Compassion for moms who kill their children

When we think of those who harm children, we usually think of men. Child molesters of various stripes are overwhelmingly male.

Some of the hardest news stories to understand are those in which mothers kill their own children, or otherwise abuse them.

In our culture and in most cultures, we think of the females as being most protective of children. This is understood even into the animal world where mothers give their lives for their offspring.

While walking local trails in springtime, when female deer are accompanied by their fawns, I’ve often seen a doe make noise, trampling leaves, to divert my attention from her newborns grazing nearby. They seem to fear harm to their offspring more than they fear harm to themselves.

Locally there is an endangered species called the least tern. They nest on beach sand, making them and offspring vulnerable to being eaten by the likes of stray cats or birds of prey. If I walk too near one of their nests, they swoop down from the sky at me, screeching to take my attention away from their nestlings.

Growing up in bear country, I was taught very early to be particularly careful to not get between a mother bear and her cub. Mama bear will even risk attacking large male bears if they get between her and her little ones.

And so we often think of human mothers as willing to die for their young. Thousands heroically starve to death, giving their last food to children, without drawing publicity because they are in impoverished lands where media is scarce.

So we wonder why a mother can possibly kill her child who is, after all, a piece of herself, out of her body. Sadly, there are a great many cases of moms killing children.

The answer appears to be postpartum psychosis, sometimes referred to as a deep, postpartum depression. In many countries there are laws recognizing that a woman who has recently given birth has undergone massive biological changes that may make her more vulnerable to mental illness.

In the USA there is little recognition of the problem, and less vital care for mothers, than in other major industrial nations. Millions of Americans are without basic health care, let alone mental health care in the richest nation on earth, where the top priority of government is to make billionaires and giant corporations wealthier for the election campaign contributions.

While we are sympathetic for these mothers who abuse and kill their infants, one cares more for the innocent little ones who badly need protection. After all, these helpless children look to their moms as their first line of defense. But the best thing we can do for the little ones is provide early help to their mothers.

This subject is not given much attention in the USA, which has the world’s highest rates for child homicide. In cases where mothers kill their own children, there is little professional intervention before the worst takes place. Then, in most states, murder is assumed without consideration of postpartum psychosis. In the court system there is little regard for the massive change that occurs to the mother from childbirth.

In the UK, where this phenomenon is taken far more prudently, they say “Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental illness that should be treated as a medical emergency. It can get worse rapidly and the illness can risk the safety of the mother and baby. ”  In fact, there is a greater chance that such new mothers can risk suicide than harm their newborns, but both potentials exist.

We badly need medical care in the USA, including providing for mental illness, but we also need understanding of this issue, if nothing more than to save the lives of new mothers and their babies. It would be wonderful if we could save even one.

Jack Balkwill has been published from the little read Rectangle, magazine of the English Honor Society, to the (then) millions of readers USA Today and many progressive publications/web sites such as Z Magazine, In These Times, Counterpunch, This Can’t Be Happening, Intrepid Report, and Dissident Voice.  He is author of “An Attack on the National Security State,” about peace activists in prison.

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