When mothers kill

Carmel Hanes
Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

What do a dead child, an arrested mother, and a frantic mouse have in common? Maybe nothing, except in my own head.

I was aware of the news story about a missing five year old boy. I was aware of the search, and the parental pleas for a safe return. I had seen all the prayers being offered through social media. When a child goes missing, it ignites a collective fear transcending age, race, political beliefs, and geographic boundaries. It unites our protective instincts as we hope this invisible net of common desire can safely catch the most vulnerable among us, bringing them in for a soft landing from where they’ve strayed.

The boy was in my own head and thoughts, as I helped my husband move landscape timbers from where they’d been stored into the garden plot to create a raised bed for strawberries. As we were moving the wood out of the trailer, a mouse appeared.

Thinking it would quickly retreat to a safe, dark place, we stood aside and watched, giving it space to scurry away. Instead, it circled wildly over,under and around the wood. Repeatedly.

Surely it could see the opening at the end of the trailer. Why was it running in ineffective circles? Wasn’t it afraid of us and the sudden exposure?

It was then I saw a baby mouse lying in a wooden crevice. Mother mouse picked up her baby and disappeared into the wood with it. Then she reappeared, running a maze pattern around and around the remaining wood. She seemed lost, bewildered and determined, resisting every effort to scoop her out of the trailer.

Photo by Yunu Dinata on Unsplash

We finally realized she was searching for her nest, which must have contained more young (the one rescued must have fallen out when we moved the piece on top of it). We had removed a timber containing large grooves, and surmised it likely held the nest. We were finally able to scoop her out of the trailer, whereupon she disappeared into the timbers already placed. Since we didn’t see her again, we assumed she had found her babies. We continued with our project.

Later that day, I learned the missing child had been found dead and the parents arrested. A mother may have killed her own child. If so, it was not the first time, and likely will not be the last. How does this happen?

I was struck by the contrast.

Mother mouse resisted all self-protective instincts to protect her young. She knew we were fully able to do her harm, and under normal circumstances she would have disappeared before we even processed her presence. Mice are reclusive by nature, and yet she refused to give up, despite the possibility of harm. She “mother beared” until she found her nest and knew her offspring were safe.

It reminded me of mothers I’ve known.

My own mother, who raised six children by herself, facing down every obstacle put before her. She could have walked away from the hardship of raising us, but she stayed, running the maze, keeping us all safe until we could keep ourselves safe. Friends who have had children with physical or health challenges, who face surgeries, hospitalizations, endless therapies; the parents offering brave faces and smiles despite their inner anguish, knowing they would trade places in a heartbeat if they could. Parents whose children face mental health issues, searching under every log for answers and help. Many of these mothers must have had moments when they felt they couldn’t go on, when they felt betrayed and weary. And yet, they persisted.

What causes a mother to lose that protective instinct for her young? What causes her to fail to nurture, or worse, to do harm to her child, in small or large ways?

I don’t have all the answers to this most baffling question. And I don’t know if this particular mother is guilty of what she has been charged with. But I do know that brains change with substance use. I do know that demons from our own pasts can cling to us like a leech, sucking out all that was good. I do know that mental health issues can trump an otherwise loving, good nature. I do know that an abundance of stress with no coping strategies can break our resolve.

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

Parenting is a challenge. Good parenting is a moving target for many. We bring to that role all that happened to us, all that we now are, and what we choose. I believe every parent has moments they are not proud of, that they wish they could have a do-over on. But mostly, we seem to muddle through without doing too much harm. Or at least we hope so.

But some lose their way entirely. And those bad moments begin to accumulate, and multiply, with deadly consequences. I’d like to think they feel remorse. I’d like to think they can grow and change. And I have to force myself not to think about the last moments each of those children faced in the hands of those they counted on to protect them until they could keep themselves safe.

And I say a prayer of thanks for all the mother mice out there, protecting their young, even before themselves.

Carmel Hanes

Written by

Author of Crooked Grow the Trees; retired school psychologist; wife, mother, grandmother, and introvert who is never alone in her own head.

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