We were all shocked when we heard last week that Lashanda Armstrong had killed herself and three out of her four children when she purposely drove into the Hudson River. For some of us it was reminiscent of the Andrea Yates case in which Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub one by one. It is horrifying to think that a mother would intentionally kill her own children, but it’s not uncommon. In fact, experts say it happens more often than we’d all like to think.
Experts think that cases such as these occur at least 100 times per year, and surprisingly mothers are more likely than fathers to kill their children aged 5 and under. For so many of us, we can’t imagine how a mother can do such a thing but that is exactly the problem. Because we assume that a mother has such a strong bond with her child, we assume that many women are simply going through a rough period in their life, but remaining a good mother. It’s not always the case.
Some mothers are mentally incapacitated. Many others suffer, often silently, from severe depression. The horrendous situation crosses poverty lines and occurs in all types of households.
The Associated Press reports that accurate statistics are difficult to find:
Finding accurate records is nearly impossible, experts say. One problem is classification: The legal disposition of these cases varies enormously. Also, many cases doubtless go unreported or undetected, such as very young mothers who kill their newborns by smothering them or drowning them in a toilet after hiding the entire pregnancy.
“I’d say a mother kills a child in this country once every three days, and that’s a low estimate,” says Cheryl Meyer, co-author of “Mothers Who Kill Their Children.”
Meyer who co-authored the book along with Michelle Oberman, interviewed women at the Ohio Reformatory for Women and found that of 1,800 women at the prison, 80 were imprisoned for filicide, or killing one’s child.
Although the reasons behind the killing are varied among women, there is one distinct link between the mothers: they all felt severe isolation:
“These women almost always feel alone, with a total lack of emotional support,” says Lita Linzer Schwartz, a professor emeritus of psychology and women’s studies at Penn State, and co-author of “Endangered Children.”
Some women like Andrea Yates are mentally ill, but many others like Armstrong are in romantic relationships where cheating or abuse is often involved. When they reach their breaking point, they think about what will happen to their kids if they commit suicide. Then they justify that their kids are better off dead (and presumably in heaven) than alone in the world. In this way, they believe they are being good mothers.
In cases of depression, why is it so difficult to get help way before it becomes a life or death situation? Mostly because mothers want to appear that they are in control, coupled with the fact that mothering is supposed to be a natural instinct in which a woman should not only be able to take care of her children, but enjoy it and hold everything together despite what life throws at them. That is why every single time a mother comes out and admits she needs help, it is a positive thing. Just last week, Catherine Zeta-Jones admitted she was being treated for bipolar disorder. By publicly doing so, she opened the door for other moms suffering from the disease to lose the shame. It is only a good thing to get help for yourself no matter what disease you are battling.
The medical community also has to dig deeper for signs of postpartum depression. Besides the six-week check-up after the baby is born, how many moms receive follow-up care? How many are suffering from postpartum depression and mistakenly think they are just overwhelmed by having a first baby? When a new mother feels depressed and worn out, she also feels guilt for not being that ecstatic picture perfect symbol of motherhood. That makes it harder for her to seek help because she thinks she’s being a bad mother by not being happy, so she fakes it. This is where the downward spiral begins.
Armstrong’s aunt told reporters that her niece “was a good mother. She was going through some stuff.” Meyer says she is angry that the people around Armstrong didn’t pay attention to the warning signs:
“To me this is a textbook case,” she says. “This woman was completely overwhelmed. Almost always, you can find people who say, ‘I knew something was wrong.’ This did not come out of the blue. I say shame on the people who saw signs and didn’t do anything. This is your responsibility, too.”
As moms, we also all need to stop being so judgmental with each other and learn to support one another much more than we currently are doing. Just look at the judgment that goes on here about minor things, like breastfeeding and circumcision. There has to be a better way. If we see a fellow mom looking tired, overwhelmed or just plain sad, isn’t our responsibility to offer some help, an encouraging chat, or share a story about how overwhelmed we once were, instead of staying on our mighty high horses and questioning why she is bottle feeding or can’t get her baby to stop crying?
The moms who end up killing their children suffer from severe isolation. It’s nothing but tragic that this continues to happen.