“While tails are very rare in humans, temporary tail-like structures are found in the human embryo. Most people aren’t born with a tail because the structure absorbs into the body during fetal development, forming the tailbone . . . Sometimes the tail remains due to a defect during the developmental stage.”[i]
This is a story of mothers. This is a story of daughters. This is a story of the trauma we carry and the trauma we tend to.
This story begins long before me. It begins with the first trauma my ancestral mothers bore, something passed deep in our wombs, from one generation to the next. I feel it lashing when I am changing the sheets on my elderly mother’s bed and she tells me that she has decided I don’t like her very much.
I don’t disagree.
I love my mother but in that moment, as my mother leans against her rubber-capped cane beside a second-hand armoire, I do not like her. But then I am not sure at that moment, with my temper frayed, anyone particularly likes me—most of all me.
For three days, my mother has been complaining ceaselessly of a litany of health concerns, of her inability to pay for food, of the dangerous policies of this U.S. president. She has lived through Hitler. She knows the consequences of incendiary politics. She fears another war.
I am not empathetic. I am tired of tending to her, of being her caregiver, and of her enveloping despair.
My mother has had to overcome adverse childhood experiences. At the outbreak of World War II, when she was only three years old, she was placed alone on a train to Wales with her eighteen-month-old brother, Neville. Picked up by a stranger from a train platform with a number hanging around her neck, she spent her childhood in a succession of foster homes and boarding schools. She was abused.
I know these facts. I am aware that her own mother, my grandmother, also suffered through world wars and was separated from her own mother in early childhood. I know my grandmother Violet’s physical and mental health suffered in later life. But when making my mother, Barbara’s, bed after a long weekend of caring, this knowledge does not help me cope with her.
“I became a mother at the age of three,” she often told my six siblings and me growing up. “I had no childhood at all.”
My mother and grandmother never fully recovered from the trauma they endured. I, in contrast, had a happy, loving, and secure childhood. But even with this knowledge, I still struggle to manage the effects of my mother’s trauma as they manifest in her and, by extension, me.
This story is an attempt to shed light on a narrative seldom found on teleprompters or in historical texts. It is a story of mothers whose voices we hear as we brush the knots in our daughters’ hair. It is a story told in bathrooms and in kitchens, passed from one generation to the next, and carried in our DNA. It is our daughter’s story, our mother’s story, and our grandmother’s story. It is a story of repeated childhood separation, complex trauma, and abiding maternal love.
This is a story that I first began to pursue when I was only twenty-two, inadvertently, at my mother’s kitchen table, in her upscale London flat. It is a story to help me understand why my mother struggles so much, why she shakes and can be imbalanced in so many ways, why she is the way she increasingly has become: exhausted and manic, determined and struggling, physically fit and mentally unwell—pairings that can seem to me not meant to coexist but in my mother somehow do. It is a story buttressed by its psychological underpinnings, such as the importance of mother-child attachment and the ways in which separation and trauma can influence generations to come.[ii]It is a story of the early childhood traumas that our mothers carry, evident in my own mother’s later age as PTSD, as well as their remnants in us and in the children we bear. It is a story in which I have intentionally layered my voice with hers and with the imagined voices before us, unearthing a palimpsest of maternal history. It is what happens after the incidence of trauma has passed but its vestigial tail remains.
[i] What Is A Vestigial Tail in Humans?, Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/vestigial-tail#causes
[ii] Colin, Virginia L, Nancy Low & Associates, Inc, (June 28, 1991). Infant Attachment: What We Know Now, US Department of Health and Human services. Retrieved from: https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/infant-attachment-what-we-know-now.
©Elizabeth Wilcox, 2020
Elizabeth Wilcox is a writer and content producer who began her career as a journalist in London and Hong Kong before returning to the U.S. She has worked in print, radio, television and the web and currently specializes in content development and strategy for educational organizations that promote social and emotional learning and trauma-informed practices for youth. Her creative nonfiction and memoir, The Long Tail of Trauma (Green Writers Press, September 2020) follows the publication of her first book, The Mom Economy: The Mothers’ Guide to Getting Family-Friendly Work (Berkley, September 2003).