Remember the bad old days when a rape victim would show up in court and the defense attorney would say, “Why was her skirt so short?” As if the woman caused her own rape.
Only gradually did it dawn on us that this is blaming the victim. Once we recognized how cruel and clueless this is, we became a more empathetic society.
Except when it comes to moms.
Mothers: American Law and the Risks to Children’s Health” is a new book by Pace University law professor Linda C. Fentiman. It looks at why we keep moms in the crosshairs of our condemnation. From pre-birth through adolescence, when something goes wrong with kids, it is often considered morally and even legally Mama’s fault.
If you need an example, just read Friday’s post. A Des Moines Iowa mom, Laci Lynn Taylor, left her 3-month-old on the changing table when she went to get her bottle. The child rolled over and accidentally suffocated against the edge of the table — as rare and horrifying as anything I can imagine. But rather than treating it as a freak accident, the state has charged the mom in her baby’s death and locked her up these past four months because she can’t make bail. She faces a possible 25 years in prison.
The mom was not perfect. She should not have left her baby on the changing table. But let he who is a perfect parent cast the first stone.
Why would we treat a grieving mother as a criminal? Fentiman lists several unconscious biases at work in our society:
â€”Hindsight bias. Once a tragedy has occurred, it’s impossible to look back and not think it should have been easy to predict and avoid.
â€”The fundamental attribution error. This is the unconscious belief that bad things only happen to bad people.
â€”The “reasonable man” theory. In the olden days, negligence was determined by what a “reasonable man” would have done in the situation. For example, a reasonable man wouldn’t leave a 4-year-old home alone for a weekend. But now that we think about the “reasonable woman,” the bar is higher. “A reasonable mother is supposed to be superhuman and always do anything to minimize the risk to her children,” says Fentiman. So if something bad happens while a mom is, say, napping, she can be blamed for daring to shut her eyes.
â€”Causation. The American legal system holds the primitive notion that there’s only one cause of any problem. So, for instance, a child who is beaten to death is not a victim of poverty, an abusive dad and a broken protective services system. It’s simply that his mom didn’t save him.
Maybe in America, we don’t blame the victim anymore â€” but we do blame the victim’s mom.
We blame mom’s when babies die because we can’t bear the reality that sometimes really terrible random things, the worst things, happen and we can’t stop them from happening. We cannot bear the knowledge that we are vulnerable. So, we look for some bad thing that the unfortunate bereaved parent has done, or something she has failed to do, and comfort ourselves with the belief that this could never happen to us because we are good, and careful, and responsible.
Makes me so sad. How can we do this to each other? Random bad things DO happen. As scary as that is. Get over it people. Life is uncertain and random sometimes. Yes, your kid could randomly die. As hard as that is to accept. Take a deep breath and move forward and have compassion for other humans. And enjoy your kids.
I think you’re right, Margo. For many women, a child’s death is the worst thing they can imagine, so they want to assure themselves that they could never lose a child. So, their thought process is, “Oh, how awful that her child died on the changing table. But I’ve never left a child on the changing table. Therefore, my child is safe!” It’s hard for people to accept that random, awful things can always happen.
“The American legal system holds the primitive notion that thereâ€™s only one cause of any problem.”
Funny… that’s not the way it’s taught in law school.
The elements of a negligence case are Duty, Breach, Causation, Injury, and Proximate Cause. The sharp-eyed will notice that there are two types of “cause” listed among the five elements. The first one means that the injury must result from the breach of duty. Proximate Cause, on the other hand, means that the breach of duty must be the most significant of all the causes.
Then there’s the whole topic of “contributory negligence”, in which we, yes, blame the victim. Driver was speeding down a street not paying attention. Pedestrian was jaywalking while wearing a ninja suit at midnight. Which is responsible for pedestrian’s injuries from their collision?
:A reasonable mother is supposed to be superhuman and always do anything to minimize the risk to her children”
I play this weird game with news articles about a child who died in an accident. It’s usually the 3rd or 4th comment, after the “RIP ANGEL” comments, they start to turn on the mother. Always the mother, never the father.
“WHERE WAS THE MOTHER”
And then the comments are followed with “Some people shouldn’t breed” and calls for charges against the mom, to lock her up. It’s sickeningly predictable how quickly online pitchfork-wielding perfect parents attack good parents who made a mistake.
Also, most of my children’s accidents occurred when I was right there with them. I STILL couldn’t prevent stitches and falls, when I was feet away from them! My superhero cape is defective, apparently..
This does sound like a freak accident in that a normal reasonable person would not think a child would suffocate as a result of rolling over on a changing table. I’m having a hard time picturing how that is even possible. In all likelihood, the mom thought about the things that seemed reasonably possible and decided it was safe to let the child lie there alone for a few minutes.
I know there are signs all over baby furniture that say “never leave baby unattended,” but those signs have long ago lost their meaning because of overkill. The reality is that you’d be a really obsessive parent if you never ever let your kid out of your sight.
I think the definition of “reasonable behavior” needs to take into account the fact that society considers it normal to ignore those ubiquitous warnings. Their purpose is to protect companies from lawsuits, not to educate parents. Accordingly they should be considered irrelevant in cases like this.
Now I ask – how the hell does a baby suffocate by rolling over on a changing table? I can understand falling off. What stupid design strangles a baby? I’m gonna guess it was some sort of “safety feature” that did it.
I agree with Margo. If there is someone to blame, everyone else can collectively say: “Well I don’t have to worry about that tragedy happening to me because I would never do that”. If lessens the fear. If we all accept the knowledge that bad things do randomly happen to the innocent, we have to accept a greater amount of fear in our lives. That is hard to do.
It is the same reason we pass laws after every tragedy to prevent it from ever happening again, even if laws already exist. We have a much easier time dealing with things if we can fool ourselves into thinking it can’t happen to us, or we are doing something so it won’t happen again.
SKL, you are right, it was a safety feature that caused it- the rail intended to prevent roll-offs. The baby’s head made it over the rail and the body didn’t. Her neck was pressed against the rail, cutting off her airway.
Do we know how old the baby was? Was she even old enough for mom to expect rolling? That would certainly figure into the mom’s risk assessment.
They said the mom knew she could roll over. But a baby who is developed enough to roll over can usually push her head up in order to breathe.
I used to have a table with rails around. It would never ever occur to me that my kid would get her neck onto the rail and be unable to get it off again. It sounds impossible.
We do it because it makes us feel safer. Losing a kid and getting raped are two of the most terrifying things a woman can contemplate. If we can find a way to blame someone who has experienced such things, then we don’t have to face the heart-stopping terror that it could happen to us.
I used to work as a live-in counselor at a residential treatment center. Another live-in female staff got abducted and assaulted at gun point around 8:30 at night after coming back from working out as she exited her car in front of our building. She was still in her sweaty work-out clothes and she parked directly in front of the building where we all parked. I found myself just furious and erupting in unexplainable rages. Then, to my horror, I realized I was furious *at her*. I felt like a monster, but as I processed it, I realized it was fear. If there was something I could blame her for, I could have “forgiven” her. But since she did everything “right” and still got attacked, I had nothing left to fall back on to convince myself of my own safety. It was a helluva wake up call about what fear can do to us.
Fentiman’s reasons are true too, I think, but Margo has gotten at the most fundamental reason: “We blame momâ€™s when babies die because we canâ€™t bear the reality that sometimes really terrible random things, the worst things, happen and we canâ€™t stop them from happening. We cannot bear the knowledge that we are vulnerable.”
This happens in other areas, too. It’s why when someone dies in an accident, one of the first things people say is “Wasn’t he wearing a helmet?/a seatbelt?” etc., even if those devices would make no difference to the particular accident. It’s also why when someone gets cancer everybody looks for a lifestyle choice they made that could explain it, and why my in-laws send each other constant e-mail forwards about this or that study about some allegedly carcinogenic or healthy food, as if eating right could guarantee health. And it’s why even Christians who don’t believe the theology of the prosperity gospel can fall into it so easily without realizing it, like all our family friends who were sure if we just prayed enough or had the right kind of faith my husband was guaranteed to survive his cancer. People really really really want to believe all misfortune is deserved; otherwise we’re at the mercy of chance, which nobody wants to be.
My assumption is that Ms. Taylor’s case will eventually be thrown out by a reasonable Judge but it never should have gotten to this point. Goodness gracious, what sense is there in piling on a grieving parent? Last year, a toddler somehow worked his way thru the small doggie door leading out to the backyard while his parents were in the other room and he was tragically mauled by the family’s pit bull terrier. Of course, the parents were charged and arrested with child neglect and were looking at a lengthy jail sentence. Not sure how that case turned out but IMO parents should not be jailed for parental misjudgments. Now could they have taken better precautions? Probably, but hindsight is 20/20. Now if there is INTENT involved such as the Georgia dad who DELIBERATELY left his child in the hot car to die, he should be prosecuted to the fullest.
But this gets back to America’s mentality that anytime a child is hurt, it’s always some adult’s fault somewhere.
This is tragic. We all know you shouldn’t leave a baby on a changing table BUT- how about those days when you’re so tired or sick you can hardly see straight and you do something stupid? Without thinking?
Because you were pushed beyond your physical capacity mothers of young children are often living in that vulnerable place for days if not weeks on end. Mothers truly need more support. My heart aches for that poor woman.
Hi all. I am a psychology professor.
Second bullet point: What Fentimen wrote is not the fundamental attribution error. “The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to explain someone’s behavior based on internal factors, such as personality or disposition, and to underestimate the influence that external factors, such as situational influences, have on another person’s behavior.”
See also the wikipedia page. A further aspect is that when we explain our own behavior, we attribute good outcomes to our internal disposition,and bad outcomes to situational factors. The reverse for when we judge others’ behavior.
“Bad things only happen to bad people” is somewhat similar to the “just world hypothesis”
Just-World Hypothesis. The idea that people need to believe one will get what one deserves so strongly that they will rationalize an inexplicable injustice by naming things the victim might have done to deserve it. Also known as blaming the victim, the just-world fallacy, and the just-world effect.
Last summer I was over at a fellow parishioner’s house for a 4th of July picnic and as a friend and I were sitting by the pool, some of the kids who were around 11 or 12, were swimming and doing flips off the diving board. The kids were obviously good swimmers and great off the diving board but for awhile there, all their parents were inside the house socializing. Probably because the risk of their kids getting hurt, given their ability within the very small swimming pool, was extremely unlikely. The diving board was a backyard pool diving board so it was maybe a mere 2 feet above the water. Nothing extraordinary, and most of the pool was shallow and small, certainly nothing like the Atlantic Ocean.
But as my friend and I were talking, he looked over at the kids in the swimming pool and commented to me that if one of these kids happens to get hurt in some freak accident as unlikely as that is, he and I are gonna get blamed for it and held accountable. Because WE are the adults and should have prevented the accident because we were there! So I told Wayne to just relax but the more I thought about what he said, he was exactly right. Every time a kid gets hurt, it’s ALWAYS the nearest adult’s fault who should have the book thrown at them.
The ironic thing is, the same people who would blame the parents do not realize there are many times they also leave their 12-year-old children unattended in very low risk recreational activities.
“Then, to my horror, I realized I was furious *at her*. I felt like a monster, but as I processed it, I realized it was fear. If there was something I could blame her for, I could have â€œforgivenâ€ her. But since she did everything â€œrightâ€ and still got attacked, I had nothing left to fall back on to convince myself of my own safety.”
@Dienne your comment is eerily insightful. Your candor and courage help us recognize our own vulnerabilities. The first-uttered question of WHO’S FAULT IS THIS is how we cope with tragedy. The victim did X, Y, and Z wrong. I’d NEVER do those things, so I’m going to be OK. Now I feel better about this scary tragedy. Boy, was she ever stupid! Blaming and blood-thirst simply give us an illusion of control in over our uncontrollably finite lives.
My biggest peeve is how when a criminal is involved, that person seems to get a free pass from public scrutiny. Consider the common case of somebody trying to steal a car, discovering a baby in the back seat, panicking, and fleeing the scene. Hell will host the world’s hockey championships the day you see a commenter respond with, “How horrible! What kind of bad person would steal a car like that?” No siree bob. It’s always, “WHO WOULD LEAVE THEIR KID IN A CAR??” Our culture and jurisprudence won’t allow us to accuse Mom of “provoking” a rapist, but you can most certainly blame her for “provoking” a car thief!
I’m also sick to death of news media demanding a moral or message from every tragic incident. “A vending machine tragically fell on a three-year-old. Now the parents are pleading others to be careful of vending machines. Here are some vending machine safety tips.” It’s as if we need this spin for some kind of psychological closure. The idea that shit happens is simply to terrifying to ponder.
I’m really interested in reading this book, especially where it covers the all-important forced-cesarean issue.
Babies should never be left alone on a changing table because of the likelihood that they will roll over and fall off. One possible solution is to just not use a changing table. When I first adopted my child, I did not have a changing table. I put a towel on the floor and changed her on that. Of course, she was old enough to crawl. While I was trying to change her she would crawl away at top speed, turn around, look at me and laugh. She thought this was just uproariously funny.
I quite strongly disagree that legally speaking the notion that events have a single cause is “primitive”. If a child is beaten, there’s a single cause for it–the person who beat the child chose to do so. Why that person chose to do so is (or should), outside of EXTREMELY rare circumstances, not a legally valid consideration. Maybe the stress of poverty drove the father to lash out at the child; maybe the father was raised in an environment where that was considered normal; maybe whatever. Doesn’t matter. The father CHOSE to beat the child, and that’s the legally actionable event. It’s clichÃ© to point this out, but it bears repeating: large numbers of people from every one of the conditions described in the opening text DON’T beat children. Therefore those conditions don’t–or shouldn’t–count as mitigating factors.
To put it a different way: saying that a person abusing a child isn’t responsible for it is no different than saying that a rapist isn’t responsible for their actions. Maybe the short skirt WAS a partial cause. The error is identical.
The issue with accidental deaths is that our legal system assumes that mothers can prevent all accidents, and therefore a failure to do so is a legally actionable choice on her part. The law seems to accept that injury is in and of itself proof that the mother opted to expose her child to unreasonable harm. In other words: the mother is guilty until proven innocent. The way we should address this is by determining whether the mother chose to harm the child or not. Putting a kid’s hand in boiling water is choosing to harm the child (again, outside some VERY rare circumstances). Putting them on a changing table is not. Letting them play in traffic is negligent; letting them play on a swing set is not. And if someone tries to argue that swing sets are unsafe and therefore we should treat them like playing in traffic, we should consider that person incompetent when it comes to holding opinions about children, rather than considering them experts who should over-rule thousands of years of parenting.
“I quite strongly disagree that legally speaking the notion that events have a single cause is â€œprimitiveâ€. If a child is beaten, thereâ€™s a single cause for itâ€“the person who beat the child chose to do so. Why that person chose to do so is (or should), outside of EXTREMELY rare circumstances, not a legally valid consideration.”
Except that family courts don’t rule this way. A close friend of mine reported her children physically abused and beaten by their father to the police. She reported it, a babysitter reported it,the school reported it, and the child that was dragged down a flight of wooden stairs reported it too, but the father argued it was “parenting” and that he was disciplining an unruly child. He won, beating his kid was his right.
He never was prosecuted for child abuse. He later murdered my friend with a chainsaw before killing himself with that same chainsaw and leaving his son to discover the brutal carnage.
He also changed his will to inflict further financial abuse on these poor orphaned kids, all legal under our current court system. It’s an absolute disgrace.
I have noticed this particularly when a woman’s husband hurts or abuses their children in some way. The primary focus of people’s anger is the mother, not the man who hurt or killed the kids. It’s as if the abusive man is seen as a force of nature, something outside of our control or jurisdiction, so there’s no point pouring our anger out on him. But the woman who chose to *stay* with this man, knowing full well (!) he would end up killing or maiming her child is guilty, guilty, guilty! I first noticed this during the Hedda Nussbaum case back in 1987.
“Itâ€™s as if the abusive man is seen as a force of nature, something outside of our control or jurisdiction, so thereâ€™s no point pouring our anger out on him.”
That mentality shows up in a lot of places. Example: children who are said to be “bully-magnets”, but who are forcibly stopped from retaliating against bullies (who are themselves not stopped). Apparently bullies are forces of nature.
And, of course, the aforementioned rapists-because-her-skirt-was-short.
Sadly, it’s a natural tendency for humans to point fingers at others because 1. They can’t find anyone (specifically the person who actually did the offense) to blame. 2. There isn’t anyone to blame. Schit happens. It’s part of life. But they need to console themselves. See 1. Or 3. They find fault within themselves because they actually do some of these “terrible” things, so they re-direct away from themselves.
People blame, not for valid reasons. But it makes them feel better from whatever it is they are feeling bad about. Which includes their insecurity. Giving them a sanctimonious attitude. You know the types. The one ones who believe their schit doesn’t stink. And everyone else is wrong.
I had a really hard time with Friday’s article and today’s article hits on some of the “whys.”
I haven’t read the book, Blaming Mothers – American Law and the Risks to Childrenâ€™s Health.
I’m guessing that Lenore is not mentioned in the Acknowledgement Page.
However I believe that this blog has a lot to do with it being published. This is because books only write about subjects where there is market of interest. Writers and Publishers will have to see a demand. Otherwise the book will never happen.
This blog helped the public become aware of these atrocities. If it wasn’t for Lenore, the demand for this book would be only about half of what it is now.
â€œIâ€™m also sick to death of news media demanding a moral or message from every tragic incident. â€œA vending machine tragically fell on a three-year-old.â€
I don’t want to paint the news media blameless in any way. However, they are only supplying a demand. My question is why is there a demand?
This is an extract from a movie that I saw.
The human body produces its own heroin. In fact, when the fight-or-flight instinct is activated in the hypothalamus, your body releases endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine. That is heroin, cocaine and amphetamine, all at once.
This is why there are so many ‘Drama Junkies’!
In this current day and age whenever something bad happens, instead of trying to find the reason and figure out how to prevent similar incidents in the future, we look for someone to blame; i.e.; it’s someone’s fault. This is bad enough, but now we also criminalize it. What is the rational behind that? Are all accidents now the result of criminal activity?
I see it as a reflection of a historical trend.
Not that long ago, child mortality was a constant presence. Parents had a dozen kids so that at least some would survive into adulthood. Injury, malnutrition, and disease took many children.
But technologies improved, and more children started surviving into adulthood. Extremely recently, on a historical scale, it became possible for people to sharply limit how many children they conceived. We went from having many children, and losing many children, to having fewer, and seeing nearly all of them survive into adulthood. This changes the psychology… all of our eggs are in one basket, so to speak. With fewer kids, we can lavish each with more attention, and the expectations that this will happen become entrenched.
So, you wind up with an expectation that, because parents have so few children, each of them will be kept safe and secure from harm (OK, kids still get injured from doing stuff, but children’s mortality is still amazingly rare.)
Safety comes from focus (goes the assumption), so any injury MUST come from lack of focus. (This notion comes from workplace safety efforts… zero injuries in the workplace is an achievable goal!)
Now… as to whether or not it’s leveled at just moms. It’s not. It’s not evenly divided (since moms spend much more time with infants and toddlers, they’re likely to be the caregivers when/if something bad happens. But the ratio is changing, with fathers more involved.)
I had a younger half-brother who died as an infant. My own daughter had a case of meningitis as an infant, and spent three days in the hospital as a result. Neither of these things has a person to blame for it. A young man who went to my daughter’s middle school was killed walking home from school, on a sidewalk. That one DOES have someone to blame… the woman who had a seizure while driving her car, AFTER she received medical advice that it was unsafe for her to drive because she was having seizures.
It comes down to the fact that, from birth, we look to our mothers to keep us safe, to make things right, to always protect us. When a child dies in the presence of a mother it is our instinct to say the mother did something wrong. Is it fair? No. Is it realistic? No. But it goes back to the very instincts that make us human. To the human mind, it is abhorrent that a mother can willfully, accidentally, negligently, or even with no possible connection cause a child to die. It is psychology.
When I became a mom, my mom told me that each one of us (her 4 kids) fell once from the changing table. And it was on a stone floor (not wood, no carpet, nothing. She always heard that loud ‘bang’ of our head against the floor). That’s the excuse for why we are all a bit cuckoo.
It was always an emergency, she left us for a few seconds. Emergency with the older siblings, something boiling on the stove, etc etc. And it was always the first time that we rolled over, and she thought that we were still too young to roll. She had to raise 4 kids in 4 years (we’re one year after another), on her own basically. No other family in the country, and my father, her husband, was a very busy doctor working in a hospital, long days, and for the first years he had a night shift every other night. So he was basically never home, and when he was – he was asleep.
I heard it and took it as another family story, an anecdote. Of course it could have been a tragic story, but it wasn’t. And of course my mother said that she felt horrified, horrible and couldn’t believe that it happened to her (or happened to her AGAIN), but it still happened. And I never thought for one second that she wasn’t a good mother. At least not because of that, hahahah – we all blame our moms for one thing or another, don’t we? I learned from that to never leave my daughter EVER on the changing table, and if I needed to leave – to just put her on the floor (she can’t fall from the floor). Nowadays – nobody will dare to share the small (even way smaller) accidents that happen, because they are afraid they will be judged. Which is a shame, because learning from other accidents and mistakes can help. I think what we are learning to do is to try our best (what most mothers did throughout history) AND – MORE importantly – keep QUIET about ANYTHING that went wrong. I know many parents who won’t even tell their partner if something happened. Blame culture is very strong. We live in a world that we believe that everything has a solution, and we want to find a reason, and in a case of accident – it’s to find blame with someone.
â€œso any injury MUST come from lack of focus.â€
Are you familiar with the invisible Gorilla? It’s a great example of selective attention.
There is a limit on how many things a person can focus on. Safety is one thing to focus on. However, a lack of focusing on this is not the only thing that can get you into trouble. Anxiety and depression is a minefield. It takes a lot of attention to try to navigate through this. This is only one other example of things to focus on. Making sure that you’re performing your employment task in a timely manner (so that you don’t lose your job) is another one. However, there are still more.
Juggling your attention is the same as juggling balls. Sometimes they drop. Until the crystal ball is perfected, people will always sometimes guess wrong on which things to focus on that will cause the least amount of harm. People lose their job for not focusing on all of the safety stuff at work. People also lose their jobs for not working fast enough or making mistakes that have nothing to do with safety.
LOL My message was truncated when I copied and pasted because I wasted focusing enough. The result of this is that we’ll probably have another fight!
I’m not sure if this is what you’re saying but I strongly disagree with the safety mantra that we’ve heard for many years. â€œAll accidents can be preventedâ€.
“Iâ€™m not sure if this is what youâ€™re saying but I strongly disagree with the safety mantra that weâ€™ve heard for many years. â€œAll accidents can be preventedâ€.”
I labeled it as an assumption. Why are you responding as if I were advancing it as truth?
This is not a dog pile on @James Pollock
All accidents are not preventable, but they can be minimized when the human input is involved because the human’s input can be modified to help minimize the accident when no other accident input can be, e.g. weather, material problem, etc.
Frankly, I believe, mother’s get more blame, unfairly, because they brought the child into the world and is seen as the protector. I don’t like blame and reserve root cause ID of whatever is the issue, matter or problem after the fact where blame is a word the should be tossed out.
â€œI labeled it as an assumption. Why are you responding as if I were advancing it as truth?â€
I’m not. I wasn’t sure what you were saying. That’s why I said this.
Iâ€™m not sure if this is what youâ€™re saying but I strongly disagree with the safety mantra that weâ€™ve heard for many years. â€œAll accidents can be preventedâ€.
I completely agree with you about how we blame mothers, and enjoyed (if that is the right word :-/) this article.
I just want to point out one thing: women ARE still blamed for their rapes, every day. It is much more rare in the courts because it is illegal (but some judges let it happen) but it is horribly common in the public sphere – in families, schools, police stations, universities, gossip, online, etc.
It is real & it happens every day. Its just that now instead of “Well why was she wearing slutty clothing?” now you hear “I mean, I’m not saying its her fault really, but why was she wearing slutty clothing?”
Same thing, just more justifications. We still have a LONG way to go.