Parents have been killing their children since the dawn of time. Some anthropologists theorize that Neolithic families killed 15 percent or more of infants to curb population. Ancient Romans exposed unwanted babies to the elements, presumably to die. The Ancient Greeks are represented by Medea’s mythical killing spree in the play by Euripides. In the Bible, Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. (Although, to be fair, he didn’t kill him.)
When a young child is murdered, the most frequent perpetrator is the victim’s parent or stepparent. But why? What drives someone to end a life they brought into the world? Mental illness plays a big part, according to a study co-authored by Phillip J. Resnick MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Many suffer from frequent depression, psychosis and suicidal thoughts, and typically have received prior treatment for mental-health issues.
Maternal filicide, says Resnick, occurs for a variety of reasons. They can include a twisted kind of altruism (in which a mother feels the child is better off dead), an acute psychosis (when a delirious or psychotic mother kills a child without any motive) or fatal maltreatment. The latter tends to be a cumulative result from abuse, neglect or Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which a parent, in a bid for sympathy, fabricates or exaggerates an illness in their child, often giving them unneeded treatments. Sometimes the child is simply unwanted—he or she may be inconvenient for a mother’s new relationship, for example—or is used as a fatal pawn in a case of spousal revenge.
There is also the category of so-called “Prom Moms,” young women who have hidden their pregnancies and then dispose of the baby in secret. Neonaticide, the murder of an infant during the first 24 hours of life, is almost always committed by the mother.
Most infanticide cases occur outside the U.S., in places like China and India where the culture favors males over females, says Christina DeJong, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University and vice president of the American Society of Criminology, Division on Women and Crime. However, mothers in the Western world who kill their children are much more harshly shamed due to the social expectations that go along with their traditional role in the family.
It boils down to the sociocultural belief that women should be the family caretakers while fathers should be the breadwinners. “When a woman kills her kids, we are just horrified because that’s the exact opposite of the role that she’s supposed to have,” says DeJong. “When fathers kill their children, it’s not quite as horrifying because they’re not necessarily seen as the caring nurturer of the family. Of course, that’s an outdated expectation.”
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