Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 12, 2002

The dark side of motherhood

Are mothers who kill their children unnatural? Not necessarily, anthropologists and psychologists say

Kelly Patterson
The Ottawa Citizen

Reuters
Andrea Yates narrowly escaped the death penalty for drowning her five children.

It's the ones who look like the soccer mom next door who galvanize us when they kill their children -- Andrea Yates, Susan Smith and Melissa Drexler, better known as the "Prom Mom."

Their trials become international sensations, triggering a tidal wave of righteous condemnation from editorialists and igniting debate on everything from mental illness to the death penalty. But the real issue is motherhood: These women are the dark side of the modern mom, with her superhuman ethos of self-sacrifice and dedication, a cultural ideal that has been with us since Victorian times.

But does that ideal have any basis in reality? Do mothers have an innate urge to bond with their children, to nurture and protect them?

Maternal devotion is the ultimate "motherhood issue," and while left-wingers and right-wingers may haggle over whether men and women are equally able to devote themselves to their offspring, few question the assumption that all parents, and certainly women, have an innate ability to bond with their children.

But a growing number of scientists and psychologists say that, while it may be "natural" for mothers to love and care for their children, it is just as "natural," under some circumstances, for them not to.

"Mother love is not universal," medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes recently told an online forum for the American Anthropological Association. "The idealization of women as natural loving mothers is a cultural belief that gets us into trouble," she added, arguing that the myth of the "natural" mother makes us blind to that terrifying, but very real, dark side that seems to come out of the blue when cases such as Andrea Yates's hit the headlines.

In her controversial 1999 book, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy powerfully argues that there is no such thing as an all-commanding "maternal instinct," noting that "even those who accept that infanticide takes place -- among heathens, somewhere else -- are often reluctant to accept its natural occurrence among civilized people or Christian people."

Cheryl Meyer, a psychologist and author of the book Mothers Who Kill (2001), puts it bluntly: "Andrea Yates could be any mother," she told an online forum last year, arguing that, under the right conditions, parenting pressures can drive a woman -- any woman -- to kill her children. She notes that, in the course of her research, in which she and her co-authors reviewed hundreds of cases, an astonishing number of mothers came forward "with unsolicited tales of how they 'almost snapped.'

"Most mothers just seem to understand how a woman could kill her child. When we target certain cases and try to ascertain how this particular mother could have killed her child, we mask the more important question, 'Why don't more mothers do this?' "

There's a lot more ambivalence in a mother's attitude toward her children than we would like to admit, Hrdy argues, even though people cling to the "implausible" belief that "the emotional ambivalence many mothers feel about investing in infants is 'unnatural,' and hence very rare."

In fact, mothers facing famine or extreme poverty have long been known to "cull" their offspring just as many animals do, Hrdy writes. For example, research shows that nearly every woman in one Bolivian village had killed a newborn of her own during a period of extreme hardship in the 1930s. Yet many of these mothers later became devoted parents. In another village in Papua, New Guinea, 41 per cent of all live newborns between 1974 and 1978 were killed by their parents.

That is not to say these women did not feel great grief at the loss of their children. Nor is Hrdy defending infanticide as a survival strategy. She is merely pointing out that mothers who kill their young are not technically "unnatural:" In a sense, they are closer to nature than women who defy the Darwinian imperative by trying to raise several children in spite of the threat of starvation.

Like animals, humans do respond to innate maternal cues -- but only if the environment is right, she says. "Women don't instinctively love their newborns in the sense that they automatically love and nurture each infant born -- but then, neither do other mammals. All mammals have innate responses to their newborns, but their initial commitment to infants unfolds step by step ... in response to external cues," she says.

Similarly, "maternal commitment is contingent on circumstances," she believes. "When the cost of caring rises too high relative to (a mother's) circumstances, she retrenches." Factors such as economic duress and lack of social support can be powerful enough to disrupt the bonding process in any mother, she argues.

Even in the West, circumstances can sabotage that delicate process: That is why, for instance, "young maternal age is one of the most reliable predictors of whether a human mother is likely to abandon her baby. Yet the same teenager who abandons her first infant may later, when older, become the most devoted mother you will ever meet."

Courts already informally recognize the special circumstances involved in teen pregnancies. For example, Melissa Drexler, the New Jersey teen who killed her newborn baby during her high school prom in 1997, was released after serving only three years of a 15-year sentence.

But often the myth of an overriding maternal instinct blinds us to other, equally important, factors that come into play when a woman has a baby, Hrdy says: Because the idea of a mother killing her own child "is so abhorrent to us," there is a tendency "to consider her behaviour in isolation from her circumstances ... (But) when we treat infanticide as an aberration ... we are likely to obscure underlying motivations."

That is what happened in the case of Andrea Yates , the Houston mother who narrowly escaped the death penalty this March when she was sentenced for drowning her five children in the bathtub, says Meyer. Schizophrenia, postpartum depression and social isolation were critical factors in Yates's crime, but that is not why her case became such a media sensation, Meyer says: It was the depravity of her act -- the fact that a mother could commit such an "unnatural" crime -- that shocked and fascinated us.

Ironically, the myth of the "natural" mother can exacerbate the circumstances that push a woman over the brink, Meyer says.

The assumption that motherhood comes naturally means there has been little acknowledgement of the potentially catastrophic effects of syndromes such as postpartum depression, and mothers themselves are reluctant to admit to ambivalent feelings, she argues.

"It's not acceptable to tell people you're losing it. (Mothers) are afraid to say anything, to get help," Meyer observes.

"There's a collective denial even when mothers come right out and say, 'I really shouldn't be trusted with my kids,'" Scheper-Hughes says, reporting that several women in jail for attacking their children told her no one believed them when they had said they wanted to kill their children.

This conspiracy of silence, in turn, deepens a mother's sense of isolation -- arguably the most deadly enemy of the mother-child bond, according to both Meyer and Hrdy.

In a society where work and adult social outlets tend to be outside the home, stay-home motherhood can be a sentence to solitary confinement for those who lack a support network.

This is a relatively new and, for some, a tragic development, according to Michelle Oberman, co-author of Mothers Who Kill: "For the past 30 years or so, unlike any other point in human history, mothers of newborns tend to spend long hours alone with their infants, unaccompanied by family, friends and neighbours."

It is a recipe for disaster when the mother is emotionally unstable, she says: In the majority of the cases she and Meyer studied, "the (children's) deaths were at least in part the result of maternal isolation."

Hrdy says the need for solid social support is hard-wired into the human condition: "I believe humans must have evolved as co-operative breeders. A young woman without others to help provision her would never have stockpiled enough fat on her body to permit ovulation and conception in the first place."

Furthermore, raising children, who are dependent for so long that some biologists refer to them as "external fetuses," can be a crushing burden, so "maternal commitment is unusually conditional on social support."

This also explains an evolutionary mystery that has puzzled researchers for years, according to Hrdy: While maternal infanticide has long occurred among humans, it is virtually unheard-of among primates, our closest cousins in the animal world.

Young primates mature very quickly, so their mothers can raise them with little assistance. Humans, on the other hand, need to be "sensitive to how much social support they are likely to have and that explains why they are more prone to abandon babies and commit infanticide than other primates."

Of course, social pressures don't explain away the crimes of mothers who kill their children. Andrea Yates had a long history of mental illness; Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who strapped her two boys into a car and steered it into a lake, was suicidal and a victim of childhood sexual assault.

In fact, most mothers who deliberately kill their children suffer from some degree of mental illness, according to Oberman and Meyer.

However, even in madness, the social construction of motherhood casts a long shadow: Yates confessed that she had killed her children to punish herself for "not being a good mother," and to save them from the fires of hell because "my children were not righteous. I let them stumble."

The myth of "natural" motherhood may fall apart when it comes to the mentally ill, or to women facing starvation and poverty, but surely these are exceptional cases, outside the norm in the West.

Not so, says Hrdy: Even for the well-adjusted mom next door, "natural" motherhood is not as straightforward as you'd think.

Hrdy was prompted to study the question of maternal instinct after giving birth to her own daughter: "As an evolutionist I was frankly puzzled by the contradiction: If maternal emotions had evolved through natural selection, why would any mother ever want to do anything other than bear children and devote herself to raising them?"

Yet the vast majority of mothers in the West limit the number of children they have.

Pointing to the declining birth rate in countries such as Japan and the U.S., and the below-replacement rates of France and Italy, she argues that "around the world, there is a tendency for people who are better off to have a lower birth rate. This tendency is evident among peasant women in India as well as women in industrialized societies."

At first glance, such a trend would seem contrary to the laws of evolution, but Hrdy says the logic of the Darwinian calculus behind it is impeccable: Arguing that mothers "evolved not to produce as many children as they could, but to trade off quantity for quality," she says it makes sense for them to limit child-bearing "to achieve a secure status, and in that way increase the chance that at least a few offspring will survive and prosper."

But matters are not so clear-cut when it comes to the explosion of new reproductive options confronting mothers in the West today, she adds. The advent of technologies such as ultrasounds and amniocentesis, which allow us to "cull" offspring with birth defects, raises deeply unsettling questions about the nature of motherhood: "Far from simplifying motherhood, these novel choices have exposed tensions just beneath the cheery surface of our traditional assumptions about what mothers should be."

Do mothers instinctively want to raise every baby they bear? Do all women even want to be mothers? The answers to such questions once seemed obvious. Now we know they are not.

"We have become the guinea pigs in a vast social experiment," Hrdy says.

"... Bluntly put, motherhood has become a minefield."

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen