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The myth of the Good Mother

February 6 , 2019

Pakistanis venerate the mother figure. And thus, when mothers kill their children, they react with horror and vilification.

Filicide is an “outrage”. “How could she do this,” a young woman asked me as news of Shakeela surfaced from Karachi. She threw her toddler into the sea last week. I had a question: Do we have the same reaction when men kill their children?

Before the Reader jumps down my throat, allow me to say this very clearly: I do not support the killing of children by anyone—their mother or father. But I do think that when society is faced by crimes of this nature it is important to examine them in a way that will hopefully lead to a better understanding on how they can be prevented. Filicide by women is rare. And rare crimes tend to stand out more. But unless we try to understand the moral outrage is impotent.


There are certain perspectives worth unpacking here. Can we dispassionately look at such extraordinary crimes?


Consider: Lots of men in Pakistan kill their children of all ages all year round. We have a history of men killing their daughters of all ages (infanticide, honour killing). These crimes tend to elicit a different reaction. But there is something about a woman killing her child that is insufferable to us.  


It is as if we cannot tolerate viewing a woman as having a reason to want to kill her child or even senselessly killing the child. It is unthinkable. When a man kills his teenage daughter over honour, many of us will give plenty of margin to his motivation and seek to discover a “provocation”.


(Yes, I know you will bring up the case of Zainab from Kasur. There was national outrage here too, and rightly so. But I would argue that crime falls in a different category as she was not killed by her father or mother.)


When a mother kills her baby she does what we feel is “unnatural”.

This is because many of us staunchly believe that mothers are All-Good, All-Sacrificing, All-Enduring and can do their offspring no harm. But the fact of the matter is, as many of us do secretly admit, not all mothers are like this. In fact, some mothers (and fathers) can be emotionally if not physically abusive over the courses of our lifetimes. They can be the complete opposite of what we say mothers and fathers should be. There is no one single type of mother/father. Not all fathers love their children. And not all mothers either.

But mothers have a natural biological bond with their child, you can argue. And indeed, for the most part they do. But, I have, over time, come to see this point very differently as well. What is “natural” to begin with? Who defines the “natural” behaviours that are acceptable to 
society for men, women (and people of non-normative or non-conforming identities, sexes and genders).

Is it that if you give birth, you should biologically, mentally and morally bonded with your child?


When you go into the real science of producing another human being, what we define as “natural” starts to look very fuzzy. “Natural” behaviour for mothers is defined as being overjoyed after giving birth and obsessively attached to the baby so you do not want to leave it alone for even one moment. And indeed, women do very much feel this way. But not all of them do all the time. They experience different emotions in addition to these ones.


It can be argued that their emotions are informed by the chemicals surging through their bodies. Just to give you a small idea, when a woman is pregnant her hormonal (estrogen and progesterone) levels go up the equivalent of taking a hundred birth-control pills a day, according to one
foreign expert. When the woman has given birth, those hormones suddenly drop. “The postpartum hormone drop is considered the single largest sudden hormone change in the shortest amount of time for any human being, at any point of their life cycle,” the expert said. I believe these changes should be factored in when we decide how we feel women should be behaving after birth.

A well-known medical expert in Karachi, who once ran a major hospital, told me that when she had given birth to one of her children she was at one point alone in the hospital room. “For a second, I was overwhelmed with the urge to jump out of the window,” she said. She could not explain her feelings.

I once investigated the story of a woman who jumped into a well in Malir along with her newborn baby. The village was outraged. But the woman who had given the victim ghusl testified that there were bite marks in the flesh under her shoulder. It turned out that her sister-in-law had bitten her in a fight over the television set in the hut. Other women added that since the baby had been born the victim had been sick and withdrawn. Given the nutritional status of women in rural settings, their access to quality health care and social structures, I strongly suspected at the time that I was looking at a case of postpartum depression exacerbated by a strained family set-up. She did not behave “naturally” as a mother.  

Other mothers, fresh after having a baby and some even with 12-year-old children, have confessed to me that they sometimes feel violent towards their children. Child-rearing is extraordinarily difficult, demanding work. We may consider it “natural” for women to bring them up and do all the work with children but we tend to ignore what it takes. One young woman who I know has just given birth said that she hated herself for wanting to throw the baby against the wall at some points when it had done nothing but wail all night. She was sleep starved and had no help in the house.

That said, of course, for the most part, women who give birth summon the herculean strength to do what they have to and keep their wits about them. But can we honestly say it doesn’t help if they have a support system? Is it entirely fair for us to socially punish, bully or shame women who struggle with the immense changes their bodies undergo by reminding or chiding them that they need to be silent saints. It is also disingenuous for older women to chastise their daughters-in-law or daughters who have had children that they are not being good enough mothers. These older women are not always honest about the reality of what they faced.  

Experts have warned that we should be aware of changes in the mother’s psychology which can be quite out of the accepted “normal” or “natural”. An
Atlantic article put some possibilities quite plainly: “Postpartum psychosis is a mood episode with psychotic features such as paranoid thoughts, auditory hallucinations, or disorganized thinking. It occurs in one to two mothers per 1,000 who give birth, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

And similarly, experts have looked at psychological contours of cases in which mothers killed their children. Phillip Resnick, an expert in maternal filicide and a co-author of a 2007 World Psychiatry study, reviewed psychiatric studies on mothers killing their children and found most had depression, psychosis and suicidal thoughts. He identified five motives:

  1. “Altruistic filicide,” the most common motive, where a mother rationalizes that killing her child is in the child’s best interest.
  2. “Acutely psychotic filicide,” where a mother kills without an understandable motive, possibly hearing voices.
  3. “Fatal maltreatment filicide,” where a mother does not necessarily mean to kill her child, but death occurs after cumulative abuse.
  4. “Unwanted child filicide,” where a mother believes her child is a hindrance in her life.
  5. “Spouse revenge filicide,” the rarest for mothers, where she kills her child to emotionally strike out against the father.

This does not mean that ALL women who kill their children can be categorised as such—each case merits investigation. But surely, if we venerate mothers, we should also
be sensitive to their psychological well-being without judging them. We should be especially vigilant if there is any risk to their children.


When Shakeela’s case surfaced, the age of her child was stated to be two. So a question arose in my head if specifically postpartum depression could have been a factor this far along? Perhaps it is worth investigating if other factors were at play.


It is worth noting that the most striking piece of information that she gave in a video interview was that she is from Ghizer, Gilgit, which is coincidentally a place with one of the highest suicide rates in Pakistan.


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It was also important to hear comment on what she considered her motivations for the crime. “My husband isn’t understanding at all,” she said. “My daughter and I are not accepted. Not by my husband nor by my family.” She said that family members told her daughter to mop the floor (pocha). When the child couldn’t they told Shakeela. She did it once and then they would tell her to repeat it. She repeatedly mentions this.   

A study in 2005
into these cases remarked that the women who fall in this category “frequently showed a pattern of powerlessness, poverty, and alienation”. And so, I do not think that it takes much of an imagination to empathise with a situation in which a woman is being thrown out of the house by her husband and turned away by her own family. If this was indeed the case with Shakeela, it is not hard to see how vulnerable and scared she would have been. Needless to say, the circumstances should be investigated before we draw any conclusions to exacerbating factors.

I would tend to think that the way we often report these stories can be problematic. The mother has to be presented as flawed to explain killing her child.
Studies from the US found that the media could only see mothers who murder as “superior nurturers driven to insanity because they cared so much, or inferior caretakers who shirked their maternal duties because they cared so little”.

The media can tend to simplify a complex phenomenon. It says that maternal violence is caused by: postpartum illness, economic stress, drug abuse, too early and unplanned pregnancies, and loss of hope for the future. It is far too difficult to take apart, by contrast, the stereotype of mothering as “natural”. Why should we not question the effect family, community, and resources for women who cannot or do not mother well, writes Barbara Barnett of the University of Kansas.

Sometimes, of course, a killing is just beyond our comprehension. All I can wonder is what Shakeela’s husband or family was doing in the lead-up to this crime. And did no one at any one point spot her distress? Did no one think she needed help? We can condemn her forever for being an aberration, the woman who killed her child. But is it not worth asking what everyone else was doing? And how many women do we know as a society are out there struggling or suffering or who are ill or do not have the support they deserve from society, NGOs and the government, as they rear future generations of children.

 


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