More than I Knew About Myself -- and Less

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Thu, 10/30/2014 - 13:30

The things we are told about ourselves and our family history shape who we are.  

Or so I believe. I wonder if that is more true of women than men, because developing a sense of fully-entitled self is a harder road for those of us who are born female. My earliest memories of having to achieve a certain level of compliance, flexibility, and self-doubt have certainly made it harder to discover who I might become or indeed even who I was in any given moment. I often wonder that more of us are not coping with issues of multiple personalities. In certain settings one behavior is acceptable, in another that behavior may be frowned upon or even condemned. I like to think that this is changing, for women, but I do not think it is changing fast enough. Boys seem to come into the world with a good deal of ready-made self-confidence and entitlement. Or is that aspect of their personalities affirmed, and encouraged to grow? What stories are they told? Maybe testosterone plays a role, I do not pretend to know. But girls? 

The questions of raising children are different now than they were when I was growing up. Today a good share of us hope to facilitate fully self-realized people, not people who are predetermined by sex to behave or grow in one way or another. But that way is hard. And politically very dangerous, apparently. Women's rights are being attacked on every level as we struggle to live full lives, achieve what we want to achieve, and still hang onto enough of ourselves to thrive. In my generation many of us had to snuff out our potential. My father told me that two years of college was enough for any woman, which shocked me to my core. So he financed one year for me, and then pulled me out of college to come home and care for my younger brothers because my mother was ill. Would he have done that to a child that was male? No. Of course not. Their education would have come first, he would have figured out a way to deal with the problems he was having at home. But I was the girl. 

The image that we form as children stays with us. What prompted me to recently have my DNA tested was a growing need to find out everything possible about my genetic makeup. I wanted confirmation about the stuff that made up the physical me. I was sure that the results would come back confirming that I had a goodly chunk of ethnic DNA from both the British Isles and Africa. You may wonder at that, given the posted picture. My paternal genetic history was always referenced proudly by my father. My mother was purely Swedish, both of her parents had come to America in the early part of the 1900's, so there was very little question in my mind about that side of my family. My father's family had come to this country from Norway, so there was that fact. But my dad's mother was English, he said. Her mother's father had come from England in the 1800's. And I have papers delineating my great-grandmother's inheritance from family in England, verifying the fowarding of items and a small amount of money that was sent to her.

My great-grandmother had also made a trip to England to visit these relatives. She insisted on travelling steerage for the experience; but I suspect she wanted to save money. Was she also on a search to know who she was? After all, the story that one of our ancestors had been the Lord Mayor of London was part of the family ancestral story. Did she come back any the wiser? She had received some nice wedding presents from family in England, and some of them I have inherited. A pewter teapot, a silver teapot lined with gold and ebony handles, and two painted milk jugs are now mine. The milk jugs were badly broken in the Northridge earthquake, but I have kept the pieces because I want to trace their origin as well.

The African ancestral story? My grandmother, a very beautiful woman, had thick, very curly black hair when she was young. Her features were distinct from anyone else in the family. This, she suspected, was from a distant French ancestor. She also told me that when she was a child she was referred to as "Hill's Black Nigger," because she had a darker complexion and all that curly black hair. So along the way the family story included the hint that there might be a "touch of the tarbrush" in our genetic makeup. I am very uncomfortable using those terms, but you need to understand this about the family story in order to understand why I was sure there would be some genetic proof to support it. And I was proud of this fact, too. I so wanted it to be true. 

The DNA results came back last week. And now I have discovered that I am 85% Scandinavian (which is not surprising given that three of my grandparents were from Scandinavia). But the rest? Western European accounts for 13% of my genetic inheritance, Ireland 2% and less than 1% Great Britain and Finland/NW Russia. It turns out that the 85% Scandinavian is slightly more than native Scandinavians, which is surprising. And that small less-than-one-percent Great Britain? The part that I have always identified and romaticized? And the missing African component? What can I make of all of this?

The stories we are told about who we are, and who we might become, are much more powerful than the actual genetic building blocks that make up our physical structure. In a strange way those stories from my dad about our supposed English history, have shaped me much more than the actual fact of my cellular inheritance. I have owned the stories much longer than I have owned the scientific information. Stories are important. Ideologies matter, because they are infused with our stories. We must be careful about those we tell, and those we try to live.

Our children are listening.