Posted by on Apr 7, 2012 in Women Behaving Badly | No Comments


More than 200 women kill their children in the U.S. every year. Andrea Yates who drowned her five kids, and pediatrician Ellen Feinberg, of Champaign, Illinois, who stabbed her two young sons, one fatally, are not unique.

Here are some perspectives on why mothers kill their children from prominent members of the American Anthropological Association.

JILL KORBIN, expert on child abuse, who has studied mothers who killed their children.

Parents killing their children is not rare. Between three and five children are killed by their parents in the U.S. every day. Yet Andrea Yates made headline news.  At the same time, a California man lit a barbecue inside his home knowing it would asphyxiate his sleeping children. Why wasn’t his case saturated with media coverage in the same way? We have a cultural view of good motherhood and it acts to the detriment of women and fathers who are having substantial problems parenting, says Jill Korbin, child abuse expert who spent a year interviewing mothers in prison for killing their children “We end up with a lot of dead kids in this country, yet we persist with the unrealistic view that this is rare behavior. These are not the isolated cases we would like to believe.” Homicide is one of the leading causes of death of children under age four.

Parenting in the U.S. is extremely difficult, Korbin says. Prevention is the key.  Prior to a homicide, lots of lay people know these men and women are having difficulty parenting. “The public has to be better educated in recognizing how to intervene and how to support child abuse prevention. We must start treating children more seriously,” she says.

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES, medical anthropologist, cross-cultural studies include children and motherhood, violence, and mental illness.

Mother love is not universal. The idealization of women as natural loving mothers is a cultural belief that gets us into trouble. “We should detach from the idea of universal motherhood as natural and see it as a social response,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes says. Women in jail reported that no-one believed them when they said they wanted to kill their children. “There’s a collective denial even when mothers come right out and say “I really shouldn’t be trusted with my kids.”

Women kill their babies in poor societies. Women sometimes contribute to the death of their sickly or weak children in situations of scarcity and extreme poverty.But these women do so in response to impossibly difficult situations. Some children were seriously neglected, “sacrificed”, so that older children could live.

In Brazil, Nancy Scheper-Hughes studied three generations of women in poor rural areas some of whom participated in killing their children because they felt they were meant to die. They looked for signs in the babies that showed them to be “mere household guests” passing through life. The infant was not seen as a real person but a little creature, not yet fully human. Similar things happened in India and in some parts of Africa during famines and in times of political chaos when the social norms collapsed.

SARAH HRDY, author of Mother Nature: a history of mothers, infants and natural selection.

A New Theory of Motherhood and Natural Selection. How could natural selection have produced a female that delivers babies so far beyond her capacities to rear? asks anthropologist Sarah Hrdy. A chimp or gorilla mother lactates for three to six years but once she’s weaned the baby, it’s completely on its own. Not so for human mothers whose children aren’t independent until age 18 and who often bear other siblings in between. “We differ from all other apes and most monkey sin that we’re cooperative breeders,” she maintains, behaving more like marmosets or wild dogs in this respect. Most primate mothers rear their young without assistance. Women require more support because it takes so long for humans to mature sufficiently to provision themselves. That’s why human infants are at greater risk from maternal abandonment. Human mothers are unusually sensitive to how much social support they are likely to have and explains why they are more prone to abandon babies and commit infanticide than other primates. Deliberate killing of her own infant has never been observed in wild primates.


LYNNE BOLLES, head of the AAA’s section on feminist anthropology.

The father shirks his role. Mothering is seen as biological and natural whereasfatherhood is seen as social and detached. When women do something against their children it’s viewed as a crime against nature. “Note how the emphasis has been put on Andrea Yates while her husband was very much the enabler. Ifyou loved someone and knew she was severely ill each time she gave birth to another child, you’d think you’d do something about it. He limited her to the home and she had a child, and a hospital admission, almost every 18 months. Practicing birth control was a very simple thing he could have done. But he didn’t.”

Death as escape or resistance. African women on board slave ships crossing the Atlantic during the 16th and 17th centuries killed their children because they were demoralized about being enslaved and wanted their child “to be in a better place – and it wasn’t earth,” Lynne Bolles says. Some killed themselves at the same time. The same thing happened in the U.S. when slave women were raped. “It was a form of resistance; you weren’t a human being, you were a commodity.”

I’d be happy to arrange interviews (703) 528-1902, ext. 3039;


Ghita Levine

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