The act of giving birth, unfortunately, does not erase the negative impacts of trauma.

Mandela, I’m Not: The Taxing Life of a Mother Coping With Trauma

Mary Annette Pember

“Not everyone can be like Nelson Mandela. Some of us are just ordinary,” I explained to a younger relative who was complaining about my mother’s challenging behavior and lack of motherly love towards the family.

I told her that my mother was raised in an Indian boarding school with precious little experience of family life or examples of good parenting skills. The mere fact that she actually stayed around and tried to mother us at all was a miracle in itself. The young relative had scoffed at this explanation and asked, “What about Nelson Mandela? He had a tough life but look at all the good things he did!”

We humans are held to such high standards when it comes to dealing with family challenges and adversity. Nowhere is this truer than for our mothers and the impossible standards our society sets for them.

Today’s news carried a story about a mother, who like my own mother and me has failed to meet the Nelson Mandela standard. Overwhelmed with dealing with her 11 year old special-needs daughter, Catrina Fant had locked her out of the house, called police and asked them to take her away before she hurt her. According to police, the temperature was 90 degrees outside when they arrived to find Fant’s daughter sitting on the porch crying. When police argued that her child should remain at home, Fant began screaming, “F@@k her, I don’t care about her, you need to take her away!”

The Fant family is African American and lives in a decent but poor neighborhood.

According to the report, Fant, 35 and a single mom, has three other children in her home and has called social services on several occasions asking the agency to remove the child from her home. Rather than remove her daughter the Hamilton County Social Services Agency offered her services that she refused according to Cincinnati police.

Social workers have now removed all the children from the woman’s home. Fant has been charged with child endangerment and ordered not to have any contact with her children.

WCPO Channel 9 news led its story about Fant with the headline, “Mother Accused of the Unthinkable.”

As the mother of two special-needs children, this scenario is not so unthinkable to me. On several occasions I’ve paused before turning into my driveway and fantasized about simply driving off into the sunset until my credit card limit is exceeded.

My autistic teen is especially given to loud meltdowns that my neighbors know well. I can only imagine how our family drama sounds from the street as we try to reason with her and sometimes give in to voicing our own frustrations. I’ve said hurtful, regrettable things to my children. Sometimes I’ve had to leave the house and cool down at the local coffee shop.

My husband and I have felt as though we were at the ends of emotional and physical limitations, many, many times. I was not born with a particular affinity for working with special-needs children and honestly I don’t know why the Creator gave them to me. If I had been given the option, I wonder if I would have chosen this life. Of course, living with them is often rewarding and fun but it is incredibly hard and sometimes I feel frustrated and resentful.

If I am totally honest, I have to say that I understand Catrina Fant.

I have also tried to access county services for special-needs children and after surviving the interminably long waiting list, the hours of completing forms, sitting at my dining room table as the workers filled out still more forms documenting every minute of service offered, I found the services themselves to be of limited use to our family. Mostly, my husband and I rely on each other, a few dedicated friends and neighbors and our own resources.

The differences between Catrina Fant and me are mostly related to economic status. I have financial resources, I live in a nice, white suburb with a good infrastructure, I have gotten help to address the impact of my own childhood trauma on my life and I have the support of an involved, committed partner. Without these blessings, I often wonder how I would fare. Reading about Fant makes me think, “There for the grace of God go I.”

Fant is now in jail awaiting her fate. The public comments following news reports about Fant universally condemn her. Several people assume she is on public assistance and suggest that she had her children in order to get money, some suggest she be sterilized, describe her as despicable and undeserving of the title of mother. No one has asked the most important question about this woman and her family, ‘What happened to you and how can we help?’ versus ‘What is wrong with you?’

The study of trauma and its lasting impact on our mental and physical health is taking center stage in public discussions. Unfortunately medical and social service providers are slow to incorporate effective trauma-informed care in their work.

There is growing evidence that traumatic stress has lasting negative impacts on human development and in turn on our families and communities. The now-famous Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente showed a tie between a high amount of stress and the risk of developing physical and mental health problems later in life.

The act of giving birth, unfortunately, does not erase the negative impacts of trauma.

While recently reporting about the correlation between the high rates of histories of sexual abuse and incarceration, especially for Native girls, I learned about Dana Deegan, a young Native mother who is currently serving a 10 year sentence for killing her infant son. According to court documents Deegan abandoned her child shortly after giving birth in secret at home. After several days without food or water, the child died. She later disposed of his body in a suitcase, placing it in a ditch near her rural home on the Fort Berthold reservation.

When questioned she stated she had no idea why she abandoned the boy.

Sarah Deer, long time legal scholar and advocate best known for her work focusing attention on legal inequities regarding Native women victims of domestic and sexual abuse, wrote the brief for Deegan’s clemency hearing.

In addition to the claim that Deegan’s sentence length reflected racial disparities in the legal system, Deer noted that Deegan’s actions were directly connected to her deep emotional trauma, which in turn fed into her mental illness.

Before she was removed from her parent’s home, her father emotionally and physically (not sexually) abused Deegan for years, although his friends sexually abused her. She was also abused in her foster home where she bore her first child at age 19. Shannon Hale, the son of her foster parents, fathered the child and her subsequent 3 children. Hale continued her sexual and physical abuse throughout their relationship.

“Ms. Deegan’s state of despair and depression was not merely the result of physical, verbal and sexual abuse she suffered. She lived in extreme poverty and isolation. Both she and Hale were unemployed. Deegan sustained herself and her children on foodstamps. Whenever she was able to obtain money, Mr. Hale took it and bought methamphetamine.”

Deer quotes Deegan in the clemency petition about her son’s death, “I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. I had everything on my shoulders. I couldn’t even help myself. I had nobody to help me. I had no job, no nothing. I had all my babies to care for, a welfare mom. I had the feeling of being worthless. What could I do? I was overwhelmed and depressed. I didn’t want to live through any of it anymore. I didn’t want to be there anymore, as a spouse, as a mother, as a daughter.”

The petition is still pending; Deegan remains in jail.

Deer notes that trauma victims frequently act out in maladaptive behavior. Our growing knowledge about trauma is underscoring the depth of its impact not only on us but on our families as well.

Giving birth is not enough to erase the fallout of unaddressed trauma. Nor is it always enough to summon the bottomless well of motherly love that’s needed to raise a child especially one with special needs. Becoming a mother doesn’t automatically erase women’s human needs and frailties.

Not all of us can be like Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa.

Sometimes we need some meaningful support and understanding from the community.

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Lorenn Walker's picture
Lorenn Walker
Submitted by Lorenn Walker on
Thank you for your honesty and the work you put into writing this Ms. Pember. Your insight and openness surely makes you a wonderful mother and wise person. Much aloha, Lorenn Walker