A year ago this April, Lashanda Armstrong loaded her four children into her minivan and drove into the Hudson River. Her oldest son, aged 10, was the only survivor after he rolled down his window and swam to the boat ramp in 45 degree water. Her other children, ages, 5, 2, and 11 months all died.
By all accounts, Armstrong was a good mother doing the best she could on limited means and with limited emotional support. She was estranged from both of the fathers of her children and for all intents and purposes a single parent. She mentioned in passing to her children’s daycare provider that she was “tired and all alone.” After a fight with the father of her younger 3 children, it seems she felt even more so as that was when she piled all of her kids into the car and drove them down a boat ramp into the Hudson River.
Armstrong’s story is tragic, and still, when the topic came up in parent discussions on playgrounds or over dinner, parents talked about it in that distancing fashion that we save only for the most uncomfortable of topics. By the distancing fashion, I mean, the “I can’t imagine doing such a thing” or “Who could do such a thing?” or “It’s unnatural. It’s irrational – the urge to kill yourself and your children.” (as if we were unclear or thought that suicide and infanticide were well reasoned, thought out and rational courses of action). It’s the judgmental distancing thing we do when we’d like to think that the kinds of people who do these kinds of things are a completely different species of human being than ourselves.
I saw this again this last week, when a Chicago mom, Michelle Feliciano, 23, was arrested on child endangerment charges after her 11 month old baby was found with multiple injuries including bleeding on the brain, a broken clavicle, marks on the neck, and puncture wounds on his feet from toothpicks. Feliciano explained the injuries; she said they happened in a “bout of frustration.” Her oldest child, between the ages of three and four, is now staying with a relative, while her baby is in stable condition in the hospital.
The comments on Feliciano’s debut into the papers sound like the things I remember reading about in the history of the Salem Witch trials or a Dickens novel. Feliciano is an immoral monster who should be hung in the town square. She should be sterilized without her consent or anesthetic. Her crimes inspire even the most collected and enlightened of onlookers to think of the most barbaric and medieval of punishments.
Yet, Feliciano’s case, while profoundly disturbing, I think deserves some degree of compassion. She is another young mom trying to raise children on limited means. There is no mention of a father being present. While Feliciano had family close by and it was a family member who noticed that something was wrong when the 11-month old baby couldn’t hold his head up, Feliciano obviously didn’t feel like she could call them for help when she found herself frustrated. In the moment, dealing with two children all by herself seemed so overwhelming, that somehow hurting one of them seemed to make sense.
Child abuse is inexcusable, period. But to assume that Armstrong or Feliciano are unlike other people is a mistake. Rather, they reveal the shortcomings of all of us.
Parenting, as one of my friends says, is unrelenting. Consequently, it can bring out anger and frustration that most of us didn’t know we had. Despite being raised in an angry household where my parents often yelled (generally at each other), I didn’t consider myself an angry person. I didn’t usually yell or throw things or kick things or throw tantrums like people who were angry people did. Even when I had a child I didn’t do these things. When I had my first child, if anything, my patience, compassion, and tolerance increased. But something happened after the birth of my second. Since the birth of my daughter, and the increasing independence of my son who is 3-going-on-15, I have found myself profoundly and ridiculously angry. By sheer coincidence, I have also found myself profoundly and ridiculously tired.
And, I beat myself up all the more because my children are happy, easy to be around, healthy little people. Unlike Feliciano and Armstrong, I am educated and not young (and not there’s anything wrong with young parents, though studies show child abuse drops as people have children later in life, but to be clear, to have more than one child by 25 – the age when our own brain just finishes its development – is young) and I am not trying to raise my children on limited means. My children’s father is an active partner and parent; we have a solid marriage with pretty great communication skills. We fight and yell, but we also love and laugh and keep talking. My sister lives around the corner with her awesome soon-to-be husband. When my husband works late, I can crash – with my two kids in tow - dinner at their house. Yesterday, I came home to find my almost brother-in-law in the backyard working on our chicken coop and watching my son play; my husband had to run out for a work call. I also have help; we can afford a housecleaner and I have a nanny part-time, so while I get up insanely early to get work done, I also have a few hours in the afternoon when she comes. I have her help for whatever I need: she can hold the baby, while I hold my son during his allergy tests at the doctor’s office or his teeth cleaning at the dentist.
For all intents and purposes, my parenting experience is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Feliciano and Armstrong. Nonetheless, I have had days since the birth of my daughter, where I felt emotionally and physically exhausted, drained, isolated, angry and even violently so. I have had moments where I have imagined doing terrible things to my children and myself and horrified myself. I have had moments where I didn’t know I was going to make it through the end of the day. I have moments where when someone said, “it only gets worse” I have thought, “well, then, I am not going to make it.” I have had moments where walking into traffic seemed like a reasonable course of action. I have thought there was something terribly wrong with me. I have felt hopeless; because my own parents were so angry, I have spent years working on my personal development, so I didn’t follow in their marriage and child-rearing footsteps. And as a result, I do live a very different life than my parents did when they were my age.
Then one day, my son asked for sliced cheese and when I gave it to him, he cried that he didn’t want it and without even thinking, I became my mother in 1976 and picked up the cheese and threw it across the room and into the trash and said, “well, then don’t eat it.” Horrified by the instantaneous transformation, I instantly picked him up, apologized and we cried together about how I scared both of us.
When I tentatively brought up the topic of my own parenting anger in a group of friends and my favorite fellow parents, I was worried I would get asked to leave. But nonetheless, I had to ask, “I know we all want to be gentle parents, or conscious parents or whatever the terms are - I know we all want to be the parents our parents weren’t, but does anyone beside me ever just lose it?”
I wasn’t shunned. One friend said, it’s going to happen, and it’s what you do in the moments after that make the difference. I realized that this is true, that my own parents told me I had it coming, so I always felt wrong even if I wasn’t. Whereas my children and I ended our bad patches, with me apologizing, and us on the couch snuggled together and reading, that this had the effect of my outbursts passing like my kids’ outbursts. Once we expressed the emotions and accounted for them, we could move on without carrying grudges forward.
Another friend wisely said, “I think we have to be like Gandhi, where we just keep taking hits from the British.” Then she added, “But I don’t know that Gandhi was as tired as we are.”
So while I’d like to pretend I can’t fathom how people like Armstrong or Feliciano do what they did, I can; I have felt the emotions that lead to those kind of actions. And like them, and like my favorite friends, and like my wise-Gandhi-citing friend, I - and most of us - weren’t taught how to deal with frustration or anger. Many of us were actually taught that expressing anger or throwing temper tantrums was nothing more than being manipulative or trying to get away with something. But this only leads to bottling emotions up until we can no longer stand it and we explode, often taking it out on those around us. Not many of us had parents that got down at our eye-level and said, “I get you’re angry and that’s a valid emotion. Do you want to talk about what makes you angry?...Oh? What else?” Most of us grew up in households where expressing emotions like anger was considered misbehavior.
Except that it’s not. Alfie Kohn famously writes that every act of misbehavior has at its core a valid complaint. The trick is to give kids – and ourselves – the skills to express that valid complaint in language. I know for myself that when I act out, I too have a valid complaint at the source, whether it’s that I feel unsupported or overwhelmed or that I need a break and am unable to put my children on “pause” while I take a nap. I suspect if we asked Feliciano and Armstrong if they had a valid complaint at the source of their “unthinkable” actions, we would find they did. I suspect we would find, that, in a country we consider advanced, they felt the struggles that come with not enough support.
We can imagine Feliciano and Armstrong as monsters or unnatural. Or we can consider that like many of us, they didn’t have the tools to handle the wide range of emotions that come with parenting. Like many of us, they found themselves overwhelmed with frustration.