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Why Blame an Innocent Mother for Her Children's Murder?

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On October 25, 2012, in Manhattan, Marina Krim returned from taking her three-year-old daughter to the pool, to find her other two children -- Lucia (6) and Leo (2) -- stabbed to death in the bathtub of the family apartment in the Upper West Side. The family nanny attempted suicide, stabbing herself in the throat in front of Marina Krim. The nanny has since been charged with the murders.

While expressions of support, sorrow, and sympathy have dominated Internet reactions, this blog addresses a prominent and problematic set of other reactions. Many Internet responses have focused on mother-blaming, and especially on the mother's part-time labour outside the home. The father's labour is not discussed, just as his parenting skills are not criticized. Here are some sample sentiments, gathered and paraphrased from comments on a range of blogs and news sites:

She should have been a stay-at-home mom. She did not pay the nanny enough. Did you see that on her blog, her kids stayed up really late after eating cupcakes? She should have known the nanny was psychotic/in pain/near a breaking point. She should not have been working. She should have taken all three children to the pool. What is a nanny? A stranger. My kids never had a babysitter and they are fine. Her blog makes her sound like she was used to getting her own way. How did she have time to blog anyway with three kids?

Sarah Sahagian and I want to articulate a politics of resistance here. As in the Amanda Todd case, this is misogynist victim-blaming. Cyberbullying has politics and here they revolve around contempt for women. Marina Krim is judged by the standards of "sacrificial motherhood," a model outlined by Andrea O'Reilly in Rocking the Cradle (2006). This is the idea that the biological mother is the best and in some ways only real care-giver for the child, and, where at all possible, the mother should therefore sacrifice her career, health, leisure time and sanity to be the sole caregiver to her children.

Not only are biological mothers considered the natural caregivers to their children, the discourse of sacrificial motherhood also calls upon women to do a great deal of mother work, taking their children to lessons, helping them with homework, making Halloween costumes from scratch, preparing organic meals, etc. Sometimes referred to as intensive mothering (or helicopter parenting outside of academic circles), sacrificial motherhood is a modern idea.

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Historically, mothers did not spend nearly as much time parenting each individual child as they do today. Childrearing duties have always been shared by people other than mothers, but the modern Western concept of sacrificial motherhood attempts to convince us that the essence of motherhood is this constant contact with the child.

Many comments attack Marina Krim for not doing everything herself when she could afford to be a stay-at-home mom -- and chose to be one too, only taking on part-time work and hiring a nanny after the birth of a third child. It's as though several of the commenters feel non-maternal childcare is only a necessary evil.

Marina Krim seems to be under attack because she opted out of sacrificial motherhood to an extent. A mom who celebrated her children in a 'mommy blog' on the Internet (something that that has also been criticized as self-indulgent and for taking her time away from the children), Marina Krim appeared to revel in her motherhood while taking steps to make her parenting load more manageable by using her considerable wealth to hire help. Ultimately, many of the commenters' remarks reify the contemporary standard of sacrificial motherhood by judging her for having the audacity to not to want all childrearing responsibilities to fall squarely on her shoulders.

Parenting is not mothering alone; fathers and co-parents and other guardians share choices about labour -- other parents, male and female, adoptive and biological, feel and love, and yes, grieve. It is hard to understand why this material needs even to be pointed out, and yet seemingly it does. Mothering is one kind of work. Many people, not just women, desire and benefit from several forms of work, as do the children in the family; Lulu, for example, seems to have loved art classes, and her mother taught art classes part-time.

The blatant mother-blaming surrounding the Krim case is tediously repetitive anti-woman material, and indeed, it is anti-human. While several of these anti-maternal discourses attempt to self-present as serious discussions about socioeconomic inequities and nannying, what they in fact do is present Marina Krim as an unnatural mother. Moreover, they reproduce the accusations of the nanny herself, whose commentary on the situation appears to hinge in part on negative commentary about the mother.

Social injustices and paradigms for nannying do need to be talked about. But that is not a set of discussions that should be positioned in parallel with contempt for women's labour outside the home or in tandem with dangerous and limited conceptualizations of mothering, and indeed of parenting.

By: Sarah Sahagian, York University; Jane Tolmie, Queen's University.