In last week’s post, I wrote about how maternal can play out in a marriage. There were several comments about the post on my Facebook page that let me know the piece had clearly struck a nerve. At least a couple of moms who commented on the post could relate to the experience of holding more anxiety about children than their husbands. I thought I would explore this topic a little more this week by looking at the myth of Cassandra.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a princess of Troy who caught the eye of the god Apollo. In his efforts to seduce her, Apollo offered Cassandra the gift of prophecy. When she refused his advances, he spat in her mouth and cursed her, so that no one would ever believe the things she prophesied. Cassandra was then left to live her life in an impossible double bind, wherein she knew about terrible things that were going to happen, but was dismissed or laughed at when she tried to tell others about them.
Many women in our culture have Cassandra experiences, and Jungian analyst Laurie Schapira has written a book about this. I suspect that there are few mothers who have not felt cursed in this way at least a on occasion within the context of parenting. Though there is scant empirical support for the notion of mother’s intuition, I have heard too many stories and had too many of my own experiences to discount the likelihood that mothers are able to tap into their child’s needs in a mysterious way. There is plentiful anecdotal evidence of this, including this survey.
In fact, the seemingly hysterical mother worried for her endangered child is a common trope in the horror genre. The dramatic tension is increased by the fact that others belittle the mother’s fears, but we, the audience, know that her concerns are well-founded. A well-known recent example is the character of Joyce Byers in Stranger Things, played by Winona Ryder. Throughout both seasons, we watch as Joyce correctly intuits truths about her son’s situation, while most of those around her treat her as though she is a little crazy.
In my clinical experience working with mothers, they often do accurately sense things that are wrong before their spouse. Interestingly, I have also worked with same sex couples, and with couples in which the father was in the role of primary parent. The person who seems most attuned to the children appears to be whichever parent spends the most time with them, rather than being determined by sex. In couples with more traditional gender roles, this can mean a mother who has a gnawing sense of dread or anxiety about her children, and a father who often belittles or dismisses these feelings.
One former client* whose husband was a doctor remembers when her baby was just a few months old. She told me that she somehow knew that the baby had a fever. When she and her husband took the child’s temperature, it was normal, and her husband chided her for having gotten alarmed for no reason. Within an hour, however, the infant was indeed running a fever. She recalled another time when she felt sure her toddler who had been vomiting repeatedly should go to the emergency room. Her husband was irritated about having to take the child, and told my client that he thought she was over-reacting. In fact, the hospital elected to admit the child and keep her overnight due to concerns about dehydration.
“I think he thought he would know these things better than I, because he is a physician. Now, he doesn’t even question me anymore. If I tell him something is wrong with one of the kids, he listens and does whatever I tell him, even if he thinks it’s crazy.”
Does having “mother’s intuition” mean that our fears are always founded? Do we ever get it wrong? Of course, there are times when anxiety, previous trauma, obsessive tendencies or other issues might lead us to perseverate over worries that are not in fact substantial. How is one to know the difference? Discovering this requires careful discernment, for which there is no easy formula. However, I believe it will be easier for us make these distinctions when we are supported by our partners in listening to our intuition so that we are not carrying Cassandra’s burden.
*Clinical material is always disguised or used with express permission.
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