This Sunday, a horrific tragedy took place in Jerusalem. A mother of four girls strangled her children to death and then committed suicide.
When things like this happen, I’ve noticed that people tend to respond in one of two ways.
The first type of response is rage: “What a horrible monster! How could a woman murder her own children?!”
The second type of response is trying to understand: “She had a mental illness and apparently just lost it… the poor woman.”
It seems to me that the first response is an attempt to distance oneself from the tragedy. “Only monsters could be capable of this. Therefore, this could never happen to me.” The second response is an attempt to make sense of it, to sort it out, and perhaps prevent it in the future.
I discussed the incident with my therapist a couple days after it happened. I asked her what she thought about it, as a professional who helps people learn to cope with mental illness. She said she believes that a person who does something like this is in a very extreme place, where they believe that there is no other way out of their suffering. In a place where there is so much pain, the person cannot see or experience anything other than the pain—not even the pain of their own children—and all that they want is for the pain to stop. To someone in that place, suicide, and sometimes homicide, can seem like the only solution.
But, she reminded me, the reason this makes the news is that it is actually very rare. There are many people struggling valiantly with mental illness—who fight tooth and nail not to be pushed over the edge—and most of them, she told me, succeed.
She gave me a knowing look. “But you know about that, don’t you.”
Yeah. I do.
We were both thinking of a particular night a few years ago. It was one of Those Nights: the ones where the kids were waking up in shifts, I had been chronically sleep deprived for months, and the baby refused to stop crying and we couldn’t figure out why. My depression gets a million times worse when I don’t get enough sleep, and I was not on antidepressant medication at the time.
I felt like I was at the edge. I felt trapped. I felt that the pain and suffering I was experiencing were never going to end and I had no way out. I felt out of control. I tossed the baby onto the bed in front of me and told my husband he had to take him from me because I was afraid I might hurt him. And I felt like the worst failure of a mother and a human being that there has ever been.
I have never hurt myself, but in my worst moments, I have felt the terrifying possibility that I might. That night, after my husband left the room with the baby, my wrists were tingling. There are sharp knives in the kitchen. I was terrified.
And then I did what I have somehow always done.
I took care of myself.
I got up and put a calming essential oil on my tingling wrists.
I told myself that this is temporary and I would feel better once I’d had some sleep.
Not every person with depression is able to do that.
But you know what? It is not only parents with depression who find themselves at the edge sometimes.
If you are a parent—even a well-adjusted, completely mentally healthy parent—you probably know what I’m talking about. Those moments you don’t talk about with anyone. The time you screamed at your kid so harshly you made him cry. The time you broke your sincere commitment never to raise a hand against your child in a moment of desperation. The time you put the baby down—a little too roughly—in the crib and stormed out of the room to cry because you were afraid that if you stayed there for one more moment you might do something you’ll regret.
In Israel they have a saying that a normal mother is one who wants to throw her baby out the window; an abnormal mother is one who actually does it.
And the terrifying thing about Sunday’s incident is that it can be difficult to identify if and when someone is going to cross the line from one kind of mother to the other.
That night, I wasn’t sure about myself. And it terrified me more than I can express.
Parenting pushes us to our limits and sometimes beyond. And incidents like the murder-suicide are grisly and painful reminders of the dark demons of our nature, of how close we sometimes come to violence. Most of us have a system in place that keeps us from acting on our violent impulses and makes us feel horribly guilty whenever we cross the line. That’s good. It means our system is working.
Something in this mother’s system went haywire on Sunday.
I saw some debating about whether her mental illness means that we should blame her, or feel sorry for her. In my mind, the question is not how we should feel about her. The question is, how can we make the world a better, more supportive, and safer place for parents and children?
Can rage, blame, and hatred do this?
Or can empathy, compassion, and understanding?
We need to keep spreading awareness about mental illness. We need to reach out to our friends and neighbors to let them know that they’re not alone.
We need to help people who are struggling to keep breathing to understand that they don’t have to destroy their entire worlds for the pain to stop. There are other ways out. There is hope.
We need to help parents understand that everyone has moments of desperation and everybody loses it sometimes. We’re human. But when things get overwhelming, we need to be able to ask for help.
We can’t do that when everyone around us is busy casting blame and hatred at anyone who reaches the edge.
I wish to emphasize that in writing this article, it was not my intention to draw any association between depression and filicide. The phenomenon of a parent killing a child is extremely, extremely rare, and is not associated in any way with depression, postpartum or otherwise. Depression, particularly postpartum depression, is extremely common, and there is no reason to fear that parents who suffer from it will come to harm their children any more than parents who don’t.