It’s already been several years since I picked up Lionel Shriver’s book from the airport, and the cover sent a shiver down my spine. A small, shadowed boy with glasses looked up from the darkness, and the large words “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” were printed loud and clear. So when prolific British actress, Tilda Swinton played the part of a remorseful mother, coming to terms with her cruel and homicidal son; it seems reflective of a society that is partial to blame the mother as the first port of call.
There was an influx of mother-blaming during the London Riots in August 2011. The right-wing media assembled together for a full-scale onslaught against single mothers, holding them responsible for the actions of their progeny. The Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips was one of the first to incite the mother-backlash. She said: “For most of these children come from lone-mother households. And the single most crucial factor behind all this mayhem is the willed removal of the most important thing that socialises children and turns them from feral savages into civilised citizens: a father who is a fully committed member of the family unit.”
And no doubt, mothers then faced the consequences with the London Borough of Wandsworth being the first local authority to evict council tenants including a single mother who had a son involved in the riots. In response to this, Prime Minister David Cameron had said: “I think for too long we have taken too soft an attitude to people who loot and pillage their own community. If you do that you should lose your right to housing at a subsidised rate.”
Despite potentially creating deeper poverty for those affected, Cameron has said “Obviously that will mean they will have to be housed somewhere else and they will have to find housing in the private sector and that will be tougher for them. But they should have thought about that before they started burgling,” in the most simplistic of conservative pedestals.
And if it isn’t social disorder; its anorexia, addictions, cot deaths and the age-old autism myth of ‘refrigerator mothers.’ A child does not live in a vacuum of only mother and their young, connected by an umbilical cord for life. Certainly, any kind of behaviour encircling a child can influence them, including from peers, teachers as well as authority figures. An important feature that seems to be ‘missed’ from the mother-blaming debate, are the equally absent fathers.
Without shifting the blame onto another source, Cameron had mentioned earlier this year that runaway dads were as “bad as drink drivers,” yet has sought to undermine mothers raising children alone. Research by Rebekah Coley and Bethany Medeiros who interviewed 647 teenagers with absent fathers in 2001 had found that “Fatherly involvement appeared to have a protective effect.”
Coley and Medeiros said: “[…] non-resident fathers who had more regular contact and conversations with their children and who took greater responsibility for their children’s care and behaviours had adolescents who showed relative decreases over a 16-month period in their levels of delinquency and problem behaviour”.
Currently, mother-blaming has even been used within law. Earlier this year, Raquel Nelson an Atlanta woman who witnessed her four year old son killed by a drunk driver was subsequently convicted of vehicular homicide. Jerry L. Guy, the driver who admitted hitting the child when pleading guilty to hit-and-run, served only a 6-month sentence whilst Nelson could be sentenced to a longer 36 months in prison.
And back to the idea of serial killer’s mothers. In “‘Bad’ Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America,” author Su Epstein describes the portrayal of these mothers adapted for film. She states: “Whatever goes right in the child’s development reflects the ability of good parents; whatever goes wrong reverts solely to the mother.”
“[Films] legitimize mother-blaming by allowing mothers to blame themselves for producing murderous children,” and Epstein goes onto explain that even noted academics such as psychological researcher Joel Norris uses the mother-blaming theme when it comes to the formation of future serial killers.
“Even if the child is not damaged at birth, the mother’s anxieties may result in a colicky, unhappy baby who becomes the object of mistreatment and abuse by a mother who was unhappy about being pregnant. Such mistreatment is also a factor in the development of a violence-prone individual.”
Again, it is the bad mother who damages her child. The father or other male influence eludes consideration. Epstein concludes that the mother is an “easy target,” therefore it is rather straightforward for issues such as “absent fathers, crushing poverty, substance abuse and a myriad of other problems a family might face,” to be swept under the carpet.
The nation seems to be gripped with what I like to call the “Norman Bates Syndrome;” assuming that all behavioural problem children are products of bad parenting, specifically mothers without taking into account any of the circumstantial evidence that surrounds it. With inadequate support for mothers, instead penalising women through the austerity measures and keeping women at the bottom of the social hierarchy, it’s easier to point the finger at mothers unable to defend themselves.