Intergenerational trauma is gendered, and other life lessons from my Black mother & sister
It wouldn’t be until well into my 20s that my sister explained to me that our mother treats her differently because she’s a girl.
Editor’s Note: April is Black Women’s History Month. Throughout this month, Black Youth Project is celebrating Black women. This month is also National Minority Health Month, Autism Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
By Terrence F. Chappell
“What your mom did to you, you’re doing to me. You treat me exactly the same way your mom treated you.”
My sister didn’t yell this to our mother. Her tone was much more purposeful and so it demanded much more attention. Her words authored a truth that forced my mom to not just hear her, but listen.
I still don’t know if my mom internalized what my sister said to her, but I do remember how quiet it was afterwards. My mother just stood up in the bathtub—she was bathing at the time—and everything felt so exposed.
My sister was referring to the intergenerational habits and pain mothers sometimes pass on to their daughters because of the way their own mothers treated them. Of course, at the time I didn’t see their fights as a result of “intergenerational habits and pain.” I just saw it as family not getting along—and I so desperately wanted my mother and sister to just get along. I wouldn’t learn until years later that there was a bias affecting how my mother treated me as opposed to my sister, in part based on our genders.
My sister left the house immediately, probably for the best, to finish packing her U-Haul to move to start law school at University of Madison-Wisconsin. It was 2002. My mother put on a robe and still didn’t say much. Every now and then she would peer out the window to watch my sister pack the last of her bags until she left. I don’t know what my mom was thinking, but her stillness was telling.
The argument between my sister and our mom didn’t bring acceptance or realization from either one of them. They had argued before, and in the years to come their relationship would turn ugly and beautiful in turns. They loved each other very much, but because it’s easier to hurt the ones you know aren’t going anywhere, they’d do that to each other too.
I grew up in an overly honest household with high expectations. “If you’re in the same exact position as you were a year before, there’s a problem,” my mom started telling us regularly when we were in grammar school. She loved and expected a lot from my sister and me. We always knew where we stood with each other, which was both comforting and chaotic.
Home is where I learned how to love. It’s also where I learned about relationships, vulnerability, and how intergenerational pain plays out in family dynamics.
Our mom seemed to take my sister’s mistakes, or what she “deemed” as mistakes, and any hint of disrespect in deeply personal ways and as assaults on her character. Arguments that they had weren’t treated as isolated incidents, they were hidden agendas my sister had “to get” our mom, or so she thought. We all argued with each other, but altercations with my sister meant something different.
My mom and I would have knock-down, drag out arguments, yelling matches even, ranging from the most mundane of problems to the more serious. Usually an hour later, we were back talking. I had a “boys will be boys” when it comes to fighting kind of relationship with my mom. This was not the case with my sister.
The arguments between my mother and sister lingered past the actual arguments. And while there were waves of reconciliation, they didn’t last long. I remember another one of their arguments vividly. Our mom kept an impeccably clean household. My sister, 22 and a recent college graduate, was living back home, and had left an unclean dish in the kitchen sink. My mom wasn’t having it.
“You’re arguing over a fucking dish in the sink,” my sister yelled. Our mom kicked her out of the house.
It wasn’t so much our mom kicking her out the house that stuck with me—our mom kicked me out the house too, it’s kind of a rite of passage in the Chappell household—but it was what followed that aggravated their relationship.
My sister stayed with our paternal grandparents and moved to New York City that summer to work for a law firm. Our mom didn’t have the best relationship with her in-laws and saw this as revenge and disrespect on my sister’s part. Her moving to New York City was seen as abandoning the family and her responsibilities back home. Whether or not my sister was intentionally trying to hurt my mom, I don’t know. But she wasn’t granted the benefit of the doubt or the same courtesies I’ve been granted in similar future scenarios.
I was 12-years-old when my sister was kicked out of the house. I was hurt because I felt like one of my best friends was banished. I loved my mother and sister both very much. I didn’t take sides. And I wasn’t having internal conversations around gender bias in Black households. I didn’t fully understand them as women yet, they were just my mother and sister. I didn’t know how to have conversations around gender dynamics or how to approach my mom’s hurt from her mother. I didn’t think it was my place as the baby of the family.
It wouldn’t be until well into my 20s that my sister explained to me that our mother treats her differently because she’s a girl. I didn’t argue, I just listened. I can’t say that I agreed right away either. She was still my mother and there was this need to protect her, but I also had to support my sister.
This pattern of behavior would play out for years and across different milestones. My sister’s marriage, when she had kids, new jobs. It felt like there was always something my sister was doing wrong or not enough, a moving target she couldn’t find, my sister explained.
When I was 24, our mom almost died from septic pneumonia and my sister was at the hospital every day and was also there after my mom was discharged. She made her presence known a lot more than I did, because I just couldn’t deal with it.
It reminded me of the great care our mom took of her mom, Rose, and her mother-in-law, Dorothy, leading up to their deaths. Our mom showed us how to properly take care of your elders. She went to physical therapy with our grandmother Rose, cooked for her, cleaned her house, did her hair.
I also remember how sometimes my mom’s mother would snap at our mom and say nasty things. She wasn’t a nasty woman, in fact she was very charming and sweet. But she was different with my mom. Our mom didn’t take care of our grandmother Rose out of some sense of duty, she did it out of unconditional love. Our mom felt terrible for not being able to understand what she was doing wrong or why sometimes it seemed like her mom didn’t like her, but she also didn’t see how she did the same thing to her own daughter.
Black Feminist Theory illuminates how gender and race are both significant in identity development in a society that denigrates Black women. Black mothers sustain a complex relationship with their daughters because they share a common experience and bond involving preparing for womanhood. But it feels limiting to paint their entire dynamic with the broad brush of race and gender dynamics. Yes, a strong part of their relationship, but not its entirety.
My sister told me that that once she began to accept our mom, her flaws, her hurt, and what that means for their mother-daughter relationship, she stopped questioning herself and her worth to our mom.
Moms have shortcomings. Moms make mistakes. Moms can be wrong. And our mom could be obfuscating. Unconditional love is about accepting your mother for she is and who she isn’t.
With a bachelor’s in magazine journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism, Terrence has written about social justice and LGBT issues. He has bylines in: Teen Vogue, Chicago Reader, Huffington Post, and Ebony.
When he’s not writing, Terrence works as a social media consultant. He has spearheaded campaigns for EFFEN Vodka, Walgreens, and Toyota.