I was working on a piece about hunger and food insecurity this week, and really enjoying doing some research, when I came across this article [please note, trigger warning for death of a child, and child abuse] and knew that it was something I needed to write about instead. Given the upsetting nature of the topic, I’ll put the rest of this post behind a cut.
The article discusses a woman who has been sentenced to jail for shaking her seven-week old baby, to the point that he received fatal brain injuries. Normally, I avoid clicking on links like this, because I don’t feel like I need to know all the details—it’s upsetting enough from the headline. But in this case, I felt as if I could read about it. Perhaps it’s because my children are no longer babies (Fourth Offspring turned two a few weeks ago). Or perhaps it’s because I can identify so well with that feeling of frustration when the baby just. won’t. stop. crying.
When First Offspring was a few weeks old, there was a case in the news where a man had been jailed for shaking a baby. The Handsome Sidekick and I were listening to the radio, and he expressed sadness and anger at both the baby’s injuries and that somebody could inflict them.
‘I can understand why someone would do that,’ I said, and he looked at me, shocked.
‘I’m not saying I’m going to shake our baby,’ I reassured him. ‘But I can understand that utter exhaustion and irritation. I mean, of course you should just walk away. You have to just walk away and calm down. He shouldn’t have done it, but I know why he did.’
Nothing prepares you for the fatigue you’ll experience when you have a baby. I remember teaching a class of Year 12s (the final year in Australian schools) and one of them was lamenting how tired she was. As the new parent of a six-month-old, juggling fulltime work, organising daycare and falling out of bed for night feeds, I wanted to laugh, except I was probably too tired for that. You think you’re exhausted? I thought. You have NO IDEA.
I was not only tired, I was also in terrified awe of the way my emotions for my child would oscillate between absolute love and overwhelming frustration. There would be days when he would just cry—endlessly, it seemed—and I could do little to comfort him. Despite all the books I’d read and the online forums I’d perused, I did not know how to deal with this. And First Offspring was, by all professional accounts, ‘normal’. What would I have done if he had had a disability, or a serious illness?
I remember wanting to throw him out the window. No, really. I remember holding him up in front of me, narrowing my eyes and shouting, through gritted teeth, ‘ARGH! I FEEL LIKE THROWING YOU OUT THE WINDOW!’
I held him close and the pendulum swung back. Love. Desire to protect.
What if it had not?
The label bad or good mother is such a loaded term. ‘Mother’ itself is so loaded that I rarely use it to describe myself. I’m always proud and humbled if somebody tells me that I’m a good mother, but if I’m writing down my details on a form for one of my children, I am much more likely to choose the less gendered and more clinical ‘parent’. I parent my children, rather than mothering them. Parenting feels like I’m guiding them to adulthood. ‘Mother’ feels like I should be someone else. Someone who knows what she’s doing, and doesn’t yell, and doesn’t make it up as she goes along.
It’s very easy to judge someone who’s done such a terrible thing as to kill a child, to kill a tiny baby… what an awful, shocking crime. And this woman in the article, who was tired and overwhelmed and just wanted the baby to stop crying, lost control, and hurt him so very badly that he died. Then she lied about it. There is no doubt that she did the wrong thing. But there are small pieces of information in the article which shine a light on why she shook her baby. She had nine children. The baby was a twin. The mother was a single parent, and caring for the twin babies and a two-year-old, on her own. The midwife who visited her noted that she was having difficulty coping. Several of her other children were in foster care. This was a person who obviously needed some extra support. Why wasn’t she getting it? Was it because it wasn’t available, or because she felt like she shouldn’t have needed it?
The trouble with post-natal depression and anxiety is that it’s only openly discussed after the fact. Nobody wants to admit they’re not coping. We don’t want to seem like we’re struggling with parenthood—something which is supposed to be ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. The picture we have of parents is one of mothers who look adoringly at their babies, while delightedly changing their nappies and tickling their toes. It’s one of fathers who gently encourage their young children to ride their bicycles, or catch them at the bottom of the slide. Those wonderful moments do happen, but they’re fleeting. Where are the other reality of being parents? The day-to-day reality of too much washing to do and an inability to think clearly enough to even make yourself a meal? Where are the images of parents who don’t want to play ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ for the fifteenth time and who would rather sit and talk to another adult and have a cup of tea?
But get a small group of parents in a room, and get them talking about their experiences with babies and young children, and I guarantee almost all of them will remember exhaustion so intense, they craved sleep like it was a drug. There will be those who admit it was the hardest time of their lives, and some of them will say that they are surprised they made it through. Talking to a nurse whom I met through friends, she told me how much she had suffered from depression after the birth of her second child. ‘Was there someone you could talk to?’ I asked. ‘Did you say anything to your doctor?’
‘I couldn’t do that,’ she replied. ‘If work found out, it’d affect my chances of promotion.’
What?! Whether or not that was the case, the fact that she thought it might be is tragic. It reinforces the idea that only weak people find parenting difficult, or only weak people get depression or anxiety. We need to talk about depression and anxiety before it happens. We need to reassure women and men that every single parent feels this way at some point, and it is no failure, it is normal.
If the village is supposed to be raising the child, then part of that is also taking care of the parents. By openly talking about how difficult it can be, how downright unpleasant at times, we can open the conversation up to coping mechanisms, and ensure that people who are having children no longer feel as though they have to do it on their own. Then we may be able to prevent these desperately sad deaths, of children who are killed by their own parents. Parents, who under different circumstances, would have been able to walk away, take a breath and get some perspective, and then go back to collect their child in their arms, hold them close, and comfort them.