I’ll be honest—when my mom proposed that we use this year’s Veterans Day holiday to visit extended family, I wasn’t jumping for joy. It’s not that I don’t love my family, I promise! It’s simply my nature to resist being pulled from my personal hobbit hole.
In the end, the trip was fantastic. I spent some much-needed mother-daughter time climbing (Read: letting my car climb) Mount Scott, the second-highest peak in the Wichita Mountains. I listened to my great-aunt tell stories of getting caught leaving the Indian Boarding School to go to the movies with boys. I dropped in on my oldest nephew at his diner job to embarrass him in front of his friends. I had a raucous dinner with my siblings and their giant families.
What stuck with me, though, was a conversation with my mom on the way home. It was a 3-hour drive, and we left late, so darkness had fully settled in. She remarked that my other nephew had been surprisingly well-behaved, given that he had been grounded the day before and was still mourning the loss of his technology. Curious, I asked what he’d been grounded for this time, and the answer struck me. He struggles with math (who doesn’t?), and my sister was doing her best to tutor him at home. In a moment of frustration, he snapped at her, saying something mean and earning himself a week without video games.
I asked my mom, “Wasn’t he just expressing his frustration? It came out sideways, but that seems like a teachable moment to me about how to manage hard emotions rather than punish him for having them.” Her response perfectly encapsulated what I’ve learned.
That idea probably hadn’t occurred to my sister because she was never taught to feel and manage her emotions that way. My mom hadn’t been taught how to do that. Her mom hadn’t been taught how to do that, nor was her mom before her. Instead, each generation re-learned the same lesson—to suppress your emotions rather than work through them.
When we think about emotional wellness, it’s so easy to see ourselves in a vacuum. I’m guilty of moving through my days feeling deeply independent and maybe a little detached (unclear if this is a human thing or a being-25-thing). However, we don’t learn how to be people on our own! We learn the lessons of generations before us, carrying the habits of ancestors we may never have met. I think every family can probably find these threads in their family tree, but I know they’re exacerbated by poverty and cultural trauma, both of which exist in my family. In our case, we learned to be tough because we had to be to survive. Looking forward, I hope the next generations can flip that on its head—I hope that they can learn how to be soft so that they can thrive.