You’ve heard of the Madonna-Whore complex. Now, get ready for the Mother-Baby dichotomy. To exist in the world as a Cancer is to navigate everyone’s assumptions that you are either their caretaker or their doe-eyed little fawn. You are actually many other things: an archivist, a loon, a collector, a protector, a haunted carousel ride. But there’s probably at least a shred of truth to that other stuff if you’re always feeding people, or your ability to create cozy interior spaces is unmatched, or you actually kind of look like the puppy eyes emoji.
Cancer is the sign of cardinal water, which might at least partially account for why it has more to do with being in charge, at least on an emotional level, than it does with being resolutely “in it” (Scorpio) or carried away by it (Pisces). Cancer directs the waves to crash, and it decides how far the tide will stretch. Cancer moves the water by the gravitational impetus of its ruler, the Moon.
Yes, this means the feels can come suddenly or all at once. No one’s trying to argue that a well-timed Cancer transit won’t thoroughly initiate you (read: plunge) into a puddle of sensitivity. But it also means Cancer gets things started to some degree. The theoretical birth chart of the universe has Cancer Rising, and Cancer Season marked the annual flooding of the Nile in Egypt, which left fertile soil in its wake. Cancer is an initiator in the sense that it’s the initiator of all life. So yeah, it’s Mom.
Mostly, though, it’s the lunar aspect of Cancer that accounts for its stubborn reputation as a nurturer. As the kingdom of the Moon, Cancer is a territory marked by the topographical ridges of blankets made for swaddling. Its oceans are the homemade soup you make for a loved one when they’re sick. The astrological Moon involves the repetitive motions of caretaking, or the rhythms of feeding, that imprinted themselves on you at the very beginning of your life. By extension, it involves the type of care you continue to extend to yourself and to others.
The other big thing about the Moon is that it’s always changing. As the fastest of the seven traditional planets, the Moon cycles through a complete cycle of experience every 28 days, forming a handful of aspects on any given day. You might have heard that Cancers are moody, and this is at least somewhat theoretically supported by the fact that the weather of the Moon is like the weather in the Northeast United States. If you don’t like it, just wait 20 minutes.
Cancers are definitely pigeonholed for being overly governed by their emotions, and this makes more sense when you consider that the astrological Moon represents instinct, in the sense that it’s connected to the most lizard-brainy part of us. Sometimes, you know in your gut, or in your body, what to do better than you do in your mind. When we say that the lunar impulse is connected to intuition, this is kind of what we mean. Cancers just know. They just do.
By the way, if you’re someone with a strong Cancerian signature in your chart and you just can’t relate to all the maternal stuff, consider that you can be a custodian of memories as much as you can be a caretaker for living beings. Memories are only living beings insofar as we feed them and keep them vibrant. One of the other major significations of the Moon is that it signifies the body (and the body keeps the score!). The Moon also translates light between the various other planets it aspects, thus passing on its own version of an oral tradition. Cancer is stereotyped for its nostalgia and for its fondness of the past — perhaps even its refusal to let go of it. But Cancer also serves the very important role of remembering the things no one else can, or will.
In maintaining the historical record, Cancer maintains a more comprehensive library. This might be one of the more underappreciated aspects of Jupiter’s exaltation in Cancer. Not only does an exalted Jupiter literally put food on the table (and Cancer likes to share its bounty in one form or another), but our body of knowledge (Jupiter) is literally more complete when history is well-documented.
By the way, if you’ve ever met a Cancer, you know they’re not all soft edges and plush stuffing. Crabs have spiky shells and claws, and truly, hell has no fury like a Cancer scorned. Cancer also happens to be the only sign where both malefics (Mars and Saturn) experience a condition of debility.
As the sign of Mars’ fall and Saturn’s detriment, Cancer is the antithesis of the sort of discomfort and hardship the malefics tend to want to put us through, preferring to coddle and be coddled as well. But because planets in fall might take a scorched-earth approach rather than fade into the background, and because planets in detriment distort themselves to get by, Cancer also becomes a place where the ferocity of Mars and the coldness of Saturn become pronounced, even warped, under certain conditions.
Mama bears can be vicious, and soft people understand the importance of armor. In a slightly more practical sense, the shell is not merely the crab’s ability to create a sense of home wherever it goes. It’s also the boundaries we erect around ourselves to preserve our energy as we make our entry into the soup of life, which is frequently full of energetic content from other people that can harm us, bring us down, or just deplete us emotionally.
All of these are, of course, also necessary for creating the right internal conditions for new life to emerge, stabilize, and flourish. It’s just that occasionally, this might express itself more as “I felt your energy shift without any sort of physical or verbal input from you and I’m now in a fight with you in my own head about it,” and I think that’s beautiful.