The Family Mind

7 min readApr 24, 2024

To put it simply, we receive aspects of our grandmother’s mothering through our own mother. The traumas our grandmother endured, her pains and sorrows, her difficulties in her childhood or with our grandfather, the losses of those she loved who died early — these filter, to some degree, into the mothering she gave to our mother. If we look back another generation, the same would likely be true about the mothering our grandmother received.

The particulars of the events that shaped their lives may be obscured from our vision, but nevertheless, the impact of those particulars can be deeply felt. It’s not only what we inherit from our parents but also how they were parented that influences how we relate to a partner, how we relate to ourselves, and how we nurture our children. For better or worse, parents tend to pass on the parenting that they themselves received.
These patterns appear to be hardwired into the brain, and begin to be formed before we’re even born. How our mother bonds with us in the womb is instrumental in the development of our neural circuitry. Thomas Verny says, “From the moment of conception, the experience in the womb shapes the brain and lays the groundwork for personality, emotional temperament, and the power of higher thought.”
1 Like a blueprint, these patterns are transmitted more than
learned.The first nine months outside the womb function as a continuation of the neural development that occurs within the womb. Which neural circuits remain, which are discarded, and how the remaining circuits will be organized depend on how an infant experiences and interacts with the mother or caregiver. It’s through these early interactions that a child continues to establish a blueprint for managing emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
When a mother carries inherited trauma, or has experienced a break in the
bond with her mother, it can affect the tender bond that’s forming with her
infant, and that bond is more likely to be interrupted. The impact of an early break in the mother-child bond — an extended hospital stay, an ill-timed vacation, a long-term separation — can be devastating for the infant. The deep, embodied familiarity of the mother’s smell, feel, touch, sound, and taste — everything the child has come to know and depend on — is suddenly gone.
“Mother and offspring live in a biological state that has much in common
with addiction,” says behavior science writer Winifred Gallagher. “When they are parted, the infant does not just miss its mother. It experiences a physical and psychological withdrawal . . . not unlike the plight of a heroin addict who goes cold turkey.”
2 This analogy helps to explain why all newborn mammals,
including humans, protest with such vigor when they’re separated from their mothers. From an infant’s perspective, a separation from the mother can be felt as “life threatening,” says Dr. Raylene Phillips, a neonatologist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital. “If separation continues for a prolonged period,” she says, “the . . . response is despair. . . . The baby gives up.”
3 Dr. Phillips shares this understanding with Dr. Nils Bergman and other experts in the neuroscience of mother-infant bonding.
— In my early life, I knew that feeling of giving up. It came from my family. What my mother didn’t get from her mother affected what she was able to give to me and to my siblings. Although I could always feel her love shine through, much of her mothering was infused with the traumas in our family history — specifically the fact that her mother, Ida, lost both of her parents when she was two.
The family lore goes like this: When my great-grandmother Sora died of
pneumonia in 1904, her parents blamed her husband, Andrew, whom they
described as a ne’er-do-well and a gambler. According to the story, Sora
contracted pneumonia from leaning out the window in the middle of winter, begging for her husband to come home. My grandmother Ida was told that her father had “gambled away the rent money,” a phrase that has echoed in our family for generations. After Sora’s death, my great-grandfather Andrew was banished from the family and never heard from again. Even as a child, I sensed my grandmother’s bitterness when she told the story — which she did repeatedly — and I felt sad that she never got to know her father.
Orphaned at two, my grandmother was raised by her elderly grandparents,
who earned a living peddling rags from a pushcart in the Hill District in
Pittsburgh. My grandmother adored her grandparents, and often lit up when she shared memories about how much they loved her. But that was only part of the story — the part she could consciously remember. A deeper story lay beneath her reach.
Before Ida was a toddler, perhaps even in the womb, she would have
absorbed the sensations of her mother’s distress caused by the constant arguing, the tears and disappointments. All this would have had a profound effect on the crucial neural development taking place in Ida’s brain. Then, losing her mother at age two would leave her emotionally shattered.
It’s not only that my mother was raised by an orphan who couldn’t give her
the nurturing she never got from her own mother; my mother also inherited the visceral trauma of Ida’s separation from her mother at an early age. Although Ida was present physically in my mother’s life, she was unable to express the depth of emotion that would support my mother’s development. That missing emotional connection also became part of my mother’s inheritance. My mother’s father’s story was equally fraught. His mother, Rachel, died in childbirth when my grandfather Harry was only five. Harry’s father, Samuel, believing he was responsible for her death by making her pregnant, carried a heavy burden of guilt. Samuel quickly remarried a woman who, as the story goes, cared more for her biological child than for Harry, whom she treated with an indifference bordering on cruelty. My grandfather rarely talked about his childhood. What I know about it came from my mother, who recounted stories about how Harry nearly starved to death when he was young. He’d pick scraps
out of garbage cans and eat dandelion leaves just to survive. As a boy, I
imagined my grandfather also as a boy, sitting on a curb alone, biting into a
chunk of stale bread or ripping spoiled meat from a chicken bone.
Having both lost their mothers as young children, my grandparents
unknowingly passed the legacy of trauma forward. In our family, the mother child bond had been severed for at least three generations. Had these disruptions not occurred before my mother was born, my siblings and I might have received a different type of mothering. But as it was, my mother’s need for the love her parents couldn’t provide often left her feeling anxious and overwhelmed. In order to end the cycle of inherited trauma in my family, and ultimately for my own healing, I realized that I needed to heal my relationship with my mother.

I knew I couldn’t change what had happened in the past, but I certainly could change the relationship we had now. My mother had inherited her mother’s stress patterns, and so did I. She wouldoften clutch her chest and complain about feelings of agitation in her body. I realize now that she was unconsciously reliving the fear and loneliness that rippled through our family, the terror of being separated from the one she needed most — her mother. I remember as a small child, maybe five or six, feeling so
terrified when my mother left the house that I’d enter her bedroom, open her drawer of scarves and nightgowns, and bury my face into them so that I could breathe in her scent. I remember the feeling vividly — that I would never see her again, that her smell would be all I would have left. As an adult, I shared those memories with my mother, only to learn that she had done the same thing — she had buried her face in her mother’s clothes when her mother would leave the house.
As my story illustrates, early interruptions to the mother-child bond can
originate long before we’re ever conceived. The effects can remain in our
unconscious and live in our body as somatic memories that can be triggered by events reminiscent of rejection or abandonment.
When this happens, we can feel entirely out of sync with ourselves. Our
thoughts can become overpowering, and we can feel overwhelmed — even
frightened — by the sensations that flood our body. Because the trauma existed so early, it often remains hidden beyond our awareness. We know there’s a problem, but we can’t quite put our finger on the “what happened” part of it. Instead, we surmise that we’re the problem, that something inside us is “off.” In our fear and anxiety, we often try to control our environment to feel safe. That’s because we had so little control when we were small, and there was likely not a safe place for the intense emotions we experienced. Without our consciously changing the pattern, bonding injuries can echo for generations.




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