What Have We Done to Motherhood?

By Shannon May
Rightgrrl Contributor
July 10, 2001

Okay, boys and girls, raise your hands if you saw this one coming a mile away. The lawyer for Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who confessed last week to drowning her five children in the family bathtub, is preparing to enter a plea on her behalf of not guilty by reason of insanity.(1) What drove her over the edge? Post-partum depression, of course. (Those who raised their hands are free to leave; those who didn't should keep reading.)

The more I read, the angrier I become as I see various attempts by the liberal press to rationalize, justify, explain or sympathize with Yates' inexcusable actions; in short, to blame everyone but her for the atrocities she committed. A recent example: in an article in the July 2 issue of Newsweek, Evan Thomas drops disturbing hints about who or what is really responsible for Yates' crime. Thomas suggests that perhaps she crumbled under the burden placed on her by her "demanding" husband; a neighbor told Newsweek "he wanted (Andrea) staying at home."(2) Thomas seems shocked by the fact that "...Rusty and Andrea apparently decided that the best way to bring up children was to do it themselves."(3) His disdain is evident. Parents taking responsibility for the raising of their children, instead of turning them over to the ever more socialist state? A totally antiquated concept. And of course, Thomas can't resist slinging some mud at the Yates' religious beliefs by pointing out that "...(T)he home was full of religious artifacts..."(4) Of course. Our society is headed straight down the tubes because people keep visible reminders of their faith in their homes. I'm so glad the mystery is cleared up. Pay close attention, kids: it's all those right-wing, conservative, religious, home-schooling, family-values freaks who are responsible for this tragedy.

Or witness Anna Quindlen's comments in a related Newsweek column:
"...(B)etween the women who cannot have children and sometimes stare at our double strollers grief-stricken, and the grandmothers who make raising eight or 10 sound like a snap and insist we micromanage and overanalyze, there is no leave to talk about the dark side of being a surrogate deity, omniscient and out of milk all at the same time."(5)
I beg to differ. There is plenty of leave to talk about the dark side of motherhood. We've been doing that for a long time; it's why we kill so many of our young. In her column, Quindlen seems to be remembering her experiences as a mother of young children with a hint of surprise that no one told her just how hard it really was, and a stronger hint of resentment that these strange small creatures should demand so much. This is in addition to the patronization of the women who fall into the categories she mentions. She implies that those in the first group wouldn't grieve quite so much if they knew what they were missing, and that those in the second are just mean, unforgiving old fogies who have set an impossible standard. Worst of all, there is a dangerous insinuation in her article that any mother could have been driven to murder her children under similar circumstances, and that what's needed here is a way to raise awareness of the shocking struggles faced by oppressed mothers everywhere, especially those with children who make such unreasonable demands upon them as a full stomach, a clean diaper, and love and affection to spare. Poor unfortunate Mrs. Yates had five of the little beasts clamoring for these things at once. Oh, the horror! Any jury would certainly see that she was overcome by the pressure and was inexorably compelled to murder her children.

What a crock. No one ever said that motherhood would be easy, fun, and rewarding all of the time or even most of the time. The object of motherhood, its very nature, is unconditional, sacrificial love, the pouring out of oneself for the life and enrichment of one's children. Motherhood is all about giving everything and getting very little, if anything, in return. If we as a society have forgotten this, and I certainly think we have, it is because we feel a desperate need to turn any pursuit - particularly a difficult, thankless pursuit like motherhood - into something that will bring us self-fulfillment and positive feelings. The only things worth doing, after all, are the things that make us feel good, and if those things don't work out the way we want them to, we are entitled to respond any way we like. This is why our actions no longer have consequences. It is why juries award billions of dollars to lifetime smokers. It is why we sanctify the "right" of a pregnant woman to order the killing of her child, and it is why so many career-minded women cry foul at the suggestion that daycare might possibly be harmful to their children's well-being.

There is evidence to suggest that Yates was not entirely mentally stable in the years prior to committing the murders; Thomas' article states that she had previously been under treatment not only for depression but for psychotic tendencies as well. But there is also every indication that Andrea Yates was entirely cognizant of the gravity of her actions. Right after the drownings, she called the police to her house and told her husband to come home from work, and she later confessed not only to murdering her children, but also to having considered the murders for some time before she committed them.(6) Are we expected to believe that she was far enough out of her mind not to understand the evil of her crimes at the moment she committed them? I might hope that a jury could not be convinced of such faulty logic, but it will be interesting in any case to see her lawyer play logical contortionist as he tries to drum up enough sympathy for his client to get her off the hook.

Motherhood demands extreme sacrifices. They might be quiet sacrifices that continue for years, such as undertaking the nurturing, education and discipline of one's children instead of pursuing career goals. A mother may need to keep a long, painful vigil as she loves and comforts and protects her dying child. She may be called upon to lay down her life to save her children. While certainly difficult, these things are not inconveniences or nuisances but reasonable and just demands. I pray that a jury will not lose sight of the fact that the five Yates children, who had rightfully expected these things from their mother, instead lost their lives to her selfishness.
  1. "Funeral set for 5 slain children," from MSNBC staff and wire reports, June 27, 2001. http://www.msnbc.com/news/590097.asp
  2. Thomas, Evan, "Motherhood and Murder." Newsweek magazine, week of July 2, 2001. (Web edition at http://www.msnbc.com/news/591648.asp)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Quindlen, Anna, "Playing God On No Sleep." Newsweek magazine, week of July 2, 2001. (Web edition at http://www.msnbc.com/news/591648.asp)
  6. Thomas, Evan, "Motherhood and Murder." Newsweek magazine, week of July 2, 2001. (Web edition at http://www.msnbc.com/news/591648.asp)

Copyright 2001 by Shannon May. Not to be reproduced in any fashion, in whole or in part, without written consent from the author. All rights reserved.