Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cruel Mothers

In the last few weeks we've had some very sad stories in our media.  Police shootings of mentally ill young men, children dying from drinking unprocessed milk, our government winning the right to treat asylum seekers with unprecedented cruelty....  In the midst of this are two tragic crimes.

On November 23 some people out for a Sunday morning cycle heard strange noises coming from a partly covered drain beside Sydney's M7 freeway.  They investigated and found a newborn baby boy abandoned in the drain.  Doctors judged that the child had been there for 6 days.  The lucky boy is now recovering in foster care and his mother has been found and charged with attempted murder.

The drain where the baby was found at Quakers Hill.

Just a week later, two young children playing on Maroubra Beach in Sydney uncovered the remains of another infant who turned out to be a baby girl.  Sadly this child did not survive and the remains were badly decomposed.  The search for her mother is still ongoing.


These stories produce a complex reaction from police, media and the public.  On the one hand, we feel an instinctive horror at the suffering of vulnerable, innocent, tiny children.  On the other hand, we feel a lot of sympathy for the mothers.  What kind of fear or desperation can drive a woman to treat her own child in this way?  All of us who have children know how instinctive is our desire to protect and nurture them.  What can be powerful enough to overcome this urge?

Understandably, the need to protect the children, and their probably troubled mothers, means that the answers to these questions remain confidential.  We can only speculate.  However, this is hardly a new phenomenon.  The scenario of a young mother doing away with her newborn is so pervasive that it inspired not merely a classic folk song but a whole genre, often known as the "cruel mother ballads".  Here is a classic example of the genre, 'Bonnie St Johnstone' from Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Song.



This follows the classic pattern for these songs - the narrative is interspersed with a refrain which, in this case, simply locates the song geographically.  The woman gives birth in secret (in this case, apparently, in the woods), kills the child (in this case, twins) and finally meets with the appropriate consequence, being condemned to hell while her innocent children play happily in somewhere that is perhaps like heaven.

In this particular song the reason for the crime is unexplained, as it is in our recent real life stories.  However, the reasons are well known in the genre - a child conceived out of wedlock, abandonment by the father who may be a nobleman's son, the fear or actuality of public shame and expulsion from the family.  These crimes, and the songs they inspire, are expressions of the vulnerability of young women in a patriarchal and highly moralistic society.  These young women are forced, without the support and advice of their parents or elders, to make a choice between the life of their child and their own reputation and social standing.  Sometimes this is portrayed as Hobson's choice - how can the child survive when the mother is outcast and forced into destitution?

A classic literary variation on this theme is found in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.  Tess is an innocent young girl from a poor family who is seduced (perhaps raped) by her wealthy bogus cousin and conceives a child.  She is not abandoned by her family and bears the child, only for it to die in infancy.  Yet the events come back to haunt her when they lead her new husband to reject her, starting her life on a downward spiral which ends in her committing murder.  Hardy has a fine eye for the tragedy of false and hypocritical morality and the way it can destroy innocent people.  No wonder people do everything they can to conceal their mistakes.

One of my favourite songwriters, Jeff Lang, has a contemporary example of the genre, 'Newbridge' from his 2011 album Carried in Mind.  I wish I could find you an online version to listen to, but you'll just have to take my word for it.  Lang uses the same alternating line structure as the traditional ballads but his refrains are more revealing: "never to grow old...never told a soul".  It tells the tale of a young girl raped by a drunk man from the neighbouring mining camp.

He dragged me off into the trees 
(Never to grow old)
He did with me just what he pleased
(Never told a soul)

And when nine months they came to pass...
I stood at the lip of the old mine shaft...

I brought him forth into this world...
Then down his tiny body was hurled...

Unlike 'Bonnie St Johnstone', she is not moralistically consigned to Hell.  Instead, she carries her own hell around with her, while her rapist remains untouched.

Now he lies there in the mines
(Never to grow old)
He never left my troubled mind
(Never told a soul).

Oh child, what demon have I become?....
Oh child, can't take back what's been done...

We like to think that in our day we are better than this.  Sole parents are often demonised by right-wing politicians but having a child out of wedlock is no longer a cause for ostracism and lifelong shame.  Sole parents are eligible for income security and even if their parents are not supportive there is childcare and other support services.  A young sole parent may feel that others look down on her and many may, but she will also find friends and plenty of other women in her situation who will admire her courage and devotion to her child.  Alternatively, for those whose religion or personal morality does not forbid it, abortion is fairly easily available.

All this is true, but both Lang's song, written within the last few years, and these incidents from the past few months, show that we still have some way to go.  There are still many reasons why a woman would be too ashamed to own her pregnancy or bring her child into the community.  We don't know what these reasons are for the women who left their children beside the M7 or on Maroubra Beach but we can imagine a few.

For Lang's fictional but realistic character it is the trauma and shame of rape.  Other forms of abuse can have the same effect.  Many of the victims of institutional abuse who are currently telling their stories at the Royal Commission took decades to come into the open.  A young girl who is the victim of abuse within her family can face an impossible dilemma.  Isolated and confused, such young women may find themselves in a situation beyond their resources and experience, and be driven towards terrible choices.  Or pregnancy can be complicated by mental illness, preventing the mother from making logical decisions.

Whatever the reason, one thing has changed.  People in Hardy's day or the time of 'Bonnie St Johnstone' lived in small, close-knit communities where they were well-known and recognised.  The problem they faced was that they stepped outside the morality of their communities (even if they had no choice in the matter) and their communities were likely to be unforgiving.  They would be ostracised with nowhere else to go.

In our society, this problem is reversed.  Our community is highly tolerant but knit with gigantic stitches.  Almost any aberration will ultimately be forgiven - if not in your original community then in another one to which you can easily move - but it is easy for people to slip through the gaps.  Nothing is more cliched than the phenomenon of being alone in the big city.  A young woman in trouble can find that she has no-one to turn to.  Left to herself and deprived of the wisdom of friends or elders she can make tragic choices.  How do we build communities that ally our forgiving, tolerant attitude with an ethos of care, where a woman with a child will not only be accepted but supported and helped, given a place and assured that her child is precious and welcome?

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