Mothers who kill: The real story behind mothers who kill children

mothers who kill

Mothers who kill – there can be nothing that takes the media more by storm that a mother who kills her own child. As a reader – we are often shocked, our blood curdled by the thought of the act, inflamed by sensationalised reporting of such incidents. But how many of us stop to think what must have really been going on behind the scenes? In her fascinating new book, Motherhood In The Media: Infanticide, Journalism, and the Digital Age , Professor Barbara Barnett examines contemporary media stories about women who kill their children in a bid to better understand maternal violence and the factors that lead women to harm their children. I find out more here….

How is maternal violence usually depicted in the media?

Short answer: mad, bad, and sad.

In this book, I looked in-depth at news coverage of 18 specific cases of infanticide in the United States, as well as broader news coverage of infanticide in countries outside the United States, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Uganda, and India. The analysis looked at reports of infanticide that occured from the 1950s through the present day.

I’ve found from my past research that typically, the media depict infanticide in two ways — it was the act of a “bad” mother — a woman who was selfish and didn’t care about her baby, or a “mad” mother — a woman who cared so much, she was overcome by the pressure of care taking and lost her mind.

Women who were labeled as bad mothers were women who drank too much or used drugs, who weren’t married to the fathers of their babies, who showed little interest in caretaking, or who were concerned about clothes, appearance, and boyfriends. The mad mothers were often women who were married, who had been considered good caretakers at some point, but who couldn’t or wouldn’t continue to properly care for their children.

Interestingly enough, sometimes women with depression were considered bad mothers. In some cases, husbands were angry that their wives were unable to get out of bed and care for the children; in other cases, husbands and family members knew something was wrong and weren’t sure how to help. Women who had alcohol and drug problems were chastised for not being able to put their children ahead of their addictions. Women who had financial troubles and could not see a way to support themselves or their children were demonized for being poor. Teenage mothers were seen a reckless and selfish.

In this research, I found a category of “sad” mothers — women who seemed to be suffering from varying levels of depression. Sometimes this depression was linked to postpartum illness — it appeared after their babies were born. For some women, the depression appeared to precede pregnancy and continue after the child’s birth. For teen mothers, depression and denial seemed to go hand-in-hand. Some of the women who abused alcohol and drugs suffered from depression and seemed to try to self-medicate. And some women did not want to have children and felt isolated — and later desperate — as they tried to care for youngsters.

What do you think about the way most maternal violence is depicted as “one day she just snapped”?

I think there are three reasons.

One, media research has shown that journalists typically cover events, not issues. That is the nature of journalism. So, journalists enter the story when a crime (murder) has occurred, so it seems that the children’s deaths were sudden.

Two, most mothering takes place in the home and in private. If there are signs of abuse and neglect, they may not be visible to the public.

Three, there is such a strong myth about maternal perfection — that all mothers loving all the time — that sometimes blinds people, including family members, to the possibility women might be unable to properly care for their children.

So, it seems a woman who harms her child “just snapped” when there may have been indicators for a long time that she was unable to care for herself or her children.

How big a part do you think depression and mental illness has to play in these cases?

Only five of the women in this analysis entered formal insanity pleas at their trials, but one attorney called an insanity plea a “tough sell because in the United States, a person must prove she did not know right from wrong at the time of the murders. Some of the women said they did know murder was wrong but couldn’t control their actions. Certainly, mental illness is not the cause of every child murder, but it did did seem to be an issue in many of the cases for this book. Two of the women in this analysis were Maggie Young, who killed her her five children in the 1960s, and Andrea Yates, who killed her five children in the early 2000s, heard voices and had hallucinations, indicating postpartum psychosis.

Julie Schenecker, who shot her two children, was taking (and abusing) medications for depression. Sonia Hermosillo, who tossed her baby off a parking deck, was being treated for postpartum depression. Khoua Her, who murdered her six children has been married at 13 and a mother at 14. She and her husband had a violent history. She told lawyers that she was “suicidal” when she and her husband divorced because she was afraid she would not be able to take care of her children.

Two women — Susan Smith and Socorro Caro — had been rejected by a boyfriend/husband, and seemed to be unable to cope. Some of the women in the analysis — Susan Smith, Michelle Kehoe who murdered her two children, and Diane Downs, who murdered two of her three children, had been sexually abused as children. Khoua Her, who killed six children, One teen, Melissa Drexler, denied she was pregnant until she gave birth in a bathroom. Marie Noe and Mary Beth Tinning murdered their children over a period of years, seeming to enjoy the public sympathy. Clearly, none of these women were functioning well at the times of their children’s deaths.

What is especially troubling is that even among women who were diagnosed with depression or some form of postpartum illness, they did not always receive the care they needed. Their illnesses went untreated, sometimes unrecognized and mistaken for laziness, incompetence as a mom, surliness, or deviance (bad mom).

What do you think we need to do/needs to happen to better understand the causes of maternal violence?

One thing is that society can have a more realistic view of motherhood. Yes, motherhood can be a wonderful experience, but caretaking can be a stressful experience, even when motherhood is wanted. An important first step is to recognize mothering for the hard work it is. And motherhood is often presented as “the answer” — for an empty life, a failing marriage, low self-esteem, loneliness. As a society, we need to help women understand they have value as individuals, not just in their roles as mothers. We need to help women understand that if they love themselves, loving a child will be a little easier.

Second, pregnant women and family members should be informed about postpartum illness during pregnancy checkups. This book suggested a checklist of risk factors that might put a woman in danger of harming her children. These are:
— Young age (teens)
— Unwanted pregnancy
— Depression or other types of mental health problems before pregnancy
— Depression of mental health problems that develop during or after pregnancy
— Lack of partner support
— A troubled relationship with a partner, particularly if the relationship includes violence
— Financial problems
— Sexual abuse or assault
— Previous violent behavior with other children
— The mother’s inability to establish a bond with the baby.
— Self-harm, including suicide attempts
— Drug and alcohol abuse

Providing a self-administered checklist to pregnant women, new mothers, and family members might be a way to create awareness of risk factors and possibly reduce incidence of maternal violence.

Third, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale was developed to gauge postnatal mood changes. It’s a 10-question survey, which includes inquiries about sleep and anxiety, that typically is administered the first week after pregnancy. This should be expanded to the first year after pregnancy, since some symptoms do not develop right away, and should be expanded to include questions such as: Are you afraid something or someone might harm your baby? Are you afraid you might hurt your baby? Do you sometimes feel having a baby was a mistake? You are taking care of the baby, but who is taking care of you.

Finally, there need to be formal support systems for new mothers. Women who live away from friends or extended family may feel alone. Doctors offices, the media, churches, workplaces should make information available.

Do you think maternal violence should be considered a public health problem?

Definitely. Right now, maternal violence is presented as something only the most deviant woman would do. It’s viewed as the result of an individual’s poor choices. Shifting the focus to prevention, rather than retribution after the fact, would be a better strategy.

What part do you think these instances have to play in shattering the myth of the wonderful every day of motherhood?

Stories about mothers who kill their children are hard to read. I had nightmares when I was writing this book. It’s even harder still for a woman to come to terms with thoughts of hurting her children or hating her children. Even women who have fleeting thoughts of simply not liking their children for an instant feel tremendous guilt. Journalists who covered these stories said they typically covered infanticides as isolated killings, and many of these journalists were reporters who covered the police, crime, or courts beats. When the woman’s trial was over, the story ended for them. And some who said they tried to report on the circumstances that led the woman to harm her children were castigated by the public for being too sympathetic to criminals.

This book also analyzed motherhood blogs and found that the blogs offer a more realistic picture of motherhood —the ups and downs, the joys and frustrations. Bloggers talked about the love they had for their children but some noted that there were problems that sometimes clouded their judgment and made them question their abilities as mothers. Some bloggers talked about their struggles with depression and how that affected their children and their views of parenting. They also talked about ways they sought help, what worked, and what didn’t.

News stories focused narrowly on a crime committed by mothers. Blogs, however, look at motherhood from the inside out. Blogs talked about isolation, despair, ecstasy, pride. Blogs offered a realistic view of the joys and stresses of motherhood than did news stories. Blogs are a long-term dialogue with readers where authors and readers felt an ability to share and disclose intimate feelings. Blogs also offered a chance for women to feel less isolated, to develop cyber support systems. Journalism and blogs have different goals (to report a crime story, to tell a life story). Blogs offer a way to better understand maternal stress and the situations that lead to maternal violence.

In an ideal world, how would you like to see maternal violence depicted in the media going forward?

As noted above, blogs offer a pretty realistic view of motherhood. Social media offers a way for women to interact with each other, to seek help, to offer advice, to build networks. This seems to me to be an ideal way to start a conversation about preventing maternal violence. With traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers), sources for stories were largely police and attorneys. Journalists might consider expanding their source lists to include mental health professionals, and they might also determine whether there are resources in their local communities to help women who cannot or do not mother well. Are there mental health clinics, hotlines, mothers-morning-out programs? Are there physicians or counselors who can provide help and advice (assuming a woman has health insurance and can pay for help).

Anything else you would like to add?

So many media images of mothers are sugar-coated. Women measure themselves against an ideal imaginary mother — a super mom — who gives birth, returns quickly to work, loses all the baby weight in weeks, goes to the gym, fixes home-made organic meals, and still remains sexy. Motherhood should not be a competition in which the busiest, most together mom wins. Instead, there should be a recognition that care of children is hard work. Mothers are supposed to take care of everyone, but often no one takes care of mothers. Women should be able to ask for help without being seen as lazy or deviant. Family members should watch for warning signs of depression, hopelessness, despair, especially after childbirth. Women can help each other by creating caring networks, including cyber networks, and can share resources and advice for women who are not coping well. Motherhood needs to be seen in society as part of a woman’s life, not the culmination of it.

***Motherhood in the Media: Infanticide, Journalism, and the Digital Age is available to buy on Amazon here.***

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