Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma: Q&A with Sandra Smith

Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma: Q&A with Sandra Smith

Womankind crossed paths with Sandra Smith in the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived in New York City. At the time, personal protective equipment, especially masks, was extremely difficult to come by. Sandra Smith, the Principal and Lead Designer of her eponymous online shop and a Queens native, donated dozens of colorful, handmade masks to residents living at our emergency homes, Peace House and Rose House. As a survivor herself, she wanted to send a message to them that they were not alone during those harrowing times.

This Women's History Month, Womankind is honored to share two inspirational stories of two women building a path to healing from intergenerational trauma: Sandra and her mother, Susan. Read about Sandra's maternal family immigrating to New York from Taiwan, finding the courage to leave abusive relationships, and ultimately, breaking the cycle of violence for her daughters.

1. How did your business, Shop Sandra Smith, start? How does it continue to grow from a skill you taught yourself to what it is today?

Gender-based violence is an intergenerational wound in my family. Growing up, I listened to recounted stories of the psychological and physical abuse endured by the women in my family decades before I was born. Then I witnessed it in real-time. Then I experienced it firsthand. There is an overwhelming burden of shame that we were taught to carry with these experiences, to keep the trauma buried. Speaking about it to anyone outside of our home meant a betrayal of our family, a conditioning that I brought with me into my marriage.

Although I graduated from high school with honors and secured numerous scholarships, college became a distant dream once I turned eighteen. I left home, married, and became a stay-at-home mother to my three young daughters, diligently raising them as best I could.

In that time, I learned to sew as a creative outlet, watching YouTube videos and staying up late nights creating products from new patterns. I started selling finished products to compensate for my spending on textiles and notions. Contributing income to the household boosted my confidence. To add to the fold, the feedback I received made it clear to me that people genuinely enjoyed gifting something thoughtfully designed and created especially for the recipient – something I had made with my own hands.

The circular process of receiving a custom request, creating it, photographing, packaging, shipping it, receiving positive feedback, and using the photos taken to acquire more orders became a deeply cathartic and validating experience for me. I was designing products with the purpose of building meaningful connections between people. I loved being part of that. I later understood these feelings reflected my own desire for connection and self-worth at a time when I felt very little of either.

I had spent years continuously setting aside my growth and dignity for what I thought was for the greater good of my family. In reality, I was stuck in a cycle of abuse. Luckily, I found spaces where I could step out of the inexplicable isolation that I had felt long enough to form meaningful friendships with fellow moms, teachers, pastors, and neighbors in my community. They had the wisdom and awareness to notice that I was in an abusive relationship and challenged it with clarity. Within a year, their friendship and empathy empowered me to break my silence.

One day, a friend noticed a fading bruise on my jawline and challenged me to consider what my daughters were learning by witnessing me endure this abuse. She pointed to the power I had to redefine my daughters’ futures by not tolerating it.

So, I quietly educated myself. In between custom orders, breastfeeding, homework, dinners, and baths, I read about physical abuse, psychological abuse, narcissistic abuse, and tactics that these kinds of perpetrators use to keep their victims off balance – tactics such as love-bombing, pathological lying, coercive control, isolation, projection, and gaslighting. Most importantly, I read–over and over again–that, unless the abuser genuinely wants to change, the abuse will only continue to worsen. And so, I made the decision to leave. Within a few months, I accumulated enough savings from my business and filed an order of protection.

It took years of determination and consistency to carve a new path for myself and my daughters. I would not be where I am today if not for the support of my mother, my family, and the community of women and men for convincing me that we are worthy of a safe and dignified life.

This is why I partner with nonprofits like Womankind–because their work emulates that of a community I am familiar with; one that empowers survivors with an abundance of resources and steady support to guide them along their journey. Their work is crucial for any woman looking to regain her autonomy. The right support can completely change the trajectory of her life–and the lives of those around her–for the better. It is important to me to be an asset for women in that process, even if it’s just a small, physical reminder in the form of a zippered bag.

2. This Women’s History Month at Womankind, we celebrate and honor our strong lineage of survivors across generations. Please share about the incredible women in your family.

When I think about survivorship and an indomitable will, I think of my mother. She is an incredible and unapologetic survivor, continuously doing what she can with what she has to improve the trajectory of her life and the lives of those around her.

She was born in Taiwan as the eldest of four children. She told me she was often shamed and beaten by her father for being a firstborn and a girl. She migrated to Elmhurst, NY, with her family at twelve years old, not knowing how to speak English. She grew up witnessing my grandmother tolerate every strike, every insult with submission. A star student and an accomplished gymnast, she met my father at sixteen and ran away from home to avoid the berating and physical assaults to her pregnant belly. At twenty years old, I was born; her third child and first daughter. My mother went on to have eleven more children with my father, for a total of fourteen biological children. We had a volatile upbringing, to say the least.

I was 23 years old, married, and pregnant with my second daughter when my mother called to tell me that, after twenty-seven years, she was ready to leave my father. I didn’t know it then, but hearing her say then act on her words planted a seed within me.

The years of new traumas and atrocities that ensued as my mother fought tirelessly for freedom and peace for herself and the nine of my siblings who were still under her care merits a published memoir - hopefully, sometime in the near future. After she was awarded sole custody, she spent even more years doing her best to provide a stable life for them. A lifetime of abuse is incredibly hard to overcome, but my mother conquered seemingly one insurmountable hurdle after another, and she continues to do so to this day with the continued support of my now stepfather.

Even more impressive: eight years after leaving her abuser, my mother, who had forfeited her senior year in high school to raise her firstborn son at seventeen years old, had earned her associate degree, graduating with honors. Another seed planted within me.

She went on to earn her second degree with honors just three years later: a bachelor’s in Chinese. Yet another seed planted.

Watered by my community, the seeds that accumulated within me from watching her succeed began to sprout. Five years after my mother left her abuser, I left mine. Two years after she earned her associate’s, I earned mine with honors. Now, I am currently scheduled to graduate with honors this May with my bachelor’s in entrepreneurship. I also founded another startup.

As my mother prepares for her next endeavor – passing the Law School Admission Test (LSATs) – I suddenly feel inspired to pursue my master’s.

Watching the women in our lives succeed impacts us and how we view ourselves, especially knowing how much they have endured and sacrificed to get us to where we are today. Witnessing my mother persevere and heal helped to heal parts of me I didn’t know were wounded. The strength she had to break the cycle has paved the way for the rest of the women in my family to continue thriving.

3. How did you find Womankind? How did you get involved with Womankind?

I founded a business of making personalized bags with meaningful secret messages, a business that grew from a meaningful hobby. I knew I wanted to use what I learned about empowerment and autonomy to help empower other women, and it was important to me that I make that impact on an intimate scale, beyond donating monetarily.

Searching for domestic violence nonprofits within my hometown of Queens, I discovered Womankind and the important work they do for survivors, particularly offering life-changing resources and temporary housing. While brainstorming ways to support them through my business, I thought about how my office space is littered with inspirational quotes and messages on sticky notes, and it made sense to share with others the same motivation I feel when I look at those affirmations.

Announcement from Womankind!

We are thrilled to announce a special partnership for 2024, in which Shop Sandra Smith will donate at least 20 handmade pouches quarterly to Womankind to be used in the welcome kits for new residents moving into our homes. Residents appreciated the kind touch and the utility of a pouch with an empowering message inside to store small items, especially in the midst of a move. We are beyond grateful that after all these years, Sandra continues to make a positive impact on survivors in the Womankind community, one handmade item at a time.

All photos in this post are courtesy of Sandra Smith.