The value of family history
There are multiple reasons for the value of understanding the facts of one’s family history. It supports one’s development of more objective thinking on family matters. The process of gathering family history facts expands one’s contact with extended family. It helps one understand the role they play in their family.
Opportunity for connection
When I got serious about finding out more about my family, over 15 years ago, it opened up a new world of contacts. Aunts and cousins that I hadn’t contacted for years became part of my world. One older aunt and I went on a “road trip” that included a cousin who has become a good friend. It laid the foundation for family zoom calls during the last three years. These folks became resources, and I’ve been a resource to them. These connections establish linkages between the next generations as well. I was part of two family reunions and connected with family members that I had never met.
Whence I came
My maternal grandfather’s ancestors date back to 1704 in Boston, Massachusetts. My paternal line goes back to Scotland and Ireland. We had a family farm in Maine for 170 years. I knew none of this. The farm is still there, and I visited it a few years ago. My grandfather was the youngest of five and the only male. His first wife died in the influenza pandemic in 1918, and they lost a young girl prior to that. A second female was stillborn. My grandfather remarried. They had a son and then had my mother. So my mother was the first female after three previous female deaths. She was the youngest for seven years until my aunt was born. Knowing all this has helped me understand things about my family of origin.
My father’s father died in his 50s, and my father was quite separate from him. My father’s family migrated to the United States when he was very young. I don’t believe he had much of a role model, as my grandfather travelled a lot for work. These facts provided a new perspective on my father for me.
Perspective on my family history
This background gives me a different perspective on my parents and their parenting. There are always consequences to actions. But I believe my parents did the best they could, given the hand life dealt them.
There is a long history of moving, challenges, untimely deaths, and distance in my family’s history. This would have affected each generation’s stress level, which would have been passed on to the next generation. We moved to be near my mother’s brothers after my parents divorced. My mom remarried a year later, and we moved again. My stepfather had been a prisoner of war in WWII. His grandparents were from Germany, and his baptism certificate was in German (from Ohi0). He basically bombed areas where his ancestors lived and lived with the deprivations of the POW camp. This left its mark. We ALWAYS ate all the food on our plates. “You don’t know what it’s like to be hungry,” he would say.
He developed alcoholism, but I learned to see it in a different light. His strength was that he quickly stopped drinking once he realized what was at stake. Again, I truly believe he did the best he could.
The family norms
I inherited some norms from my family. I understood them better after I put them in the context of my family’s history. As was normal for the time, several uncles and my stepfather served during WWII. Our family was not religious. But I remember an ethic of being good neighbours and helping others. My uncles really helped us when my mom was first divorced. They were kind to me. There were family stories about my mom marrying “a man that drank too much.” I think this created more isolation for us as a family from the rest of the family. I have no memories of overt racism in our family. But “commies” were another matter! “Better Dead than Red” was the motto. Anything left-of-center was communism and to be feared at all costs. Long hair was for commies. My stepdad had a military “brush cut” his whole life. He believed that serving his country was the right thing to do. My parents weren’t perfect, but they certainly weren’t bad. They did the best they could.
We aren’t “wrong,” but we are different
So my attitudes, based on growing up in the 60s and 70s, differed from those of my parents. To them, growing my hair long and wearing bell-bottom jeans, I was going down the wrong path. So we had big arguments. Looking back, I totally understand their perspective. They truly believed “pot” was the gateway to heroin and a life of ruin. At the same time my sisters and I couldn’t understand our parents smoking and drinking. None of us kids smoked and drank very little, which continues to today.
Which family did you grow up in?
Over the last 15 years, I have had many conversations with my sisters about our childhood. What’s very clear is that each of us experienced a unique family. We are the eldest, the middle, and the youngest, with each having different amounts of time with our father, mother, and stepfather. And completely different relationships with each. Each of us had our own way of functioning in the family. I learned to be a pleaser, and I over-functioned. I think I was the lucky one. Understanding all my history has brought my sisters and I closer. I can be more objective and less reactive about how they think and feel about issues.
A new perspective – No fault, no blame.
The “systems” perspective really hit me one summer afternoon years ago. I had been doing a lot of fact-gathering about my mom and dad. I realized that “wow,” they had a lot of stuff to deal with! No wonder our family was the way it was. I could either blame everyone going back several generations or blame no one. Yes, there were consequences to my parent’s actions, but I don’t “blame” them. I am not a victim. This new non-blaming perspective was good for me. But it did come with the understanding that I needed to make the best of my “hand” and work on myself. I had/have my way of functioning in relationships that I needed to work on.
It’s one thing to learn facts about the family. But this work should involve developing relationships with more family members. And those relationships should be more significant. Ideally, one develops a network of useful resources across the family. People one can talk to about various topics – work, health, finances, raising kids, old age, etc. When the families lived together, this would be an automatic thing.
Family History, Family Anxiety
If you don’t have a good understanding of your family history and aren’t well connected already, it’s because there are some “reasons” for this. I would say emotional reasons. Contacting family members and learning about history can stir things up for an individual and other family members. For many people, there is anxiety that comes up when doing this work. But that’s why this work is so useful. It’s a way to reduce the anxiety that is embedded in the system. We might think we can ignore it, but it’s there.
Dr. Bowen said, “You have inherited a lifetime of tribulation. Everybody has inherited it. Take it over, make the most of it and when you have decided you know the right way, do the best you can with it.” He also said, “which one of you dogs is gonna jump this fence?”
Thank you for your interest in family systems.
Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.
Watch this thirty-minute video on family history here.