Little Bits of My Mother and Daughters
Wendy Priesnitz - writer, editor, changemaker
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Little Bits of My Mother and Daughters

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of the lives of mothers and daughters. Ever since our daughters went their own ways 30 or so years ago, I have often felt the somewhat disconcerting sensation of there being two bits of me floating around out there somewhere distant. The feeling has intensified when they both moved half a continent away. Occasionally, these days, I feel a twinge of regret at not staying in better contact with my mother (who was close to turning 100 when she died in 2008) when we lived in far-flung places as a young family, and wonder if she ever felt this ephemeral connection with me.

There are some facts behind the floating bits sensation – and they reinforce the bond between mother and child, whether they are physically close or not. Apparently, cells can migrate from mother to fetus and remain there long after the child becomes an adult, a phenomenon that is called “microchimerism.” Lee Nelson, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is studying the effect of these cells and whether it’s good or bad. The research results are mixed so far, with some experiments suggesting that maternal cells can produce insulin when a child develops diabetes. But other research suggests that these same maternal cells can trigger autoimmune diseases. That’s of particular interest to me, since my mother had lupus and so do I.

The reverse is true too. In addition to having some of our mother’s cells in our bodies, we apparently left some of our own behind in her bloodstream when we were born. Fetal cells appear in mothers’ organs long after birth and have even been found in the bone marrow of grandmothers. These fetal cells, say some researchers, have a role in healing disease. In one experiment, fetal cells migrated from the mothers’ blood to the disease sites (including thyroid, liver, and cervix) and seemed to form healthy tissue.

So some women may have three generations of cells in their bodies – their own and some from their mother and their children. That's an explanation for my floating bits feeling. And it also provides plenty of support for my current task of trying not to feel too badly when I say something that sounds just like my mother!

Wendy Priesnitz

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