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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
Brandi Martinie January 27, 2011, 6:56 PM

I had a web site about this topic, but I got so much spam I had to shut it. You seem to have a better spam filter!

Craig May 5, 2011, 5:44 AM

No Society is not to blame, this mother is.

By offering “Society” as a scapegoat the author clearly does not have a good grasp of the real meaning of personal responsibility.


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