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Is Society to Blame When a Mother Kills Her Children?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Twenty-nine-year-old South Carolina mother Shaquan Duley, accused of suffocating her two toddler boys on August 15 and then strapping their bodies into car seats and pushing her car into a river, was certainly desperate. And while the media and public vilify her for committing such heinous crimes, there's a piece of me that feels deep sympathy. I wonder how much we can blame ourselves, as partners in her society.

Shaquan Duley
To put this mother's crime into historical perspective, the act of infanticide by a parent is nothing new. Anthropologists postulate that for thousands of years, as human mothers struggled to raise highly dependent children in harsh environments, they were often forced to make heartwrenching choices between their own survival and the survival of their family, eliminating hungry mouths when necessary. It is estimated that at certain points in history, some hunter-gatherer mothers killed as many as 30 percent of their own children as a survival technique. 

But we are not hunter-gatherers, and we do not live in times of famine. Or do we? In her new book "Mothers and Others," UC Davis professor Sarah Blaffer Hrdy makes a strong case for "cooperative breeding," saying that the human species excelled partly because of an elaborate system of "alloparents" -- aunts, uncles, friends, cousins and grandparents who helped feed and care for small children while their mothers foraged for miles, looking for food. As humans became richer and more industrialized, dependency on a safety net of caregivers became somehow old-fashioned. Multigenerational households became far less common, and families now often live thousands of miles away from kin, whose genetic interest in helping once kept kids alive. 

The current economic recession is a harsh season for many. When she committed her alleged crime, Shaquan Dulay was an unemployed single mother of three children under the age of 5. (CNN described her as "poor, jobless and overwhelmed.") She lived with her mother, who was undoubtedly exhausted herself (she worked outside the home as a caregiver). To top it off, Shaquan's sister also lived in the home -- with two more toddlers. One tired grandma. Two young mothers. Five small children. A few food stamps and no job prospects. The situation would have been challenging for even the most psychologically prepared.  

I ask myself, how did this happen to us, to our wealthy culture? Where was the father of Shaquan's children? Where were the other relatives? Where was the affordable daycare that would have enabled Shaquan to work? Where was the medical intervention that might have offered her birth control had she wanted it? Where was the education that would have helped her make a better choice than the one she did? Where was the psychiatric help she could have used when she first showed signs of cracking? 

One could argue that Shaquan did have choices. After that fateful fight with her mother (which ended with Shaquan storming out the door with her two little boys), she called a friend who suggested she come over. She turned down that offer. That lifeline might have gotten her through the night, but what then? She was facing years of poverty. Watching children starve to death isn't a fun option, either. 

Don't get me wrong: I am not defending Shaquan's horrific choice. She committed one of the worst crimes imaginable -- and deserves the consequences. But this tragedy will keep on giving. Shaquan's mother and 5-year-old daughter are grieving over the deaths of those two little boys, as are many others. And I am washing the blood off my hands as I wonder how to prevent something like this from ever happening to another American child.


next: My Other Life as a Short-Order Cook
22 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jamie August 25, 2010, 5:30 AM

RIDICULOUS to even try and blame ANYONE but the mothers! NO ONE FORCED THEM TO HAVE CHILDREN! And if she was poor and jobless, why on earth was she breeding? It’s not the relatives responsibility to raise that mother’s kids. I’ve had to deal with that situation in my family - a sister who pops out kids and expects grandmom, aunties and uncles to all “pitch” in - um, I’ve got my own kids and life to deal with. You want kids, you raise ‘em. You’re on food stamps? Well then you certainly should be having kids because you can’t afford them. I’m so tired of this non-accountable, lazy, self-entitled generation that wants to blame everyone and everything for their own wrong-doings!!

Jessica August 25, 2010, 6:03 AM

Right on Jamie! This article asks where was all the programs that could have helped save these children…the answer? Right in front of this mothers face! There are sooo many programs that are designed to help families like this in need. Do people take advantage of them? No. Whens the last time you drove by a planned parenthood and the parking lot was full…never, but everyday you hear about another unwanted baby. She has no one to blame but herself, perhaps if she had made better decisions in the past, she wouldnt have feel that she needed to kill her children to save them from starvation. And we all know those kids wouldnt have starved…food stamps and WIC. Those programs provide alot of food, I pay my taxes to support programs like that. Programs that will feed her kids with money out of my pocket. And she def. doesnt look to starved herself!

Mama3000 August 25, 2010, 6:21 AM

I have issues with this article. 29 is just not THAT young!! While I do wonder about the father(s)involvement, this woman did have other options than to brutally murder two little boys who in no way could fight her back!!! I sympathize with the fact that she was overwhelmed…..but c’mon, she is old enough to know and do better! She did not have to choose such a tragic end for those two little boys. They HAD no choice! Imagine their last moments……..simply horrifying.

Angie August 25, 2010, 6:51 AM

Blame others, come on. Seriously to try and play on our empathy for this lady is seriously twisted. The whole she had three children bs is even more pathetic because there are such things as BIRTH CONTROL! To ever blame having 2, 3 or a ton of kids is ridiculous because there are ways to not get pregnant in the first place!

Jilly  August 25, 2010, 7:07 AM

Try NOT having sex! And I agree, there are options and programs. And fine, if she does not want to get off her butt and apply for the programs and do some legwork, give the kids up to the system. It may not be the best, but it certainly beats murder!

Crystal August 25, 2010, 7:22 AM

are you for real going to bash the person who wrote this… this is just another point of view that no one can handle.. i mean yes the women did something horrible…but there is no way someone could be in the right mind to do that… something was wrong here.. and there were probably many people who noticed it in her circle and no one said anything! i think society should take blame on this partly because no one would give a single parent a chance at a job..daycare help is a joke..and i have been on welfare and got foodstamps and it wasnt because i wanted to live off the system.. i use to make 50k a year.. and its gone everything.. you shouldn’t knock anyone who has to use assistance..doesnt mean everyone who has used it is doing something illegal or doesn’t want to try.. i know there are people out there driving escalades and stopping to pick up their ebt card but i am not one of them and dont appreciate the society label of that! this lady needed help and the help she got wasnt enough.. regardless of how she got where she was the kids were a blessing and that should never be questioned.. sucks that we don’t live in a more helping and loving society like other cultures do… instead of always ME ME ME IT SHOULD BE HOW CAN I HELP YOU YOU YOU!

Ambur August 25, 2010, 7:39 AM

I agree with Crystal. The point was not to condone or overlook what this woman did, but to open up the eyes of society. I’m on welfare but I certainly don’t want to be. I’m out looking for a job every day, walking, with a baby in a stroller because help for daycare…oh there is none. Then it makes me scared for when I do get a job..where’s my daughter gonna go while I’m at work? The point of the article was to help you see what this woman is going through. Yeah she did something horrible, but where were her resources. Yes there are some but 98% of them cost money. Money we don’t have because the little bit of money we do have goes to diapers and wipes and other things for our kid(s). She’s trying to open up your eyes so you can see the big picture not just what’s in front of you, or only what you choose to see. But EVERYTHING.

Danielle August 25, 2010, 7:51 AM

Crystal are you serious? The first way to get help is to help yourself. She was invited over by a friend and declined. She refused help! Those that have struggled know that even the littlest bit of help is something. How dare anyone blame society for someones personal actions! She chose her actions. She chose to ignore help. She chose to murder her children that she chose to lay down and have. How can anyone else be blamed for what she chose to do? And yes I understand some things are not a choice, like not having a job because of the economy. But how many people are doing what they can, legally, to get through it. There are options for everyone. You say those in her circle may have seen signs of this coming and didn’t say anything, she chose to have those people in her life. There comes a point and time when everyone is accountable for their own actions. They need to be held to that as well.

Vera  August 25, 2010, 8:28 AM

I strongly agree with Jamie. She had many choices and choose to make the wrong ones. Where is the personal responsibility? These days it is everyone fault but the person who made the decision. Can’t pay my mortgage? Lenders fault that I didn’t know what I was signing up for. Can’t pay my credit card bill? Lenders fault for me not reading what I signed and agreed to. Decided to have sex and babies even though I couldn’t afford them. Society’s fault. Give me a break! There are evil people in this world and she is one of them.

Rachelle August 25, 2010, 8:48 AM

She should have killed herself instead of those babies.

angie August 25, 2010, 9:12 AM

Three things come to mind when I read this article: fear, selfishness, and perseverance. I went through a pretty rough time after my divorce from my child’s father so I can relate to the feelings of being overwhelmed. However, EVERYONE gets those feelings no matter if you are married, divorced, single, rich, poor, whatever. Its how we deal with those feelings that determine how we live our lives. I, like her, was very fearful of the future (how will I pay for daycare? how will I ever make it? will I ever find love again?) I, like her, experienced feelings of selfishness (if I didn’t have a kid I could be doing x,y,z…). But one major thing we don’t have in common is the fact that I chose to take that long, difficult walk through the tunnel of despair and I chose to keep going no matter what. I worked seven days a week, was on a tight budget, had to raise my son and take care of my car and house on my own, and on many occassions I cried and wished for my own life to end. Today, I am glad that I made that choice. Unfortunately, she did not. Society is not to blame for our own individual actions. There is ALWAYS hope. When a negative thought enters your mind and you’re going through tribulations, immediately change your thoughts. As evidenced here, one negative thought can lead to a disatrous ending.

rachelle August 25, 2010, 9:55 AM

Right on Angie!

rachelle August 25, 2010, 10:43 AM

Right on Angie!

Micaela  August 25, 2010, 11:34 AM

I mean how much more help can she get? We complain about not getting any assistance for us middle class, but the poor have SO many programs, etc. She refused help. There were other ways she could have handled it. She knew about birth control. she just didn’t care about her future. Also, I wonder how her mother feels, how much guilt she feels right now. This is a perfect example of why these programs for the poor, needy, uneducated are needed & AVAILABLE & she refused any help.

Wendy August 25, 2010, 12:45 PM

I don’t believe that society can or should be held responsible when a parent decides to murder their child. The author of the article asks where all these different forms of assistance were when this mother needed them. I say they were there and ask my own question: why didn’t this mother seek out the various forms of assistance before she made this decision? Why should it be my responsibility to make sure that my neighbor doesn’t kill her children? Do I not have enough to worry about with raising my own children, and trying to provide for them? I live in the same economy this mother did, and I would never even briefly consider murdering my children as an option to solving my problems.

Society is only responsible for so much. There are countless things that we can and should be doing something about, but there’s also a certain point at which each individual has to take responsibility for their own life, their own choices, and cannot blame society when they make bad choices or act irresponsibly and then must face the consequences. It’s just like a child blaming their parents for what the child does: there comes a point where it is no longer the parent’s responsibility and is now the child’s.

brittany August 25, 2010, 1:40 PM

that is ridiculous. i cannot agree with this. i am 22 years old and have 3 children under 3. i am a stay at home mother and i do have a supportive mom but she is always busy so i rarely get a second hand. my life is hard and stressful and extremely tiring but i wouldnt ever harm my children or even think of it! while i understand some women may not feel that way and may feel caught in a corner or whatever it still leaves no excuse to kill someone YOU chose to bring into this world. its un believable. ive been stressed to the limit before believe me but to do that to someone so innocent and helpless when all they do is depend on you and love you is so sad and she is a sorry excuse for a person. humans are made to be pushed and we can handle whatever we “want” to handle. she was looking for an easy way out.

chris August 25, 2010, 2:42 PM

The only way you can blame society is by blaming it on the fact that it is no longer unacceptable to have children outside of marriage and that it is okay for all of our young girls to get pregnant by all of these low life bums who were are no longer taught to stand up and do the right thing when he makes a girl pregnant. But as far as help is concerned, people like her w/no job, no husband, mulitple babies get more help than the rest of us. I’m tired of hearing about how some people qualify for so much help when most people who are struggle can’t qualify. People today are walking away from their homes, collecting umemployment for sometimes up to a year or more, getting food stamps, free lunches in school, free health care and those of us who continue to bust our butts but make “too much” don’t get anything. So, NO don’t blame me that this women couldn’t handle the life she made for herself!

Carol August 25, 2010, 8:30 PM

Society didn’t choose for her to have unprotected sex. Society didn’t choose her not to get married or not to have a support system to help her with the kids. Society didn’t choose for her to keep the kids. And lastly, society didn’t choose for her to kill her kids.
SHe made those chooses.

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