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Our Parents Legacy of Hurt and Anguish

July 16, 2010

Parenting is a tough job, period. And we have to wait a couple of decades to know if we got it right. We take our experience, and the learning we are able to find time for, and apply it, we hope, in the best interests of our children. There are so many times we feel like we fail miserably. We carry that feeling of failure with us, sometimes to the grave. But as a society, we still venerate our mothers through phrases such as “motherhood and apple pie” and our celebration of mothers day. It’s almost like we are programmed to blindly accept mother love as a given, and speak no ill of our mothers or motherhood. That’s the camp I come from. I loved my mother dearly. We were friends, and discussed many things about her life. I listened to her stories about her upbringing, which led me to my belief that she was certainly affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) as she was growing up. Her biological mother passed away when she was 10 years old, but had been gone from her life for most of that 10 years. There are other experiences she shared with me that were certainly within the definition of ACES.

As children, we are so dependent on our parent(s) that we endure a lot of poor parenting, and still profess great love for our parents as grownups. We are also frequently victims of circumstances that are hard to avoid. When I made the decision to reveal that I had 6 ACES in my background, I understood that the revelation might reflect negatively on my mother. But that was not the point I was trying to make. I understood that she had her own ACES that severely affected her life.

My point is that when we acknowledge having any of the ACES in our lives, it could reflect negatively on our parent(s). That is not a result we want. Yet research shows that huge numbers of us have at least one ACE in our life, and as many as 1 in 4 have multiple ACES.

I saw my Mother as a bright, talented and loving woman, with a never quit spirit. Her long list of friends adored her. When Mom was living in Mt. Edgecumbe, she used to “check” young girls out of the boarding school so they could experience some family life. When I was a candidate running for a seat as a Sealaska Corporation board member, I had my own “babysitters club” composed of women my Mom had checked out and who babysat for us. Mom exhibited many of the ACES symptoms. She dropped out of high school. She was a lifelong smoker (telling me that she started by smoking under the dock in Yakutat at the age of 12). She abused alcohol for a period of time in her life. She likely experienced depression in her adult life. She had a couple of chronic diseases.

My father had many similar experiences, including an absent biological parent, an alcoholic parent, neglect. He also had ACES symptoms, including smoking, alcoholism and severe anger/violence issues early in his adult life.

My friend Charles Stuart, who is one of the most passionate and dedicated fatherhood advocates you will ever meet, and an early mentor for me in the field, described to me how three generations of black men often serve hard time in the same prison. Infliction of trauma during childhood is intergenerational. We must accept that as a fact (it is well proven) in order to stop the transfer of trauma from generation to generation. As I have said many times, we can accept this as fact without resorting to blaming our parents and grandparents. They had their own legacy of hurt and anguish. Now that we know what causes it, we must accept its presence as a fact, learn how to cope with it using modern methods of therapy, and accept responsibility for how we live our own lives.

Mom passed away the day after my 52nd birthday in 2005. As we celebrated my birthday the night before her passing, she wrote in my card her fears that she had not been a good parent. As I remembered all of the love and sacrifices she gave to hold us together as a family, I assured her that she had done a good job. Her work raising me allowed me to reach adulthood with a chance to overcome the obstacles life placed in our way. And while ACES have impacted my life significantly ( I now know), I can see that the lives of my children are already far better than the life I knew growing up. Their futures are bright and full of promise because I accepted responsibility for my life, sought and earned a good education, worked to improve my many character flaws, and most importantly, fought to remain a substantial part of their lives.

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