I’ve always been fascinated by mothers who kill. I don’t feel this is necessarily connected to my own mother’s bouts of rage against my existence, which she viewed as a “curse” on her. I was never afraid she would harm me. At least, not until I was in my thirties.
The first case I remember hearing about was a distraught Japanese mother who had walked into the ocean with her young child. The child drowned and the mother survived. She was defended in court by a lawyer who explained that the Japanese culture requires a suicidal mother to take her children with her into death. It is considered an act of love and mercy to spare the abandoned child a life of grief. At the time, I identified with the mother. Perhaps it was just easier than identifying with the child.
Later, Susan Smith drove her two sons into a river and blamed a car-thief. Watching her describe the incident on TV, I felt a chill. I knew she was lying, as did all my friends who were mothers. Still, I didn’t really hold it against her. It was the blatant lie that I found disgusting.
Still later, Andrea Yates. Now there’s a mother who killed. The mind can not comprehend the scope and duration of such madness. The sheer work involved in killing so many children! Her crime was hard to think about but impossible to cast aside. Details of her life and marriage started to emerge. Her husband knew she was nuts but didn’t see a reason to stop impregnating her. He took up some dubious form of Christianity which necessitated moving his psychotic wife and brood of young children into a van. He left every day to go to his respectable job somewhere, while Andrea Yates sunk deeper into depression. After the trial, I saw a home movie of Andrea sitting in the van, seemingly catatonic while children literally climbed over her, like cockroaches. Of course she had to kill them! I thought, shaken by the images. Who wouldn’t?
Recently, I read that a pair of toddler siblings had wandered away from their home and drowned in a nearby pond. The mother claimed that she only turned her back on them for a moment. Both of the children required special medical care on a daily basis. The mother found time to tie a shiny red ribbon in her hair for a press conference. Note to police: She did it.
Still more recently, a thirty-four year old woman has confessed to killing her two children while her husband was at work. The children were reported to have been stabbed up to 200 times, each. This mother really meant to kill her children; that much is obvious.
What doesn’t appear to seem obvious to our society is that these women are not really so unusual. What sets them apart is that they crossed a thin line, one that separates thought from deed, impulse from act; and it’s a line most mothers tread more often than anyone wants to admit.
Mothers with colicky babies who seem to never stop crying, mothers with tantrum-throwing toddlers, mothers with chronically sick or destructive or oppositional kids, mothers often isolated all day from reasonable human beings (i.e. adults), mothers of every race and social strata and age group who have no-one to whom to confide the unspeakable words: I HATE HIM! For every blinding moment of hatred, there may be hours and weeks and years of the deepest sort of love, but those moments are real. You don’t mean that, a husband will reassure the wife who slips up and voices her feeling. But we do. We all hate our kids at times, and we are able to transcend those emotions in order to ensure the survival of our species. We regain our maternal footing and then feel guilty for harboring a single dark thought about our precious angels. Until the next time they keep us awake all night or carve a tick-tack-toe grid on an antique dresser.
Lately, if you are attentive to news reports, you may perceive a trend in mothers who kill. The acts seem unduly savage, like the woman who hacked off her baby’s arms and let it bleed to death while she waited for the cops to arrive. A woman down south has just been arrested for chopping off her daughter’s head with a hedge clipper. In Australia, a woman’s diary has revealed a long history of smothering her babies. Are they monsters or women without resources, like social services and supportive relatives? Is a species that strands women alone with children in a pressure cooker of poverty, fatigue, worry, loneliness, high fructose corn syrup and daytime TV, beginning its journey to extinction?
A new mother who hears her infant’s cry will often start to lactate. The cry affects her pituitary system, providing a biological reminder so the baby won’t starve. But that same system functions also to make the cry literally unbearable. A father or neighbor may tune it out; the mother’s entire being resonates to the sound. When it goes on too long, or too often, she is agitated. According to U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, homicide is the leading cause of injury deaths among infants under one year of age in the United States. In Australia, more infants under the age of one year are murdered than die in car accidents, accidental poisonings, falls or drowning. Oops. Maybe nature went overboard in calibrating this mechanism.
Studies show that the biological role of friendships between women includes the reduction of stress hormones, decreased risk of dementia, a stronger immune system, and many other benefits. Do our friendships help us resist the urge to kill our kids? I’d like to see some research in this area. Did Andrea Yates have a best friend? Somehow, I doubt it. I know that if she’d called me, I would’ve told her years ago to leave that bastard or at least get her tubes tied. Would you bet that any of those notorious mothers had recently enjoyed a nice frappuccino with her girlfriends?
When I was a young mother, I was unprepared for the endless demands of a baby. I rarely got more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep. I began to feel like a zombie. If I went out to a restaurant, my baby woke up in my lap just as my food arrived. I began to resent my husband’s freedom to relax, eat, or leave the house alone. Sometimes, when only motion would lull my son to sleep, I would push his pram back and forth in the hallway until he drifted off. Once, after an eternity of pushing the pram with no effect on the volume of his rhythmic screaming, I pushed hard enough to see his little body flop up and down, like a rag doll. It was mean, I knew, but satisfying.
Don’t get excited! I never did it again. I just remember the feeling of mania born of exhaustion. I learned that when I felt desperate, I could call my older sister, a seasoned mother of two who had seen it all. “Don’t worry” she would intone calmly, “Of course you hate him.” Hearing the inhuman screaming over the phone, she would even sound impressed. “Wow, that’s really awful! You poor thing.”
I won’t claim that my first born owes his life to my sister, but I do wonder why mothers are expected to cope with so much stress and sleep deprivation, and so little practical and emotional preparation for what motherhood involves. My son grew into an unusually sweet and even compliant child. I was very lucky in that respect. I don’t think he defied a parental command until he was fourteen or fifteen. By then, a woman rarely entertains fantasies of killing her kid; by then, he is more likely to kill her. I heard a novelist say wistfully of parenthood that you spend years pouring everything you have into your child. All your love, patience, tenderness, time, wisdom and money. And if you do it right, he’ll grow up and leave you.
My son grew up and left home. But before he went off to college, I was a new mother once again, with a baby boy who arrived two months early. He was tiny and precious and when I was finally allowed to bring him home from the hospital, he cried continuously. He cried for forty days and forty nights, and then he cried some more. Sometimes, at dawn, I would turn to his weary dad and sob, “What’s the point of him?” I honestly couldn’t remember. At various times throughout his infancy, I rejoiced in the miracle of his survival, or considered him a pitiless human siren designed to shatter my sanity.
Today, my youngest son is twelve years old. When I’m out in a shopping mall and I hear a baby’s relentless screaming, I feel the mother’s pain. A bundle of joy begets a bundle of frayed nerves, at the very least. Every mother is both Mrs. Cleaver and Medea. Our impulse to protect, under a certain set of circumstances, can give way to an impulse to destroy. As my boy enters adolescence, the form of autism he was born with can produce tantrums of such magnitude that we’ve had to call 911 for help. Like electrical storms, his tantrums terrify the dog and rattle the windows, plunging the household into chaos. My friends ask me how I can stand it. I shrug and answer that I don’t have a choice.
My mother’s rage when I was growing up was so constant that it just seemed normal. I vowed to do better when I had kids of my own. At some point, during the last decade of her life, she turned her wrath on me with a single-mindedness that I found truly alarming. What if she managed to get a gun? I blocked her phone number, so she called me from payphones. She issued weird demands in the voice of a wicked witch. Eventually, she lost interest or just wanted to make peace. Before she died, I forgave her for everything, of course. She did the best she could as a divorced mother of two young children, in an era when a “divorcee” was shunned as a threat to all decent women.
Tonight, my child and I sit in separate rooms at our computers. The atmosphere is pleasant and harmonious. A few days ago, a woman in Chicago was arrested for strangling her four year old son with a bed-sheet after he disobeyed her command to stay inside the house while she went to the laundromat. After she killed him, she reportedly went back to finish the laundry.