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A Genealogy of Strong Dysfunctional Women

by Mary Ellen Collins

Dysfunction is rooted in generations. Seldom does dysfunction begin in the present but we can trace it in our history. I come from a long line of strong women—dysfunctional, enabling, but strong women. Women who have pushed through their pasts and have created a future. The kind of future they created is left to the judger.

All the women on my father’s side were motherless at a young age. Each became an adult craving love from anyone who might love them back. Every one of them sacrificed for and enabled the one they chose to be with.

My great-grandmother, Anna Elizabeth, was the product of an illicit love affair with a prominent man and an unknown woman. Her birth certificate reveals that her mother died young, leaving her young daughter to navigate life. Anna Elizabeth was raised by two loving people. They were always referred to as Grandma and Grandpa McGuinn. Only later in my life, did I discover they were not blood relatives. A childless couple who embraced a little girl. I do not know the story but I want to believe they did this out of love.

Anna Elizabeth married, had a child—my grandmother—and died when my grandmother was only three years old. Grandma and Grandpa McGuinn then raised my grandmother as well. Losing her mother at so young an age left my grandmother yearning for love throughout her life.

Did my grandmother learn her dysfunction while trying to fit in and be loved? This could explain why she fell for and married a man who would continue his life of infidelity and alcohol abuse. My grandmother didn’t find the secure love she craved, yet she was strong enough to live to a ripe old age.

I did not know any of this until I became an adult. I only knew Grandma as a kind, loving woman. She moved in with my brother and me, after our mother died, when he was 17 and I was 15. Only a strong woman could take up residence with two orphaned teenage grandchildren. Hard to believe how courageous this woman was.

That leads me to the next strong woman in my story, my mother. I can only remember her as a loving woman who had the determination and will to tackle just about anything. I get those characteristics from her.

She had said her own mother never held or loved her. That alone would leave a hole in anyone’s heart. The disfiguring disease of polio left her with a limp. She also chose a man, my father, who was unfaithful and abused alcohol. I wonder why? This capable woman chose a man whom she enabled throughout their marriage.

I made the same mistake. Once. I learned. When I was 22, I chose a man who, like my father and his father, were womanizers and alcoholics. I enabled him to continue his behavior. I thought I was different but I was not.

I can still remember the day when he confronted me with the so-called news of his affair. I heard my deceased mother’s voice, “Let him go. Tell him to leave. You do not need him. Do not make the same mistake I did.”

I broke the genealogy of enabling dysfunctional behaviors. I remarried. I chose a partner who is also strong. I found my soulmate. I am still a strong woman. I am still a motherless daughter. As a mother, I pray I have not passed this characteristic on to my daughter.

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