In my own mothering experience, there have been numerous occasions when I had a strong instinct or intuition about something wrong with my child. Rarely have these intuitions misguided me, even when they seemed implausible or overwrought when they first presented themselves. In my practice working with many mothers, I see the same thing. Parents – especially mothers – usually know their child better than any teacher, doctor, or other authority figure outside the family. When our concerns are mocked or discounted, it can make it hard to trust ourselves. Yet our ability to listen to our instincts when it comes to our children is vital. When we are cut off from those instincts, one of our chief ways of protecting our children is impaired.
A Mother’s “Sixth Sense”
I worked with one mother who had a “sixth sense” that there was something off about her son’s development as a reader when he was in grade school. This woman wasn’t an educator, but she was very attuned to her child. When she met with his first grade teacher to discuss her concerns, the teacher implied that the child’s minor difficulties in mastering the material were due to behavioral problems. She recommended that my client have her son evaluated for ADHD. When my client protested that this didn’t seem to fit with what she was seeing, the teacher insinuated that she didn’t know what she was talking about. In fact, subsequent testing revealed that my client’s son was very bright, and but also dyslexic. Appropriate remediation helped him become a solid reader, and his behavior improved as he began to feel more confident and capable.
Another mother in my practice had a 12-year-old daughter named Shelley who had complex medical and psychological needs. The girl had had a history of chronic bowel problems, which meant that she missed a lot of school and had trouble participating in normal social activities. Sleepovers, for example, were not something she could ever do. Shelley was also prone to anxiety. As a small child, she had suffered from severe OCD. Now in the 7th grade, her health issues exacerbated the normal social struggles of middle school. Shelley had few friends, and often found herself skipping lunch because she had no one to eat with. My client was thrilled, therefore, when Shelley began spending time with Aydin, a transgender boy a year older than Shelley.
Within a few months of this new friendship forming, Shelley told her parents that she too was transgender. She asked for a haircut, a name and pronoun switch, and a new wardrobe. She also wanted to start binding her breasts, and be taken to see a gender therapist. My client and her husband were taken aback, since Shelley had never seemed uncomfortable before with any aspects of her gender. Nevertheless, they accommodated their child’s change in name, pronouns, hairstyle, and clothing choices. They did not agree to let her bind her breasts, as they had learned that binding could cause health problems. They did make an appointment with a local therapist who specialized in gender.
Shelley’s mom thought that the therapy would help her daughter explore her shifting identity as she entered adolescence. She hoped that a skilled therapist would be able to help her child sort out the disparate, confusing pieces of her evolving self-concept as she dealt with chronic illness, anxiety, a changing body, and social struggles. Instead, the therapist greeted Shelley and my client and immediately began speaking of the need for Shelley to start puberty blockers to halt her pubertal development. When my client expressed concern that this seemed too precipitous a course to undertake immediately, without further evaluation and exploration, the therapist chided her for being unsupportive, and encouraged her to seek her own treatment so that she could be more helpful to her “son.” She warned my client that Shelley could become suicidal if not supported in transitioning right away. In the face of an authority figure, my client doubted herself. She had known her child intimately, daily, for more than twelve years. The therapist had known Shelley only for five minutes.
These stories are examples of how well-meaning professionals can undermine parental authority, and unwittingly cause a parent to question her instincts about her own child. Those who work with children and teens need to be careful not to disrupt the connection and trust that children have for their parents, and the trust that parents have in their own instincts. Of course, there are times when parents are misguided, poorly informed, or – tragically – genuinely abusive or neglectful. But in general, we ought to assume that parents know what is best for their children. A beautiful Scottish fairy tale underscores this theme.
Our Children Need Us
The mother in “The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh” sets her baby down for a minute to fetch him some water. In that brief interval, two fairy folk come along and steal the child. Desperate to find him, she searches high and low, and asks everyone she meets. An old woman is able to tell her that her child has been stolen by the Sidh, but she encourages the mother to give up the search, since no mortal ever returns from the fairy land.
The mother begs the old woman for a spell or a curse that can bring her baby back to her, but the old woman says that she has no such magic. In fact, what the mother needs is within her all along. The wise woman instructs the mother to bring things that are “rare and wonderful” with her that she can offer to the Sidh in trade for her child. But she is poor, and does not know how she will manage to get fine things.
She uses her skill and savvy to make a white cloak out of eider down, and a harp out of the bones of animals. She strings the harp with her own golden hair. She then bravely enters the world of the Sidh. The fairies are enchanted by the “wonderful and rare” gifts she has brought with her, and they gladly trade the babe for these treasures.
In this story, the mother has very little other than her connection with her child. She isn’t rich or powerful. And it seems she won’t have the treasures necessary to rescue her child from the land of the fairies. In fact, she has exactly what her child needs. One of the beautiful details in the story is that the harp is strung with her own hair. Our children need us – in all of our individual particularity. Even though what we bring them may not be what the “experts” tell us is needed, our deep connection with our child gives rise to a profound wisdom about what he or she needs. We can usually count on this wisdom.
New research provides a lovely biological parallel to the point that I am trying to make here – that mothers usually intuitively know what their children most need. Mother’s milk changes according to the baby’s sex, age, and health, adapting itself to best meet the needs of the child. This happens, of course, without any conscious effort on the mother’s part. Our bodies just know what our children need.
As mothers, we should try to trust our deep intuitions about our children, even when others doubt us. There may be much to learn from doctors, therapists, teachers, and others who have knowledge that we don’t, and listening to such experts can be important as we discern the best way forward at a crossroads. However, the voices of experts ought never to undermine or drown out our internal voice of intuition.
Clinical vignettes have either been used with permission, or are composite cases.
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