Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Philip Larkin wrote about generational trauma in his poem This Be The Verse, claiming that “Man hands on misery to man” (9). After reading about how Larkin condemned himself to a childless adulthood to avoid passing on said “misery,” I became vividly aware of how entangled I was in my own family’s generational trauma. Every decision I made was influenced by my upbringing. From my relationships to my writing, unprocessed trauma played an integral role.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy writing about real-life shit just as much as any other emotionally unavailable individual, but Larkin’s poem freaked me out. I was terrified by the prospect of continuing to center my entire life around my messed-up childhood. So, I decided to go to therapy.
Therapy has been good. Great really. I allow myself to be vulnerable with my therapist, and I even cry sometimes. I feel myself growing. “Blossoming,” if you will.
A couple of weeks ago I was venting, as one often does in therapy, and my therapist’s response made me feel incredibly validated. My heart swelled as she affirmed my feelings and experiences, and I told her that I had “a really strange question.”
I fumbled with my words and laughed uncomfortably, and she told me not to think, just to ask.
“Is it normal that I feel like I love you right now?” I said.
Her response was also validating. I’m sure you’re sensing a pattern here.
She explained that my feelings were not necessarily ones of affection, but simply a feeling of comfort and security at having my needs met. When you’re not used to feeling secure and affirmed, it can feel like you’re attached to the person, rather than their actions.
I was very happy to hear that I hadn’t imprinted on my therapist, but I also recognized at that moment that there had been other instances like this in my past. And not just with my therapist, but with any woman who was older than me and made me feel safe.
It was a habit I developed as a child. When my sister and I slept over at her childhood best friend’s house, I spent half my time playing dolls with them and the other half hanging out with her bestie’s mom in the kitchen.
I would talk that woman’s ear off every single weekend. And she would just let me.
To be entirely honest, it was so long ago I don’t even remember what I talked to her about. But I do remember my heart feeling warm every time I was around her.
I wish I had known as a nine-year-old that this wasn’t normal. Because I turned twelve and, again, found myself clinging to someone else’s mother. And when she died a year later, I didn’t have the support I needed at home to grieve her. Instead, when I got the news and fell to my knees, consumed by the deepest ache I had felt up to that point, my mom looked at me with a mix of confusion and annoyance. She had no idea how to console me.
My mom tried her best. She had fun, warm moments. She laughed and took the occasional goofy picture. She went without so my siblings and I wouldn’t. She said, “I love you.” All objectively good qualities in a mom. And I am forever grateful for everything she is.
But talking to her has never been easy. Understanding and empathy are not easy to come by with my mother. So, I unwittingly found those things elsewhere.
When I considered applying to NYU last year for an MFA in poetry, my mom was not one of the first people I wanted to talk about it with. Instead, I gushed about my future prospects with a 50-year-old woman who wanted to watch my cats.
I met Mabel, as we’ll call her, on Rover—my last-minute stop for a weekend pet sitter (I promise this isn’t an ad). I could tell from her messages that she was a bit whimsical. When we spoke over the phone I found her voice melodic, and unwavering trust formed on my end as a result.
In real life, she was a small woman, no more than 5’3. Her messy curls were tossed into a bun and bright little birds dangled from her ears, almost chirping. When I went to bring her up, I found her admiring traffic on the sidewalk outside my building. She clasped a wicker purse in both hands, a small smile stamped across her lips as cars and people glided by.
And she seemed genuinely excited when she noticed me, “Devyn! Hi!”
The “love” feeling was immediate. She was so kind and it felt like I had known her my entire life.
The “meet-and-greet” was set to take fifteen minutes. My husband and I were going out of town for his soccer tournament, and Mabel would be dropping in to feed and play with our cats over the weekend. I spent five minutes introducing her to my fur children, a couple of minutes explaining their temperaments and habits, and a few more minutes showing her where their food and litter was.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, the topic transitioned from my cats to ourselves, and the fifteen-minute visit turned into a three-hour conversation about life. Mabel told me all about her upbringing, about her divorce, and raising two very different daughters on her own. I imagined this was something my mother could empathize with.
She was a writer. Only in Los Angeles to finish her book. She was from New York and said she loved the writing scene there but the beaches in Los Angeles made her feel inspired.
I asked her all about The City. What the writer’s groups were like, if everything really smells like piss, if I would feel as alive as I imagined once I got there.
She talked about everything with passion. Her arms waved about, her eyes got big, her laugh flooded my narrow living room with light.
When she asked why I was so interested in New York, I explained that most of my family is from the east coast and I wanted to experience living over there at least once. I added that I wanted to go to NYU for a poetry MFA as well.
She gasped at the last bit and clapped her hands together hard. “It’s going to happen! It’s meant for you.” Then she said to tell her when I got my NYU acceptance letter.
And of course, right on cue, more feelings of affection.
My husband and I went to his tournament, Mabel watched our cats, and that was that. I assume she went back to New York, but I never saw or talked to her again.
It was a strangely defining moment in my life, though. I felt seen and capable. She affirmed that I am a writer. Everything felt more tangible after I met Mable. And I am grateful to have known her, even for just a day.
After a lifetime of knowing my mother, I still can’t quite read her. There’s always been a disconnect. To compensate, I found the support I needed from women who carried qualities I found comforting. I imagine that most mothers would find that difficult, but I can’t speak for mine.
Honestly, I can’t speak for any of the generations that came before me. I can’t speak for my great-grandmother, who was sweet but distant. I can’t speak for my grandmother, who is loving but passive. I can’t say if they confused affirmations with love, latching on to women who provided what their mothers couldn’t.
But what I can say is that therapy was the best choice I have ever made. I love being a writer who writes about real-life shit, but I also love being able to face my real life with a steady gaze. And while I still can’t meet her gaze half the time, I am thankful for the relationships I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned because of my mother.