What Ms. B. Monaghan Taught Me About Morality

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infanticideWhen Ms. B. Monaghan’s American Thought & Language class began, my fellow Michigan State University students and I were directed to obtain a three-ring presentation binder.  On the cover of the binder we were to write the title “My Power In My Hand.”  Inside the binder, on page 2, we were to type the general objective of our class: “To become intelligent and compassionate observers of, and participate in, the great human drama going on around us and within us.”

Ms. B. Monaghan’s class met three days a week, and she made us write papers three days a week.   Here were some of the questions we were to answer in those papers:

Would you kill your father for freedom?

Who should die in times of crisis?

Who should get an education when spaces are limited?

“I’m 17 years old,” I remember thinking. “I’m a freshman in college.  I have no idea why you’re asking me these questions. What kind of class is this?”

 

Ms. B. Monaghan never took no or “I’m not sure” for an answer.  She didn’t care if we were teenagers who’d never even begun to consider such issues.  She required us to answer what she called her “terrible questions.”  To pick a side and defend it.  What did we think? What would we do? What was our reasoning?

At first, I couldn’t stand her.  I thought her questions were ridiculous and impractical. I needed to graduate and get a job, for goodness sake, not pretend I’m the commander-in-chief of ancient Carthage’s defense force and decide whether to sacrifice 300 young children in order to save my city. I thought having to write three papers a week was unfair. I felt sure she was trying to indoctrinate me somehow, but in what I couldn’t tell.  Not only that, but she insisted on calling me Katie. My name is now, and has always been, Katherine.  Not Kathy, Kathleen or Kate, and certainly not Katie.

Reluctantly, I wrote. American Thought & Language was a prerequisite so I had no other choice. I took stances that I wasn’t sure I had the wisdom or life experience to back up. As an imaginary college admissions advisor, I decided that those who worked the hardest were the most deserving of a college education, regardless of all other circumstance. I wrote things like “error must have the same rights as truth” and that I didn’t believe in existentialism. And, on my paper entitled “Human Dignity or Human Sacrifice,” I decided I wouldn’t sacrifice the children in Carthage, writing:

“There is no way I can condone infanticide.  There is absolutely no way.”

I’m looking at those words now, as I sit here, written in my youthful cursive with a blue pen. I cannot believe, among the few papers I saved from college — among every paper I ever wrote in college, in fact — that I would find those two sentences among them.  Just now. Today. How much has changed.  Now I’m an advocate for women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum psychosis. I actually work in an arena where infanticide can happen.

Infanticide is never okay with me.  I grieve for every child lost.  Still I believe there are some people who are not guilty by reason of insanity. There are women who have a real illness called postpartum psychosis. Is that condoning?  The dictionary says to condone means to regard or treat something bad or blameworthy as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless. Infanticide is never acceptable and terribly harmful, but if a mother is incapacitated by postpartum psychosis, how can I not forgive?

There are sick people in the world. I heard someone recently divide them, fairly or not, into two camps: “crazy-sick” and “crazy-mean.” Ms. B. Monaghan might be disappointed in me because I don’t know where to draw the line between them. What makes one murder forgivable because a person is not in their right mind versus another that is a cold-blooded killing, deserving of the harshest punishment possible? What’s the exact difference between Andrea Yates and Susan Smith? I don’t know. Not precisely, other than that the facts of each case are different. What I do know, with full certainty, is that there are mothers who have an illness that prevents them from being who they really are. Postpartum psychosis twists their brain, confuses them, and can sometimes lead them down a deadly path that they would never otherwise travel.

It’s not their fault. It’s ours for not protecting them. That’s my position, Ms. B. Monaghan.

When I write about infanticide, I notice how many friends don’t comment. They don’t retweet the story like they do my others. I wonder if it’s because they think I’m wrong even to discuss it. This is dangerous territory, Katherine. We can’t support you on this one. Don’t go there.

I have to.

I’ve been thinking of my professor today. How she meant so much to me by the end of the term and I couldn’t understand why, so much that I kept my “My Power in My Hand” binder for more than 20 years, through many moves, just so I could climb around in my garage today, find it and open it up right when I needed it. The world is complicated. Experience can change belief.  She was preparing me to tackle difficult and painful questions. Terrible questions. To be willing to defend people who others consider unworthy of defense.

On the very last paper I wrote for her class, Ms. B. Monaghan wrote, “Your words touch even this weary heart most deeply, Katie. To be educated is to be aware, painfully aware, of that human drama, its paradoxes, its dilemmas, its cruelty and joy.  To be so keenly aware is often distressing, but not to be aware is to be dead, mentally and emotionally.”

I am keenly aware, Ms. B. Monaghan.

Photo credit: © Robert Mizerek – Fotolia.com

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. interested says:

    Love this piece Katie;) especially this line which is so true to what you and those of us who are postpartum advocates find ourselves having to do:

    "To be willing to defend people who others consider unworthy of defense."

    Thanks Katherine for being there for all those who have suffered at the hands of ppmds – especially them.

    • Katherine Stone says:

      Thanks "interested". I wondered how people would react. It was a hard thing to right. Still, you know I believe what I said.

      – K

  2. Katherine,

    Beautifully written. Thank you so much for your tireless advocacy for moms and their families. You are not alone. There are many others who share your passion and commitment. Thank you for uniting us through this blog. You are able to write about these issues more eloquently than I can. This piece brought tears to my eyes as I read it because I can connect with it on so many levels. It reminds me of a special mom with whom I was honored to work when she entered my life a few years ago. I knew at that time that her story could have just as easily been mine and that there was no way I could walk away from her like so many others in her life had done..

    Your personal story of your freshman writing course at MSU and its connection to your work today reminded me of the following quote:

    We shall not cease from exploration

    And the end of all our exploring

    Will be to arrive where we started

    And know the place for the first time.

    T.S. Eliot — "Little Gidding" (the last of his Four Quartets)

    On another note, I didn't know you went to MSU?! I was born in Lansing when my dad was in college at MSU.

  3. I think. . . I think that maybe you hit the nail on the head when you said that it's our fault for not protecting them. I think we don't comment or retweet because we are terrified of our own culpability. Because having a position does give you power and it is a power we aren't sure we want. You are brave for writing this, and I think that you are very correct. I just don't know what to do about it.

    • Katherine Stone says:

      I certainly don't have all the answers. I'm not sure what to do with it either, other than try and educate. Try and let someone near me know. Sometimes that's all we can do.

      – K

  4. Hi Katherine!

    Thank you for touching on this important topic. It's sad that Infanticide is the portal through which most of mainstream society gets its only glimpses into perinatal mental illness. It frustrates me to no end that people think: 1) Infanticide is caused by Postpartum Depression and 2) Postpartum Psychosis is not a relevant disorder, nor a valid cause for infanticide.

    Here is a link to a post on HAS Chicago's blog about what the news' sloppy coverage of infanticide does to keep women in silence:

    http://haschicagowomensprogram.blogspot.com/2011/

    It is a commentary about the news coverage on the case of Sonia Hermosillo, and how misrepresentation of PPD is dangerous to women.

    Thanks for your time!

    Melina Mejia Stock (PPD therapist at HAS Chicago)

    • Katherine Stone says:

      Hi Melina! Thanks for sending me the link. I definitely want to read it. And I agree with you that the media continually mischaracterizes PPD. It does such a disservice.

      – K

  5. Having spent the better part of the last 7 years working in CPS, I can attest to the pervasiveness of mental illness and the complete lack of understanding, treatment and services, especially when dealing with mothers who have some sort of post-partum mental illness. I'm reminded of one case in particular I had to investigate; everything in the family was perfectly normal, tons of inter-family support, except mom was honest with a care provider in telling them that when she had considered suicide, she thought about taking her children with her because she didn't know who would protect them if she was gone. Thought about it. Didn't plan it, didn't set the stage for it, it simply crossed her mind. The psych hospital she had checked HERSELF into felt the need to make the call to CPS. The alarm bells went off full throttle for my supervisor, while I could see that this mom was not only accessing services, she was advocating for herself and getting treatment. I dare say the knock on the door from us put a wrench in her treatment and could very likely have prevented her from seeking treatment in the future for fear that her children would be taken away from her by the State. Horribly unfortunate. This is turning into a book, but suffice it to say I did the best I good to commend her on getting treatment and advocating for herself, to assure her I was not going to take her kids, ensure she had family support and a good trx plan and to try to help her look at her unexpected c-section as a possible trigger/source for her depression. Uphill battle. (I am a survivor of PPD/PTSD from a primary c-section as well and I did not get the right treatment when I needed, I was judged by my partner and it took me a LONG time to heal).

    • Katherine Stone says:

      Thank God you were there for her Danielle. I hate to see women needlessly traumatized when they read out for help and are honest about their symptoms. I am grateful that it doesn't happen often.

      – K

  6. I would just add that I'm not longer working in that field, having left after having another child, a VBAC/homebirth, and thankfully avoiding PPD/PTSD this time (so far anyway…). I could not, mentally and emotionally, go back into that field with a newborn. My sanity came first.

    • Katherine Stone says:

      Good for you for knowing how important your sanity is. I'm so glad you didn't suffer PPD again! Whew!

      – K

  7. What it comes down to is that people focus on the thought that a defenseless child became a victim at their own mother's hands.

    That's what people see when they see it covered in the media.

    They are angered.

    They are sadened.

    They are shocked.

    "How could a mother do this to her own children?" they'll think

    I know, because when I heard about the Yates case, I felt that exact same way.

    I truthfully had no idea about PPD/PPP and the way it makes the mind believe in a reality that is so bent and twisted. I had no idea until I was diagnosed with PPD myself.

    I now have a deeper level of understanding.

    I still do not condone infantcide. I never will.

    But like you said so perfectly…

    "It’s not their fault. It’s ours for not protecting them"

    That's why we NEED to talk about it. We NEED to keep educating. We NEED to keep at the media so that they will use their platform to help educate the public so that tragedies like this do not happen.

    • Katherine Stone says:

      I was the same way Kimberly. Aren't we all? None of us understand mental illness until or unless it happens to us. That can change your perspective, can't it?

      – K

  8. Thank you SO much, Katherine and all of you who commented. I am so thankful I have found your blog. I am so passionate about the need to educate professionals in the field of caring for mother's and mental health workers and partners of mothers of perinatal mood disorders and PPD and PPP before symptoms arrise. And THIS subject you have so eloquently and bravely written about is where lack of care and awareness goes for these mothers and their children. Mothers die…children die and then mothers get blamed. But I believe mother's cannot be made wrong for this or blamed. It is us as a society that have let these things happen because of ignorance and fear.

    I have suffered from PPD and PPP, but most of all from the lack of awareness about it in my community. My midwives who attend homebirths were completely ignorant to the dangers of being at high risk for these disorders, thinking it cannot happen to women who have a natural birth at home. And what is more disturbing is that they did not want to learn about it or even keep a few books in their office for mothers and partners to read (I tried). After my experience, so many other women came to me to share their stories and how they narrowly missed killing themselves or their children in some cases. I tried to kill myself.

    I am pregnant again and have spent the last few years trying to have a better support system this time, but resources are limited and I do not feel confident that I have enough support. It is terribly frightening.

    With love and respect,

    Yvonne

    • Katherine Stone says:

      We're here for you Yvonne. Lean on us. I know it's hard to find the support, at least in places you'd expect it to be. But we are here, and others are here, and we will all do what we can to help.

      – K

  9. This is very powerful Katherine. Thank you for fighting for moms with mental illness.

    • Katherine Stone says:

      Thanks Cristi! I'm so glad you were able to comment. I'm still trying to figure out how this new commenting system works!

      – K

  10. Beautiful and perfect, as usual, not-Katie-but-Katherine. xoxo

  11. WOW! Powerful. I remember this topic being debated in a university course years ago and I didn;t know where I stood. Now that I have suffered PPD and anxiety I have a whole new understanding of this topic. I was very lucky to have a supportive husband and some great friends to help me through. I can only imagine what it would have been like without this ( Actually, I don't want to imagine). We need more people to speak up and help moms who suffer from this horrribly "taboo" mental illness.

  12. I have made a post a few weeks ago, touching on the same subject. You are brave for writing this, but it needs to be written. I do not condone infanticide, but I understand where the women with these mental issues are coming from. I have been there, I have had those thoughts. They are so real, they feel so real. For some, they just consume and take too much of them, and they cant control it. It's very sad, because it's also so very preventable.

  13. I thought about this article all day. I remember hearing about the Andrea Yates case and immediately judging her. This was prior to me having children at all. Now that I have been diagnosed with PPD and PPA after the birth of my second little girl, I have tried to read as much as I can to educate myself. When I hear similiar stories in the news now, my heart aches for the entire family – the children, the father and the mother. She has an illness that can be treated. We need to keep educating the public on postpartum mood disorders. They are not as rare as people think.

  14. As usual, very insightful. It's so ironic that you held on to that paper and what you do today.

  15. Ah, this moved me to tears. I'm a new RN, PPD/PPA survivor,and mental health worker who sees folks in psychosis almost daily. I am so drawn to finding those moms with PPP and getting them help, maybe because I feared it so much for myself when I had PPA?

    Of course I judged before, as Ms. B Monaghan said, "To be so keenly aware is often distressing, but not to be aware is to be dead, mentally and emotionally.” and I was not yet keenly aware. And the reason ppl don't retweet, don't want to "go there" is because that awareness is distressing. And to stand up, put it out there, and remind us that we need to pay attention and feel the distress in order to be there for those who cannot help themselves at their time of trial is incredibly good and brave. Thank you for that. And, thanks for reminding me today why I became a nurse.

  16. I also don't know where to draw the line sometimes that troubles me and sometimes I think it is the right kind of challenge. So many thoughts here, will try to unjumble them. When I was 7 months pregnant (so prePPD), I was in a jury pool for a mom who threw her children into SF Bay. I kept crying during the selection process while kind people around me assured me I would be dismissed (I was afte 3 hours). And although I did not want to serve on that case, my tears were about more than that — it was just catching a glimpse of the despair and madness overcoming her. She was only minimally served by the mental health system (that I worked in at the time so I knew all too well about limited resources). I had clients who could so easily be in her shoes. I could see how she got there and it shook me. Fast-forward through my own experience with PPD and seeing how even with health insurance and education and some life security, it took me down to deep and scary places. Even in recovery, there are such strong forces against talking about it and educating about it. In our media culture of black/white, right/wrong and sensationalizing everything the important nuances and details and complicated nature of mental illness are often wiped away.

    • Katherine Stone says:

      Yes, yes yes! So many forces against a woman getting the help and support she needs and recognizing what's wrong and not being afraid to reach out. Thanks for sharing that story.

      – K

  17. In high school I had a teacher that made us pick a side and write a paper about it. The question was: Is America A Melting Pot or a Mosaic. At the time, I didn't even know what either meant. I wrote a lengthy paper about how such a hard question really cannot be answered one way or another. I got a D on that paper. I'll never forget it. I refused to pick a side because I didn't have enough life experience to know the answer and I was afraid to be wrong.

    I still disagree with the D. But I think more questions like these would have been helpful. (I can't even decide between soup or salad at a restaurant). Now I find myself wishing I had a Ms. B. Monaghan.