Mothers who kill their own children.

I suppose on the surface this hasn’t much to do with home education but it has a great deal to do with family life.

Dario Maestripieri’s research into primate maternal behaviour has raised some interesting ideas about stress and maternal behaviour in humans. THIS ARTICLE in the Scientific American begins with the story of a mother killing her baby in 1911. No one can honestly say they know why Mary Stastch killed her baby but her circumstances were appalling and grossly unnatural. One thing in the story that seemed to me to shout from the page was the complete loneliness of this young mother; no family and no father of the baby.

I have come across a very few women who have been seriously tempted to kill, and in a couple of cases attempted to kill their children. My experience with these mothers, corresponds to the view that under terrible stress they feel that killing the child or children (usually with suicide for themselves) is a protective measure against a fate worse than death. One case I worked with was somewhat different in that the mother already thought her baby was dead and her behaviour was dangerous as a result. She had puerperal psychosis so that’s a somewhat different situation.

Harlow and Harlow’s work from the 1960’s which is mentioned in the comments of the article showed that monkey’s who had been isolated became bad mothers. I remember this research when I was training back in the 1980’s. It is also something that Monkey World in Dorset have come across with their rescued primates.

However, I do think it’s a leap to suggest that the stresses on macaque monkey mother’s can be considered similar to human mothers. Human society is not ordered the way primate society is where lower ranking females have to live in fear of higher ranking males and females in their group. Maestripieri suggests that mother’s in areas of America who are “lower ranking” because of their poverty, and who live nearer higher ranking families who are wealthy are more likely to kill their children. I am not sure what the stats are on that. I have to say my own experience with mother’s who wanted to or attempted to kill their own children,  poverty was not the issue as one or two were wealthy, but their actual and perceived powerlessness coupled with severe stress and mental illness led them to make decisions about their children they would never have otherwise made. All of the mother’s (apart from the one with PP) had chaotic and even abusive family situations. Dad was either absent or a threat in some way.

Completely anecdotally in my experience more children were girls. I wonder if this added to the sense of vulnerability in the mothers.

Isolation of mothers seems to be a major cause of stress and post natal depression. It is truly sad that so many young families have to struggle without the support of extended family or community. Mother’s become exhausted and are frequently trying to discover how to be a mother because they have never learned in their own family. Far too many first time mothers find themselves with a baby having never had experience of a baby in any other setting before. I also wonder if the lack of close family cohesion leads too many girls to get pregnant with the wrong man and find themselves either alone as a parent or with another man who doesn’t want the other man’s child around.

The other factor is that so many first time mothers have never even held a baby before, much less taken care of one. That isn’t how we were designed either.

The other thing to consider in human behaviour which cannot be considered in monkeys is the fact that some people choose (we have Free Will) to do evil things for selfish reasons. Not all women who kill their children are desperate or mentally ill after all. Conversely many mothers with severe mental illness and stress filled lives are not even tempted to harm their children.

Human beings are designed (I believe) to live in communities with family working together to care for children, the sick and the elderly frail. Take away the moral base of the Golden Rule and add massive stress – which will follow once the Golden Rule is ditched anyway- and you have chaos, abuse and finally dead children.

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2 responses to “Mothers who kill their own children.

  1. Good post. I would have to agree with you about poverty… If poverty was a main motivator in mothers killing their children, then almost none of us would be here… as most families around the world have someone in their family line who has lived in “poverty”… At the moment I think we are considered living below “the poverty line” in our home, and my children are certainly in no danger – but we also have a very cohesive extended family (we’re living with them now!) – and we are very connected to our Church Family. I think isolation will aggravate any stressful situation – human beings are not designed to live in isolation… Afterall, the first thing that God declared “not good” was the fact that man was alone… Without a community and moral compass… well, humans no longer behave humanely.

  2. Once again, a thoughtful and interesting post. I love the way you’ve made your page snow.

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