As a historian of gender and medicine, I sometimes have nightmares about the scenes of medical suffering that appear in archival sources. The setting is always the same: the historical medical-school-turned-archive where I conducted research. Because I study surgical technologies, my dreams tend to be chilling portraits of the instruments physicians used in obstetrical interventions.
It is relatively easy for me to make sense of these dreams. After all, surgery is scary, and I feel empathy for the women in my sources. They generally arrived at the hospital alone, heavily pregnant, and in pain. Nineteenth-century obstetrical care had poor outcomes, and many of the women died on the operating table or as a result of infection. Their plight is understandable and unfortunate. The doctors who wrote about these women tended to see them as victims of their circumstances — of the men who seduced and abandoned them and of the cruel realities of poverty and hunger.
But then there are the women in the historical record who do not appear as victims, but rather as murderesses. I refer to those mothers who committed infanticide. According to public health officials, they were antithetical to everything mothers should be. They were not loving, selfless, honorable, or devoted. They rejected their offspring — whether due to a rational desire to protect their own honor or lifestyle, or to some irrational force such as insanity, hysteria, or the influence of the devil.
I find it difficult to write about these mothers and their actions. As a historian, it is a fraught and weighty task to comment on their actions. Of course, we strive to consider people’s actions in the context of their circumstances and their communities. But what can be said of their potential mindsets? This methodological and analytical problem is exacerbated by the fact that we generally only read these stories from the perspective of state officials. We rarely read testimony from women who commit infanticide or from first-hand witnesses.
Writing about infanticide is also difficult on an emotional level. As a mother, I am saddened by the gruesome prospect that someone would murder a vulnerable and completely dependent child. Thus, although women who committed infanticide appear in my sources, I shy away from writing about them, and they are absent from my dreams. Perhaps it is easier for me to contemplate black-and-white scenarios in which women are either victims or survivors but never perpetrators.
And yet, I once thought about murdering my toddler — if only, admittedly, for less than one minute. I write about my experience because I hope that it might be of some use to historians who theorize infanticide. With enough care, perhaps they can consider my testimony as they confront the complicated task of analyzing the motives and circumstances of women throughout history — of those reluctant mothers whose testimonies we may never hear.
My murderous urge occurred almost a decade ago, during my first semester of grad school. I was ill-equipped to deal with my toddler’s obstinate behavior. It seemed like everything was a struggle: eating meals, changing diapers, taking a bath. I didn’t know how to win her cooperation, and I felt trapped by the daily burden of caring for a child for whom I was ill-prepared to provide. I almost always arrived to campus exhausted after a morning of struggling to prepare her for the day. Sitting in one grueling history seminar, I remember surprising myself by thinking, for the first and only time in my life, “I wish I was a man.” It seemed impossible to do well in grad school while mothering a baby, and I envied the men around me whose wives supported their efforts to pursue a Ph.D. while parenting.
One morning my child was being particularly uncooperative while I attempted to dress her. I was in a hurry, and I had a bad stomach ache — likely due to nerves about my seminar presentation later that day. I didn’t want to abandon the effort to dress my baby, lest she think that she had won the struggle. I stared into her face for a long moment, and I felt a cold ambivalence coupled with a strong desire to escape.
I wanted to walk away, to turn to another adult and ask for help; to sit down, or to take a break. But there was no other adult, and to pause would have meant admitting defeat. Rest did not feel like an option. Parenting was like a tidal wave of responsibilities, and I felt overwhelmed by the knowledge that it was not going to slow down.
I was further crushed by the slow but inevitable realization that I might never be a “good” mother in the eyes of society. I was poor, alone, young, and in debt. I didn’t even have a car. My child was the product of rape, and I didn’t know I was pregnant until it was too late to have an abortion. I felt like a burden to the state and everyone around me. I felt that I hadn’t had a moment of rest since I had become pregnant more than two years before.
So I contemplated my baby. At that moment, she seemed to be the source of so much exhaustion, anger, frustration, and lack of mobility. I was stuck with her, and I felt bad that she was stuck with me. In my memory of the events, however, it seems that my mind was blank at the time. Although those feelings were certainly in the background — and they have gained clarity in subsequent years — I was not actively contemplating them. I was just focused on the situation at hand (the dressing dilemma), and I was desperate for it to end. I was in a rational state of mind.
Then an unexpected thought manifested clearly in my mind. (When relating the events, I still do not say that I “had” the thought, because it seemed to come from another place entirely. It did not come from me, I told myself and tell myself still. This was not my self talking): “You could kill the baby.” I remember the thought (voice?) was smooth and masculine, like a documentary narrator. The words were excessively drawn out, and I contemplated the syllables as they arrived in my mind, each more surprising than the last.
My first reaction was a sense of calm confusion. I thought, “Her name isn’t ‘the baby,’ and I don’t call her that. I always use her name when I think of her and talk about her. This must mean that I am not the author of this thought.” I drew comfort from the idea that the murderous intent was not my own, and that it had arrived from elsewhere entirely. I am not religious, so I had no reason to believe that this was divine intervention or some kind of devil on my shoulder. Nor did I worry that I was having a schizophrenic episode (although now I believe that I may have experienced a stress-induced dissociative episode).
Comforted by the notion that the urge to kill was not my own, I contemplated the idea with some seriousness, even if it was fleeting. I had an image of myself drowning my child, then putting her body in the trash dumpster outside of my building. Somehow these scenes brought me comfort, and so part of me admitted that the idea had some merit. In my mind, eliminating my daughter would make it much easier to get to class. But then, with the same calm tone, another thought arrived: “The problem is that you would then have to explain to people why you no longer have a baby, and that will be more work than it’s worth.” I felt no sadness or conflict about this internal debate, a fact which seems strange to my present self.
I recognize that, in narrating the events, I reject only the initial thought as having come from outside of my “self,” whereas I take ownership (or, at least, partial ownership) of the thoughts that followed. I accept this narrative as truthful, but also inexplicable and irrational, no matter how rationally it may have played out in my head. It is my truth. It is a strange one, though, because I am horrified by murder and violence. I’ve never, in any other circumstance, had the urge to kill or maim a living thing. I’m a vegetarian, and am, by most accounts, excessively soft as a mother. I’m definitely devoted and have been since my daughter was born. I practiced attachment parenting and breastfed her for two years. But I’ll always remember the day that I wanted to kill her, and it will always be one of my saddest days.
When I was no longer able to find comfort in the thought of abandoning my maternal bonds, I only felt a vague and sad emptiness. After a few seconds, I pulled my daughter in for a hug, but she did not want a hug. She wanted to bounce on the bed and run around the house. As she bounded around, I sat on the bed and cried.
I know that many other women have faced similar challenges, and I recognize that I am privileged in many ways–by my education and citizenship status, for example. Yet, that doesn’t make the issue of reluctant maternity — and its potentially violent effects — any easier to contemplate. Human suffering becomes harder to stomach when it is unnecessary, and when it is inflicted on completely vulnerable beings.
It is especially hard to consider lonely, desperate, exhausted, and overworked women who feel that they are stuck in impossible positions. Adults should never be isolated in caretaking situations, and perhaps children should always be raised in communities and with good support networks. But under repressive and patriarchal forces, it is often difficult for women and children to reach the forms of social support that they need in order to survive.
No matter how much a society reveres the ideal of a mother, that society is anti-mother and anti-child if it does not adequately support the most vulnerable. On that note, I’ll end by saying that it is particularly hard for me to relive this memory in light of the current movement to further restrict and eliminate abortion rights in the United States and throughout the Americas, and in the face of the forced separation of asylum-seeking migrants from their young children.
In my mind, reproductive suffering is sadder and more egregious when it is promulgated by the state. It becomes even more difficult to contemplate when it is on a mass scale, and when it is preventable. Historically, infanticide may not have always been preventable, but that doesn’t mean the future can’t hold the possibility of reproductive freedoms. The future remains untold.