When Bad Things Happen to Good Mothers

The soothing fiction that mothers are always to blame

Posted Jun 05, 2016

Source: dptro/iStock

What does it say about us that we have more compassion for a gorilla than for a mother hoping to give her child a day of happiness at the zoo?

It tells us that we desperately cling to the idea that bad things don't happen to good mothers. Sadly, that's nothing more than a soothing fiction.

I'm referring, of course, to the shooting death of the male silverback gorilla Harambe after a small child fell into his enclosure at the Cinncinati Zoo. The gorilla was killed to protect the child and the vitriol directed at the child's mother was startling. "I was killed because a bitch wasn't watching her child" layered over a picture of a gorilla was a particularly ugly meme.

It reminds me of the inappropriate reaction that some people may have to the disclosure of a friend's cancer: "If only you had eaten right and exercised more!" The similarity is not a coincidence.

Years ago I read a book that had a deep influence on me as a physician, When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner. Rabbi Kushner noted that many people respond insensitively to the tragedies of others because they are trying to convince themselves that the same thing will not happen to them. They can't acknowledge that bad things happen by chance --- even to good people --- because that means acknowledging that they don't have nearly as much control over what happens to them as they imagine.

Similarly, many parents refused to acknowledge that bad things can happen to the children of good mothers. Why? Because that means acknowledging that bad things can happen to their children even when they are doing their best to care for them.

I speak with a certain amount of authority on the subject. No, not my years of medical training although that did allow me to see more than a few bad things that happened to the children of good mothers. I speak as a mother who has been lucky to raise four children to adulthood relatively unscathed. After nearly 30 years of mothering, there have been no stitches, no serious illnesses, and only two broken bones (suffered in separate snowboarding falls by the same teenage child.) Yet I look at the mother whose child fell into the gorilla enclosure and think, there but for the grace of God go I.

One summer weekend my husband and I took our small children (ages 8, 6, 4 and 1 at the time) for a day of fun at a water park. My husband went off with the two older boys to the "lazy river" that threaded through the park. I took my youngest son and daughter to the enclosed kiddie section, which had a gate that locked autonomatically behind us and a latch out of reach of small children.

My two little ones took turns on the plastic kiddie slide. My daughter was too young to climb the steps so I had to place her at the top and catch her at the bottom. Both children were having a fabulous time.

When I swept up my daughter after her fourth trip down the slide I suddenly couldn't find my four year old. I didn't worry at first; after all he was locked into a safety enclosure in the kiddie section. But it did not take me long to realize that he was no longer within the fence; he had somehow gotten out into the main park. He did not know how to swim, was not wearing a life jacket and was wandering through an area with deep pools of water.

I grabbed my daughter and ran to the main gate, asking them to send lifeguards to look for my child. It was the longest 5 minutes of my life before my son came into view holding the hand of a teenage lifeguard. When he saw me, he pointed accusingly. "You got lost," he said.

How had he gotten out of the fenced area? With no trouble at all! He had simply slipped in behind a family when they went through and the adults either didn't notice or didn't care.

My point? My child could have drowned before I knew what was happening. I had taken him into an enclosed area with a locked gate. I had been standing right next to him. I had only looked away from him briefly to pick up his sister, believing that it was okay to look away because we were enclosed in a fence with a childproof lock.

The reality is that all it takes for tragedy to occur is just a few unfortunate coincidences, such as a mother who looks toward another of her children + an adult unwittingly (or knowingly) opening a childproof gate for an unattended child who wanted to explore someplace new.

The exact same thing could have happened to the mother at the Cinncinati Zoo: she looks away for a moment; the fence has a defect; the other adults standing right there wittingly or unwittingly ignore the child trying to squirm through or climb over. It all happens in a matter of seconds, but the tragic results last forever.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that maternal negligence doesn't exist. I've seen it: mothers who beat their children, fail to feed them, leave them home on their own for hours or days at a time. What happened in the Cinncinati Zoo was not negligence and the people who insist that it is tell us more about themselves than about the child's mother.

They want to believe that accidents don't happen --- indeed can't happen --- to good mothers. The vitriol directed at the Cinncinati mother reflects their desperation to cling to that belief in the face of the evidence that it isn't true. She wasn't negligent, just as they are not negligent, and the insistence that bad things can't happen to good mothers is nothing more than a beautiful and potentially tragic delusion.

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