The Courage in My DNA
I grew up as an only child, born to a single mother. For most of my life, until I became a mom at 16, it was just me and my mom. She grew up in extreme poverty raised by a mother who had been raised in even more extreme poverty, and each of us had trauma passed down to us from generations and generations. Needless to say, the relationship between me and my mother has been complicated most of my life.
Like most girls, my teenage years are when I started to rebel—and I rebelled like nobody’s business. I was certain that my mother did not know anything at all and that certainty was based on the fact that she had not graduated from high school, could not spell well, and spoke Spanglish. Run-of-the-mill white supremacy impacted how I judged my own mother as “less than” all of my white friends’ mothers.
Assimilation is a real beast, and for a child who was alone in rural Texas, it was too much for me to resist.
As I grew up, I began to look down on my family. They were poor and uneducated; they didn’t read books or understand things that I did. It did not help that they all thought I believed I was too good for them (which was correct, I did think that). They also thought I was a nerd, which was also correct. They made fun of me, so I grew more and more judgmental of them.
Then I met my great-grandmother, my grandmother’s mother. And she was like me. She was sharp, spoke perfect English which she taught herself to speak, read, and write, and had nice clothes plus good manners. I wondered why she was like that when my grandmother and mother were not. It was not until I was in college in my 30’s that a Cuban history professor explained colonialism and assimilation to me that I began to figure it out.
As a young adult learning about history and going to therapy, I found it so easy to blame a lot of things on my mother. My anger and resentment towards her were at an all-time high. I would stop talking to her and say that it was because she was toxic, a word and idea that was not used as much then as it is now.
And then on an otherwise beautiful day in March of 2017 my oldest son, Anthony, died by suicide in my home. I have come to see that being a mother is a lot of beautiful and ugly sharing the same space like on the day that Anthony died.
Because it was so easy for me to blame my mother for all of my pain, I jumped right in and blamed myself for Anthony’s pain and his suicide. I couldn’t breathe from the guilt choking me. I threw a fit at the funeral home demanding to see his body before it was ready because I wanted to see with my own eyes the proof of how terrible of a mother I was. I would say, “My mom was not the worst mother; her child didn’t kill herself, but mine did.”
It took a lot of therapy for me to realize that I was not responsible for Anthony’s suicide. I was responsible for my choices, and a lot of those choices caused Anthony harm; I could own that and at the same time not own his suicide. I could own the choices I made and not take the blame for the things that happened to me. Nobody had ever made those distinctions for me before my therapist did. And in doing so, I learned to recognize those distinctions in my relationship with my own mother.
All of my kids are now adults. My youngest and I have not spoken in almost a year. My third child is living on his own and I have not seen him in months, but we do text each other regularly. And my second oldest lives with me because with his extreme anxiety and OCD, he cannot bring himself to live alone in a world he feels is on the brink of collapse. As with Anthony, a lot of my choices have caused these children harm and we are all living in that aftermath, but just like with Anthony’s suicide, I now own what is mine and I do not take ownership of their choices.
Having my own children grow up and go out into the world gives me a perspective on my mother that I never had before. What it must have been like for her when I moved away to a big city and she did not even know where I lived or how I was doing. I never called her, and now I can see how worried she must have been. I regret doing that to her.
These moments of perspective have helped me to heal a lot of the anger and bitterness that I had towards my mom. They also help me see everything she did for me. I always had food, clothes, and everything that I needed. She worked hard to make sure of that.
I can also see how my grandmothers survived hardships without the privilege of therapy or understanding of mental illness and how they figured out their way forward. I see that I have that same perseverance and resilience. I am so proud of them and myself.
All of this has given me a new look at myself and the women who made me. It has shown me what courage is and how I carry that same courage in my DNA. Understanding that I not only inherited trauma, but I also inherited strength has brought me back to myself in a way that I would never have done if I had just continued to assimilate to become someone I am not. It is my ancestors that I am healing for so that I can give my grandchildren that same healing.
They, too, have courage in their DNA.
Leticia Ochoa Adams was born and raised in rural Texas south of San Antonio and recently graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She is married to her childhood sweetheart Stacey. Leticia has four children, three stepchildren, a daughter-in-law, and two grandkids. After the suicide of her oldest son Anthony (whom she loves to tell everyone about because he was awesome), Leticia and Stacey sold their house in the suburbs and moved out to 10 acres of raw land where they plan to raise cows and plant gardens. They currently have three pit bulls and two bunnies.
Leticia’s first book is now available: Our Lady of Hot Messes: Getting Real With God in Dive Bars and Confessionals (Ave Maria Press). As a freelance writer, she has contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook (Ave Maria Press) and Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth (Sophia Press). Her work has appeared in numerous Catholic print and online publications including Our Sunday Visitor and Aleteia. Leticia is also a regular featured guest on the Jen Fulwiler Show on Sirius XM and a sought-after panelist at Catholic conferences, having most recently participated at FemCatholic and the Fall Conference at the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. Her website is leticiaoadams.com.
This week’s sponsor of Mothering Spirit is Brazos Press, publisher of Abuelita Faith by Kat Armas. In Abuelita Faith, Kat Armas, a Cuban American writer, combines personal storytelling with biblical reflection to tell the story of unnamed and overlooked theologians—mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters—whose survival, resistance, and persistence teach us the true power of faith and love. Also available in Spanish.