Moms On The Edge: The Fine Line Between Overwhelmed Caregiving And Criminal Acts

Kristen LaBrie, the depressed, single mother found guilty of attempted murder after failing to give her nonverbal, autistic son his cancer medications, will be sentenced tomorrow. What a sad, tragic case — not only for the poor, terribly ill boy who died at age 9, but also for the sorry state of so many mothers, who feel completely overwhelmed, trapped and unable to give and give and give some more to their children.

If you think this is an isolated case, think again.

On Tuesday, 25-year-old Lashanda Armstrong drove a minivan with three of her four children — Landen Pierre, 5; Lance Pierre, 2; and Lainaina Pierre, 11 months — into the Hudson river, killing them all. Her oldest son, La'Shaun, 10, escaped, according to a report in today's New York Times.

The story doesn't detail Lashanda's state of mind, except to quote a neighbor saying she'd been looking for a job but was having trouble finding childcare so she could work. And that she'd just had a bad fight with her children's father (who worked in a fast-food joint and didn't live with them) about his infidelity, and told a relative she was going to "do something crazy." One can certainly envision the perfect storm of factors contributing to the craziness: four children, three under five, relationship stress, unemployment, minimal income.

I can't help thinking about these women, and understanding, on some level, that while killing your kids is obviously unacceptable and abhorrent, something's got to give. And I know I'm not alone.

In 2001, after Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub, the author Anna Quindlen was moved to write a piece in Newsweek called: Playing God On No Sleep.

It begins like this:

So a woman walks into a pediatrician’s office. She’s tired, she’s hot and she’s been up all night throwing sheets into the washer because the smaller of her two boys has projectile vomiting so severe it looks like a special effect from “The Exorcist.” Oh, and she’s nauseated, too, because since she already has two kids under the age of 5 it made perfect sense to have another, and she’s four months pregnant. In the doctor’s waiting room, which sounds like a cross between an orchestra tuning loudly and a 747 taking off, there is a cross-stitched sampler on the wall. It says GOD COULD NOT BE EVERYWHERE SO HE MADE MOTHERS.

THIS IS NOT A JOKE, and that is not the punch line. Or maybe it is. The woman was me, the sampler real, and the sentiments it evoked were unforgettable: incredulity, disgust and that out-of-body feeling that is the corollary of sleep deprivation and adrenaline rush, with a soupcon of shoulder barf thrown in. I kept reliving this moment, and others like it, as I read with horrified fascination the story of Andrea Yates, a onetime nurse suffering from postpartum depression who apparently spent a recent morning drowning her five children in the bathtub. There is a part of my mind that imagines the baby, her starfish hands pink beneath the water, or the biggest boy fighting back, all wiry arms and legs, and then veers sharply away, aghast, appalled.

But there’s another part of my mind, the part that remembers the end of a day in which the milk spilled phone rang one cried another hit a fever rose the medicine gone the car sputtered another cried the cable out “Sesame Street” gone all cried stomach upset full diaper no more diapers Mommy I want water Mommy my throat hurts Mommy I don’t feel good.

Every mother I’ve asked about the Yates case has the same reaction. She’s appalled; she’s aghast. And then she gets this look. And the look says that at some forbidden level she understands. The looks says that there are two very different kinds of horror here. There is the unimaginable idea of the killings. And then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of 7.

The overarching point here is simple: motherhood is tough, and raising children is hard, even when you have a supportive spouse, a helpful community of family and friends, money and healthy kids. Take any, or all of these away, and it's a fine line between barely holding it together and tragically falling apart.

The key is to identify the most vulnerable moms, and then to connect them with the appropriate lifeline, says clinical social worker Annette Cycon, Founder of MotherWoman, an Amherst-based nonprofit that provides direct service, training and advocacy for mothers.

"Every mother operates within a context, whether she's white middle class and married, low-income, or a single mother with a disabled child," Cycon says, "and the context is what's worth looking at and strengthening so that no mother has to bear the spectrum of challenges alone. We're really not meant to raise our children in absolute isolation, and when that happens is when you see tragedies occur, typically. We have to ask, 'What is a mother's level of isolation and what can we do to reach through that isolation and offer her material support, emotional support, advice, a casserole, a break from her children, a non judgmental shoulder to lean on."

Every other developed nation has figured this out, Cycon says, but the need for systemic support, including medical and mental health care, for mothers here is still great. "That means everything from the casserole delivery service, to child care to maternity leave, paid sick leave and flexible work hours — we really need to bolster these kinds of community-based support networks."

This program aired on April 14, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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