Mind Matters — Families of Origin, Then and Now

Have you ever considered your family of origin? I mean, really considered your family of origin—not just your mother and father, but way back to ancestors?

I have always longed to be one of those people who could trace their history beyond the Mayflower. I have met folks who can and also those who settled here with William Penn. Perhaps part of the yearning is associated with the fact that these people were(/are?) the “in crowd.” Their long history seems to give them an anchor in life. The rest of us whites were immigrant interlopers from countries like Poland or Italy—not necessarily even considered white in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Of course, prior to the first colonists were the Native Americans, many of whom were snuffed out by those early whites who became the squatters on stolen land. Also, African Americans who were captured into slavery had no choice in their despicable, forced migration where millions died in one or another part of the journey.

African Americans may be able to trace their beginnings in America from 200 or 300 years ago. However, to link with their ancestors in Africa would be fraught with obstacles. It may be that genetic tests such as 23andMe will give us all better answers to our history.

I remember as a child being very curious about family origins. When I was born, my mother’s and my father’s families had been in the United States less than fifty years. My mother’s parents arrived independently from Poland in the first decade of the twentieth century. My father’s parents journeyed at the same time from Italy. They brought nothing with them but themselves. There are no family heirlooms of furniture or jewelry passed down from generation to generation and no written history—and barely an oral one. No farms, no estates, either.

I do have one cousin in Poland whom I met years ago. Walking into her small, postage stamp apartment in Warsaw felt like walking into a miniature replica of my mother’s living room. Hanka and her mannerisms reminded me of my mother also. Genetics? Culturation? I don’t know.

According to Murray Bowen, a pioneer in family therapy, inter-generational patterns have some basis in biology. Now the field of genetics and the study of epigenetics affirm this notion. It is not that biology is destiny: epigenetics shows that genetic changes (these do not affect basic DNA) are affected by the environment. In other words, nurture has a profound, positive effect on nature.

Our biological families of origin do bequeath us our genetic heritage whether or not we inherit the farm or the furniture. Yet I do wonder what it is like to inherit that stuff. Is it gift or burden? Boon or bane? Or both?

Murray Bowen and his colleagues that followed have researched the dynamics of family businesses that have been passed down from generation to generation.

To be born into money and power sounds wonderful. On the other hand, it also sounds constricting. How does a person establish their own identity in the established family business? Even bigger question: where do women in the family fit into these usually patriarchal systems? It is unlikely for a woman to be given the baton when brothers are involved. Rare to see a sign saying “X and Daughters.” For now, it’s mostly “Y and Sons.” Perhaps, epigenetics and families of origin still have some evolving to do.