if the back of their dress is zipped up right.

Femininity is learning that witchcraft is so much more than spells and herbs and crystals. Witchcraft is deeply embedded into every culture in every part of the world, since the dawn of time. It's born from the alchemical transformation of shame into power, fear into anger, and otherness into magic.

Femininity is a divine source that lives in every one of us, regardless of gender or sex. It's a lineage we all come from. Follow it and you find the root of all that has been and all that will ever be.

As the amazing Jay M., or sheshallconquer, said, femininity is like the ocean. It is both beautiful and dangerous. It heals you but it can kill you just as easily. No matter how much you explore its depths, you will never fully understand the whole of it's being, or what lives inside its shadows.

Femininity is the blood that flows through all of our veins. It is the ability to transform. It is all the softness and beauty of the world, and all the pain, too.

from Marina Abramović's Spirit Cooking, 1996


Works Cited

  • https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J015v15n02_04
  • https://digitalcommons.nl.edu/diss/623/
  • https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J045v10n04_01
  • https://msmagazine.com/2020/09/12/letter-to-my-rage/
  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addiction-and-recovery/201910/the-mother-wound