Unconscious biases make us blame moms for tragedies

RHYMES with crazy Lenore Skenazy thumbnailBY LENORE SKENAZY

Remember the bad old days when a rape victim would show up in court and the defense attorney would say, “Why was her skirt so short?” As if the woman caused her own rape.

Only gradually did it dawn on us what was really going on: We were blaming the victim.  Basically, we’re all so afraid that something awful like this could happen to us or a loved one that we automatically come up with a way to reassure ourselves it never will. We tell ourselves, “We’re totally different, so we’ll be safe.”

Once we recognized how cruel and clueless it to believe that only bad people get hurt, we became a more empathetic society.

Except when it comes to moms.

“Blaming Mothers: American Law and the Risks to Children’s Health” (NYU Press) is a new book by Pace University Law Professor Linda C. Fentiman that looks at the way we have kept moms in the crosshairs of our condemnation. From pre-birth through adolescence, when something goes wrong with kids, often it is considered morally — and even legally — mama’s fault.

For instance, when a woman in Utah elected not to have a Caesarian and one of her twins was born stillborn, she was charged with murder.  The fact that stillbirths are fairly common didn’t matter. Nor did the fact that she had no intention of killing her child. All that mattered was the fact that, conveniently, there was someone to blame.

A South Carolina mom, Regina McKnight, was also convicted of homicide in the stillbirth of her baby because she admitted to using cocaine when pregnant. I think we all agree it is tragic that people get addicted to drugs. But the idea that cocaine causes stillbirth is not medically supported. Moreover, as a friend of the court briefing noted, “nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor’” are all sub-optimal. Does that mean we should prosecute any pregnant woman who’s not upper-middle-class “perfect”?

McKnight’s 20-year sentence was reversed seven years later by the state’s Supreme Court.

Fentiman also looks at the issue of child abuse. Often when a child is hurt or killed by a dad or the mother’s boyfriend, it is the mom who is prosecuted for not stopping it. The completely unrealistic idea is that the moment a mother realizes her child is being abused, she must move out of the house and report the abuser to the police. Otherwise, she can be considered guilty for failing to act.

“The legal system is not taking into account all the structural barriers that impede women from leaving their husbands,” Fentiman said in a phone interview. For instance, sometimes the woman has no money to leave or no place to go. Sometimes she is afraid that if she calls the cops, the abuser will become even more violent. But the law seems to believe a good mom should be a perfect mom, no matter what the obstacles.

How did we get so harsh? Fentiman lists several unconscious biases at work:

Hindsight Bias: Once a tragedy has occurred, it is impossible to look back and truly see things the way we saw them before the bad event. Now that we know the sad truth, it feels like it must have been obvious. Why didn’t the mom predict and prevent it?

The Fundamental Attribution Error: This is the unconscious belief about karma — that bad things only happen to bad people. Naturally, if something bad happens to us, we understand all the variables that led to it — all the things beyond our control. But when something bad happens to someone else,  we think they could have stopped it but didn’t. Shame (and blame) on them.

The Reasonable Man Theory: In the olden days, negligence was determined by whether someone did what “the reasonable man” would have done in the situation, like not leaving a 4-year-old home alone for a weekend. But now that we think about the “reasonable woman,” the bar is higher. “A reasonable mother is supposed to be super-human and always do anything to minimize the risk to her children and to selflessly never do anything for herself,”  said Fentiman. So if something bad happens to a child while the mom was, say, napping, she can be blamed for daring to shut her eyes.

Causation: The American legal system holds the primitive notion that there’s only one cause of any problem. So the child who is beaten to death is not a victim of some toxic combination of poverty, an abusive dad or a broken system. The tragedy is simply the fault of a mom who didn’t save the child.

It is easy and satisfying to blame the mom. Someday we’ll also realize that it is wrong.

Lenore Scenery is a keynote speaker, founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com. 

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