The Thinker

Pondering the genogram

I had hoped that I had graduated from therapy last year. There were many days last year that I felt euphoric. Nevertheless, in life bad stuff is bound to happen. Euphoria, by its nature, is fleeting. What brought me crashing to the ground this year was my mother’s death last November.

It took me six months or so to realize that I was not as okay about her death as I thought. In dying, my mother left quite a wake. I must have been near her ship when it passed. When the wave finally hit, my boat came close to capsizing.

I did what I usually do when I do not fully understand what is going on. I found myself a therapist. Unlike my last one, this one lives locally. While I had few complaints about my last shrink, I saw no compelling reason to seek him out again, particularly since I had to cross the Potomac River to see him.

I found Pat, my latest therapist, in an odd sort of way. I subscribe to Washington Consumers Checkbook. This is like a Consumer Reports for the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Surfing their web site I was surprised to find a listing of therapists. I searched through the list of local therapists and reviewed the comments left by users. There were not many comments overall, but one person left a very positive comment about Pat. I left her a message then forgot about her for a few weeks. I was almost ready to dial another therapist when she called me back and told me that she could see me.

We have had an excellent relationship. One thing I noticed about Pat from my first appointment was that she had one essential tool to do her work: a blank piece of paper and some pens. As I yammered, she listened, asked questions but rarely stopped drawing. Over the course of many sessions she constructed a genogram of my family relationships.

What is a genogram? It is simply a visual depiction of a person’s many familial relationships and medical histories. It is a family tree where the emotional baggage is symbolized. Someone trained to read genograms can look at them and quickly get a broad picture of the emotional state of a family across many generations. It may not be entirely accurate, since it is impossible to know precisely how family members think or feel. It is easier of course to be more accurate with your immediate family. However, it gets more challenging the further back in time you go, or the more casual the family connection.

Thanks to Pat, I have been learning a lot about myself by examining distant and not so distant relations. In a way, my mother’s death was a blessing. While putting my mother out of her suffering, the event also raised many feelings that were either dormant or that I rigorously suppressed. I was able to put together a few of life’s puzzle pieces working with my last therapist. Thanks in part to the genogram that Pat has painstakingly put together I have been making rapid progress. What I am learning is interesting and a little frightening.

One thing I am learning is that most children carry the burden of unresolved emotional issues that affected not just their parents, but also their grandparents’ generation and beyond. This seemed very strange to me. I knew my paternal grandparents only tangentially. My maternal grandfather is largely a distant boyhood memory, since he died when I was ten. My maternal grandmother died before I was born. Nonetheless, I am very much connected with both sets of grandparents in ways far more profound than genetically.

I know from my mother’s biography that her mother frequently went through abandonment scenarios with her children. Some of my mother’s most traumatic memories were of her mother disappearing when the stress level got too high in her house. Given that her family was very poor and she was trying to raise a dozen children, her reaction though deplorable was understandable. Her mother’s reaction to stress was likely one reason why my mother was attracted to my father. Not only was my father very much calm and devoted, he is the oldest of two children. In addition, there are seven years between him and his sister. My father was also very attracted to the idea of a large family. Perhaps he felt he missed something by not growing up in a larger family.

My parents created eight of us. While my mother never physically abandoned us, she was often emotionally unavailable. She was not skilled at nurturing us because she had not seen it modeled in her mother. She had the dutiful part of mothering down pat. She could create tasty meals and keep the house spotless. He could nurse us to health and shuffle us between many appointments. Eight children were clearly more than she wanted. Unfortunately, she expressed her stress in occasional physical and emotional abuse. As a result, I carried her baggage about how difficult it was to manage a large family. That was likely one reason my wife and I chose to get out of the childrearing business after one child. It may be that our daughter has been picking up these largely unarticulated feelings. She tells us that she does not want to have any children. In fact, she has embraced celibacy as a personal choice. She seems to want to avoid any new intimate relationships. She may well be channeling three generations of desire for a life free of what she may perceive as the crushing burdens of parenthood and responsibility.

Partially because of my therapy, I have been talking more with my siblings about our shared childhood. I am learning things I did not expect. On the negative side, I am finding there is sometimes a disconnect between my older and the younger siblings. In some cases, they feel like they hardly know each other. This makes some sense. My oldest sister was starting puberty by the time my youngest brother was born. She had left the house by the time he was in second grade. On the positive side, I have found an odd virtue to being a middle child in a large family. I have become a connector sibling that bridges the older and the younger sides of my family. I may be in a unique position to allow both sides of my family to reconnect on a deeper level.

Looking at our families genogram (since my wife’s side of the family must also be modeled) I am puzzled why one of my siblings has had so much bad luck. With one exception, he has been unable to hold on to a job for more than a few years. He is often unemployed or underemployed. The same was often true of our maternal grandfather, although this was a common enough problem during the Great Depression. This brother might well be expressing his grandfather’s issues, which he may have picked up as a young boy talking with my mother.

I married a woman markedly like my mother. While I loved my mother, it was not as though I wildly admired her. My mother clearly had issues and I see some of them in my wife. To the best of my knowledge, I did not seek my wife out because she reminded me of my mother. I believed I was attracted to her because of her intelligence and our shared interests. Temperamentally though she is very similar to my mother. Thanks to Pat, I am learning to not react to her when she becomes emotionally expressive as I did with my mother.

There is much more to learn from my family genogram. While it cannot be entirely accurate, it does accurately depict how I perceive my family relationships. Perceptions may matter more than reality because we react based on our perceptions. Many things are falling into place. For example, my mother was very distraught when my oldest sister was born. She was born premature and nearly died. While any child’s brush with death would be traumatic to their mother, my mother also had two sisters die at an early age. One brother died at age 26 in World War II, and two others died in their thirties. Altogether, four of her eleven siblings had died by the time my oldest sister was born. Her own mother was in serious decline and would die a year later. Her traumatic feelings at my sister’s premature birth were quite understandable.

I have also been looking at family divorces and marital stresses. My wife’s side of the family is rife with these. She herself is a product of a broken home. It is a point of great pride to my wife that we have been married for twenty years. While my father’s sister was divorced, there was not a single incident of divorce in my mother’s side of the family. This was not to say that her siblings always had healthy and sustainable marriages. While many of these marriages worked out fine, others appeared dysfunctional. Among my siblings, I have just one brother who divorced. It is almost as if we are demonstrating to previous generations that we have the right stuff.

Perhaps future generations of my family will get it right. Each life has a high potential for self-improvement, but it seems to come only through significant effort. There is no way to know for sure, of course. For my part, I do hope that my daughter will not carry forward too much of my baggage. Nevertheless, it is clear that her suitcase is not empty.


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