Last week I watched In Utero, a fascinating documentary screened by Suburban Sandcastles. The documentary was based on how trauma experienced by the mother whilst pregnant or prior to pregnancy can inform the foetus’ experience of life, their development and their behaviour.
I found it amazing and I have written about this before, for Sunday Life. I specifically wrote about how my experience of recurrent miscarriage prior to my oldest daughter’s birth has affected her, and her world view. If you’re interested, you can read that article here.
So this is something that I’ve had first hand experience with, so for me it was amazing to hear of the scientific research that backs this up. It was no longer just a personal experience, it is something that has been backed up by research.
Dr Gabor Mate featured heavily in the film, primarily as a specialist researcher (his area of specialisation is addiction, stress and childhood development) but also as someone with experience of the same. He was born not long after Nazi Germany occupied his home country of Hungary. When he was eight weeks old, his mother contacted her paediatrician saying that he wouldn’t stop crying, no matter what she did she couldn’t get him to stop crying.
The paediatrician’s response was “All my Jewish babies are crying.”
He explains that eight-week old babies don’t know about genocide and war but their mothers’ do; and these babies were responding to the fear that had seeped into their mothers’ psyches.
(I’d highly recommend listening to Dr Mate’s fascinating Ted Talk on Addiction and Power – you can view it on his website, through the link above.)
In Utero focused on how our experiences in utero continue to impact our entire lives, and that illness both mental and physical illness are not purely down to genetics, but history as well. Another researcher who featured in the film spoke of her experience having twins. Her maternal grandmother had two sets of twins that both died before they were 12 months old. This trauma informed her family history.
It was a trauma that was woven into the fabric of her family’s identity. When she became pregnant with twins, she was gripped with fear. Her grandmother’s trauma deeply shaped the way she interacted with her twin baby boys, to such a degree that she felt she could not bond with them, for fear of their loss.
She was dancing her family dance of loss.
A while ago I was introduced to the concept of the ‘family dance’. This construct is a way to understand how families and their stories shape the people we become, and the ways we behave. The family dance is such a powerful thing that we dance our family’s dance without ever realising it.
What I mean by this is, if your family are not overly emotional perhaps that is your default too. Or perhaps they are very emotional, or not big talkers or great communicators. The family dance refers to the patterns we see amongst our family, echoing from generation to generation.
I’m not talking about my brothers and sisters, I am talking about many generations before us. We had inherited their dance, and the expectation was that we continued with that same dance. Most of us took up the dance, some of us didn’t.
When the family dance metaphor was pointed out to me, it was at a difficult time in my life; a time of personal turmoil. So it was a helpful metaphor in understanding what was happening in my life. Through seeing the family dance, I was able to see that, for example, our family did the Foxtrot, but me, I was doing the Samba, but the Samba was not part of our family dance, and it wasn’t working.
Because even when the family dance isn’t necessarily what you would choose, if you introduce some new moves, or try to change the dance you disrupt the flow of how your family works. This dance has been informed by generations of history, of trauma, of joy, of celebration, heartbreak. And now we also know, by experiences in utero as well.
I’m not suggesting that we are mere vessels that are only made up of our external influences; I do believe that we are the agents of control in our own lives.
I believe there are ways to change your own family dance. Certainly by teaming up with another family (i.e. partner/lover/husband/wife) you can combine the best of both family dances for an entirely new family dance.
What do you think about the concept of a family dance? Do you recognise it in your own life, in your family’s history?