Mothers Who Kill

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 blatantness of her 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.

This entry was posted in Horrible Stuff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Mothers Who Kill

  1. Dick Cheney says:

    Dearest nigress,
    I know our relationship is still in the pupa phase of its metamorphosis, but i must say that i would be deeply moved (intestinally) if you would bear my spawn. Literally. So, if indeed you are interested in agitating a mutant under-fed kodiak from the outer rim of Alaska in hopes that it will maul the living fuck out of our children, we need to get to work.

    With utmost respect and lust,


  2. Elena says:

    probably the best treatise i’ve read on the issue

  3. howard weiner says:

    Dear Max’s Mom,
    sometimes your son’s room mate finds out things he
    never should…
    With affection.

  4. hammie says:

    This is a chilling read. And a subject I never like to think about let alone hear about. Seriously. I shy away completely from any kind of domestic abuse or murder, or even an abduction story. There is enough sadness in the world.

    But I get where you are coming from. The woman who kills doesnt sneak off from a coffee morning or brunch with her sister to do it. The killer is socially isolated.And no one kills first time. The behaviour would have begun with abuse, which steadily gets worse; but there is no one there to judge her for this and she can disassociate herself from it. No one is watching out for these Mothers, whether it be state or community and obviously not family.

    I guess all we can do is recognise our own darkness, as you have done. And look for the pressure outlet when it gets too much. Put pride aside. Ring someone. Demand they help you. Don’t be ashamed of having done it when you do cool down.

    We also have a responsibility to be the one who tells. We have a commercial in Ireland warning people what to do when they smell gas: “Call this number, don’t assume someone else will”
    That has to be the case when you see a kid locked in a car, while Mum “just runs in to collect a few things” or when you see a kid being dragged through a shopping centre, by older kids, or when you see an old guy taking pictures at the swimming pool, and he doesnt have any kids.

    And we have a responsibility to reach out, to make the connections, to not allow someone to be socially isolated and “un-judged”. Look out for signs of neglect. If you don’t like the person you can call the services and ask them to call in on them. Do it. Don’t be watching them on the news one day and think “What if?”

    A shocking post Sister Wolf. But a story that needs to be told I guess.

  5. Jenny Dunville says:

    “Until the next time they keep us awake all night or carve a tick-tack-toe grid on an antique dresser.”

    I love this sentence. Only a parent could write it and we all have kids who’ve done both. Great essay SW.

  6. Jessica says:

    Wow. What an interesting read. So honest and so true. Thank you.

  7. TheShoeGirl says:

    I mean…. seriously great post but holy shit.

  8. dexter vandango says:

    Very deep and very honest and very beautiful.

  9. I keep riding the line between “I see where those women were coming from” and “holy shit I don’t want to see where these women are coming from!” At any rate, it further cements my feeling that I don’t want to be a mother. My temper is already murderous and I have zero patience with obnoxious, loud people. Also known as children.

  10. Eliza says:

    I felt so bad for Andrea Yates. Her husband condemned her to motherhood because women have no other use in Quiverfull, and the public condemned her for the same thing because they’re too stupid to blame religion.

  11. Kitty says:

    All true. That’s the horrible thing, no one wants to read it, but it’s all true and there – right in front of our faces yet no one wants to see it.

    I don’t know a single mother who hasn’t “been there”. I appreciate your honesty.

  12. Jules says:

    wow. you are an amazing writer. that really hit home in more ways than one. i never quite realized how thin the line is until i had children. it amazes me that we don’t hear about mothers who kill more often. i’m also amazed that i managed to survive my crazy mom, also a divorced mother of two. she did a pretty good job of raising us though. thanks for the thought provoker

  13. d says:

    But I mean, do you think mothers have a right to kill their kids if they want to?

    I’m not saying they do, at all, just something I thought of the other day.

    And yeah, great post.

  14. Ginger says:

    My mother has borderline personality disorder, I was painted black growing up so can totally relate. I’m at the point in my life where I’m thinking about having kids but it’s hard coming from a legacy of child abuse and neglect.

    The thing I find odd now is that my eldest brother (her golden child and perfect son) is now the person I relate the most to. On the extremes (perfection and the devil), she was impossible to please/live with.

    (I wish more people talked about their families of origin)

  15. RedHeadFashionista says:

    Amazingly brutal yet some really interesting stuff. I find it hard enough to handle disobedient or sickly pets so I have no idea how I’m going to handle a crying child. Thankfully I’m 22 and modern medicine is a wonderful thing, so I am safe for now.

  16. Bronwen says:

    I found this really interesting, it’s something i’ve never really thought about. I usually just think “oh, that poor child” and move on.
    In the wild, when animal mothers have too many children she will kill one or two, when one is born weak and unlikely to survive, she will either kill it or leave it to die. But humanity is obsessed with saving every single life, and of course in some ways this is a good thing, we have so many interesting amazing people that would otherwise be dead, but we still have those instincts like the wild mothers, because we are also animals. I forget to sympathise with the mothers, who I suppose are victims of society.

  17. kburg says:

    The best advise I ever got from a mom, ‘put the baby down when he/she is crying, especially if it’s making you mad, and relax for 5 minutes, the baby will be fine,’ and he was and I love him more than anything still!!!

  18. Nancy Smith says:

    Excellent article on a subject of long-time interest to me: In student housing, many years ago, we lived next door to a nurse with an infant son. She routinely gave her son a reddening blow on the buttox when he cried and couldn’t be satisfied. She explained to me, without apology, that it induced apathy which led to sleep. A good idea? When he was 10 he fell down the cellar steps and impaled himself on a spike which went in under one arm and came out at the opposite shoulder. They medevaced him to the nearest trauma center. His life was saved but he was left with severe disabilities which sentenced my nurse friend to care for him for the rest of her life. Synchronicity anyone? I am so thankful for the current, improved state of birth control though it seems that, like many other industrial countries, we may have to pay intelligent women to bear (interesting word that) children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *