Falling

When Naomi Gaines threw her babies into the river, we were shocked. The truth is, her impulse isn't all that rare.

 

Who's Crazy?

At the time my second child was born, Andrea Yates was making headlines, and locally there were still fresh memories of the two Southeast Asian women who had lived, like Gaines, in St. Paul's McDonough Homes public housing complex, and who had each killed several of their children.

The nurses at the well-regarded local hospital where I'd delivered made no fewer than four stops in my room to warn me about postpartum depression. On one of the visits, the nurse told my husband to be on the lookout for a long list of symptoms. "One sure giveaway is if you just can't do anything right or make her happy," the nurse told my husband. "If that happens, immediately take the kids away. She'll be angry, but you just take them and go."

She said all of this in front of me. The husband of a friend who delivered three weeks later at the same hospital got the same lecture, except in that case they waited to talk to him until she was in the shower.

It was all I could do to ask what help I'd be offered in that instance. They do wonderful things these days with antidepressants, the nurse replied.

 

 

The Squeaky Wheel

There's a body of research out there positing that infants are programmed to annoy us on purpose. The theory holds that a baby that makes its needs known by crying and fussing until it's fed, changed, or picked up is a baby with a good chance of surviving infancy. Once satisfied, babies coo and smile and otherwise prime Mom to go ahead and invest in them--to bond, as today's "attachment-centered" parents say.

"If mothers were automatically nurturing, if they evolved to care for any infant born (as essentialists argue), why should infants be selected to expend so much metabolic energy making certain that a mother does so?" asks anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in Mother Nature. "Any dull, calorie-conserving lump of rapidly developing tissue would suffice."

Think of the fine evolutionary line the human infant must walk: Prime Mom too successfully, and she might just hurl you through that window for real.

 

Filicidal Fun Facts

American infants are now murdered as often as teens, and twice as often as they were 30 years ago, according to federal statistics. If this factoid is surprising, consider that people who kill teens are dangerous to society as a whole. People who kill their babies are only dangerous to their babies.

The United States ranks first in the number of homicides of children under four. Some experts believe that this rate is underreported by up to 50 percent, because it's often tough to prove that an infant did not die of sudden infant death syndrome or "overlying," the accidental smothering by a parent who rolls over on the baby in their sleep.

Nearly half of these cases, or slightly more than one percent of overall homicides, are neonaticides, killings that occur during the first 24 hours of the baby's life. The day a baby is born, its chances of being murdered are 10 times higher than on any other day.

Almost 90 percent of mothers who commit neonaticide are 25 or younger, and the majority are poor, unwed, and probably hid their pregnancies, according to legal and psychiatric research. They are rarely psychotic, although they may experience some kind of dissociation. By comparison, women who commit infanticide, the killing of a baby during its first year, are often psychotic, depressed, or suicidal.

In either case, weapons are almost never used; instead, death usually occurs literally by the parent's hand. Exposure, drowning, strangulation, suffocation, or trauma to the head are common methods.

Women commit two-thirds of neonaticides and infanticides.

Forensic psychiatrist Phillip Resnick parses filicide--the killing of a child by its parent--into five types. Altruistic filicide is the most common. Mothers are most likely to commit this type of homicide, usually as an extension of a suicide attempt. "These mothers see their children as an extension of themselves," Resnick told Psychiatric News. "They do not want to leave a child motherless in a 'cruel' world as seen through their depressed eyes." Less often, a parent kills a child to end its suffering--albeit sometimes an imagined suffering the mother has projected onto the child.

Resnick's other four categories are less common: Acutely psychotic filicide is driven by hallucinations or delirium; unwanted child filicide includes the killing of newborns; in fatal maltreatment filicide, children die as the result of a beating. The last category, revenge on a spouse, is more commonly practiced by fathers than mothers.

In Britain, Canada, Italy, and Australia, infanticide is a separate crime from other types of murder. A woman who kills a child under the age of one who can prove that the "balance of her mind is disturbed" is guilty only of manslaughter. England has a long history of viewing the crime as distinct, passing infanticide laws in 1623, 1922, 1938, and 1978.

Some 25 other countries recognize postpartum depression as a legal defense. The United States isn't one of them. Here, postpartum depression is sometimes raised as part of an insanity defense, but due to a Byzantine twist of reasoning, the gambit rarely succeeds. To be legally insane in most states, one has to be incapable of appreciating that her actions were wrong. Mothers who kill, as we have just seen, tend to have altruistic--if perverted--motives. They know their actions are legally wrong, they just aren't able to see a humane alternative.

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