Texas Tech University

Sociologist Studies What Leads Mothers to Kill Their Children

Glenys Young

August 3, 2020

“Women are expected to raise their children in their spare time and with their spare change,” Martha Smithey said.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month is commemorated each April. Because the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of its traditional awareness events during that month, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services will display Pinwheels for Prevention throughout the month of August.

Andrea Yates. Deena Schlosser. Megan Huntsman.

Their names, and the names of women like them, are infamous because they did what most people consider unthinkable – they murdered their own children. Many of them were believed to be mentally unstable or disturbed.

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Smithey

But over the course of her career studying infanticide, Texas Tech University's Martha Smithey has come to an even more disturbing conclusion.

"My work, and that of others, makes me realize that anyone is capable of hurting a child," she said. "Everyone has a recipe for 'losing it' and assaulting others. Most people manage to dance around the recipe and maintain control."

Smithey, an associate professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, examines the role of society in that recipe. The way she sees it, women are often set up to fail.

"Almost every story of maternal infanticide starts with 'the baby wouldn't stop crying,' but the story is more than just bad or mentally ill mothers who lethally assault their baby," she said. "The story is about how hard it is to be a good mother in a society where women are expected to raise their children in their spare time and with their spare change."

Witnessing injustice

Smithey's upbringing gave her an early idea of what was possible. Growing up in northern Louisiana, in a town of about 1,300 people, she began to notice gender- and race-based social injustice early on.

"Even as a young girl, it was clear the living conditions, access to food and medicine, and education were seriously unequal," she said. "I attended an all-white, small, first- through 12th-grade school. As part of federal desegregation orders, when I was in the fifth grade, five African American students were made to attend our school. As a matter of chance, two of them were in my class. They were treated horribly by the white students."

Her Black classmates handled the mistreatment differently. The girl was so nervous she vomited on her desk and was tormented by the other students. The boy became a class clown to deflect the mean comments he received.

"It was then I realized that people could be inhumane," Smithey said. "I carefully navigated being nice to both of them but often felt constrained while interacting with them. I was 10 years old. It was quite confusing.

"Then, in the 10th grade, my school and two other nearby white schools were forced to integrate with the African American school. By that time, I had chosen to ignore those –including teachers and school staff – who were constraining my interaction with African American friends. I knew by that time that most of the people where I grew up were deeply racist, and I did not want to be like them. Somehow, and I don't know how, I knew there was more to the world than what I was experiencing."

Smithey attended Louisiana Tech University, intending at first to study law so she could better understand social injustice and crime. Then, she discovered sociology and, within it, the specialization of criminology. She was hooked.

Infanticide

Smithey earned her bachelor's degree in 1980 and her master's degree in 1985, both in sociology. Between the two, she worked for a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of child and spousal abuse and as a counselor for incarcerated youth. After finishing her master's degree, she took a position at a faith-based children's home, supervising and training house parents.

When she became pregnant in late 1988, she began to read parenting books.

"One of the books I read had a short section on postpartum psychosis and how it could lead to a mother murdering her child," Smithey said. "I had taken courses on family violence and worked at a nonprofit helping women and children in violent homes, but I wanted more information and could not find it. I turned to the family violence literature and found the very unsatisfactory answer of child homicide as 'accidentally killing a child while abusing it.' Long story short, sociology had nothing to offer in understanding infant homicide – infanticide."

Smithey turned to psychiatric literature instead.

"The basic premise there was mothers who kill their children are mentally ill," she said. "This certainly was plausible, but it felt insufficient. So when my son was 18 months old, I started my doctorate."

With a predoctoral award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Smithey spent three years researching infanticide in the only way that made sense: locating mothers who had killed their infants and intensively interviewing them.

Social conditions

"When I first began interviewing mothers who had killed their infant, everyone viewed them as bad people," Smithey said. "Spending time with them and intensively reviewing their stories made me realize that, while they did a horrific thing, they are not bad, evil people. This reduced the distance between good and bad for me."

The realization that these women weren't inherently evil then led to another question: What could cause a normal person to kill an infant?

Smithey's answer: The unfair social conditions we've all been taught to accept as normal.

"My work examines the social, economic and cultural conditions and stressors under which mothers commit infanticide and shows how these conditions affect the ability to meet societal and self-perceived expectations of 'good' mothering," she said. "As mothers perceive they are failing to meet these expectations, the likelihood of violence toward the infant increases. This failure is the result of cultural and economic inequalities situated in the context of increasingly anomic, unrealistic expectations of mothering and decreasing social support and economic resources necessary for fulfilling the role identity of mother.

"The struggle of being a 'good mother' is common to all mothers and requires much more time and resources than most mothers have available to them."

Here's how she explains it: In today's society, nearly all mothers must have a paying job to make ends meet. Their job dominates their day, leaving little time for the significant demands of parenting. Some higher paying jobs are not seen as appropriate for women. Add in the fact that women, on average, make only 82 cents for every dollar an average man earns, and it becomes apparent the odds are stacked against them.

"The economic inequality of women leaves mothers with pay checks that are insufficient for home care, child care and health care and leaves them rationing basic goods such as food, diapers and medicine," Smithey said, "and they are powerless to change their situation. For the mothers who commit infanticide, the struggle overwhelms them, and they commit a terrible, heavily regretted act that costs them their child's life, their family, their freedom and their peace of mind for the rest of their lives."

The 'do it all' model

As a researcher, the emotional weight of continually studying infanticide is significant, Smithey said, but understanding how it happens helps lift some of that weight. At the same time, Smithey admits it makes her extra sensitive to conflicts.

"I probably cringe a bit more than I should when I see a mother yelling at her child," she said. "I hope she is OK."

While fields like counseling and social work can help empower people within social constraints, Smithey said she chose sociology because she hoped to change the social constraints. In order to make any substantive improvements, though, it's necessary to understand how different elements within a society interact – how they work together and how they conflict.

"I believe a lot of struggles people experience are due to social disorganization and power differentials," she said. "Many decisions are made for people, and they are expected to succeed within the conditions placed upon them. For example, the social expectations of mothering are made for women long before they are even born, and those conditions are confusing and contradictory. Women do not have equal opportunity or fair expectations at home or the work place. This makes being a successful mother and a successful worker very difficult.

"There is a lot of research on how our society expects child rearing to be the responsibility of the mother with little or no social support. She must earn an income that is much lower than men's, at the same time making sure the home and her mothering is good. It's a big imbalance with which many women struggle, and the circumstances are beyond her control, yet we tell women that a good woman is the one who can 'do it all.' The 'do it all' model has contributed to all sorts of problems for women and mothers – mainly, it is unrealistic and no one can live up to it."

It may seem overwhelming to try changing an entire society, but Smithey said there are steps anyone can take to help improve the lives of the moms around them.

"Stop mother-bashing," she said. "Judging a struggling mother only puts the children at risk by making her life harder.

"Help the mothers you know. Offer to babysit, clean house or help with homework. Mothers are doing an overwhelming job."


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