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'I Wanted To Drive My Babies Off A Cliff': Why Mums Think About Harming Their Kids

Whenever Jane* read about a parent killing their children, she would be outraged.

'How dare these monsters kill an innocent child?' she thought. 'How could they be so selfish?'

Jane's attitude changed the day she found herself driving towards a nearby cliff, her two babies asleep in the back seat.

She had been dealing with postnatal depression and anxiety since her twins were born five months earlier -- only she didn’t know it.

“I blamed sleep deprivation, loneliness, fear of stuffing up and eating the wrong food,” she told 10 daily.

I thought all you needed to do was shake it off, go for a run, get a good night’s sleep.

Jane found herself dealing with dark thoughts of both suicide and filicide, of removing herself and her children from the world so her husband could start a new, happier life.

“I thought the twins were my responsibility, and if I couldn't manage to look after them, it wasn’t fair to expect anyone else to. I loved [my husband] dearly and truly thought I would be doing him a favour if we all just left," she said.

Thankfully, that day driving towards the cliff's edge was a lightbulb moment for Jane, and she sought the help she needed.

The story -- a familiar one to many parents -- doesn’t always end this way.

perinatal depression
One in five new mums will experience perinatal depression or anxiety, according to PANDA. Photo: Getty.

An average of 25 children are killed each year by a parent, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. Children under 12 months are the most at risk, accounting for 26 percent of all victims. Overall, most victims are babies, toddlers, or young children, with 68 percent of victims being under five years old.

While fathers are responsible for the majority of filicides in Australia (63 percent), more four- and five-year-olds are killed by their mother.

Just this week alone, a mother in Adelaide was sentenced for putting sleeping tablets in her children's milk, although thankfully not a high enough amount to cause "extremely pronounced effects".

District Court Judge Wayne Chivell called it an "extremely sad case", describing how the mum -- who pleaded guilty, but who cannot be identified -- crushed up sleeping tablets, dissolved them in chocolate milk, gave a glass to each of her four children, and then tried to kill herself.

Many parents experience worrying thoughts. Image: Getty

"It is clear that at the time of the offending, you had reached a crisis point as a result of your declining mental health," Judge Chivell said, the ABC reported.

"The nature of your relationship with the victims was such that they trusted you unreservedly. They had every right to expect you to look after them."

The question of why parents harm their own children is a tough one to answer.

Mental illness, previous abuse and experiencing domestic violence are all considered risk factors in cases of filicide, according to Dr. Lillian De Bortoli, a former researcher at Swinburne University’s Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science.

Along with lecturer Margaret Nixon, she researched the triggers for filicide in Australia, analysing data from the National Coronial Information System to identify five main victim-perpetrator relationships, finding both similarities and differences in the crimes.

filicide
Lillian De Bortoli and Margaret Nixon identified five key victim-perpetrator relationships. Photo: The Conversation.

Separated fathers were more likely to have custodial issues at the time of the fatal incident, and homicides committed were likely to involve multiple children.  While mental illness was common among both mothers and fathers, women were more likely to have a diagnosed illness, while men were more likely to have had prior contact with the criminal justice system.

However, there is a world of difference between experiencing thoughts of violence and acting on them, said Terri Smith, CEO of Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA).

One in five new mums will experience perinatal anxiety or depression, she said. In more serious cases, mothers can harbour thoughts of harm or violence towards their children.

“Perinatal anxiety and depression doesn’t discriminate, and it’s really hard for people to recognise it,” she told 10 daily.

New mothers call PANDA’s helpline every day about fears they’ll harm their kids, Smith said -- often before disclosing to a partner (50 percent) or a GP (69 percent).

“Often people will say things like, I thought this was the new normal,” Smith said.

“The other thing we hear is, ‘I didn’t want to be that mum. I didn’t want to be the mum who has a mental illness.”

Stigma is a huge factor in parents seeking help. One mum expressed fears to PANDA of "disappointing" her GP, while another told of waiting for a nurse to ask her about feelings of harming her baby, only to be put off by the framing of the question as: "You haven't had these thoughts, have you?"

"We need to keep normalising [these feelings]," Smith said.

"It keeps coming back to this: there's a huge gulf between thinking about hurting your child, and actually doing it. But it is very difficult for women to say it."

For Jane, making an appointment with her GP was the first step, and with the help of medication and counselling, she was able to manage her perinatal depression.

“I thought they would take my babies away from me,” she said.

Instead, they threw me a life boat.

She spoke to 10 daily under condition of anonymity, because she doesn’t want her children to know about the dark thoughts she was experiencing. But she wants to help break down the stigma, and to encourage people to show kindness and understanding to parents experiencing similar feelings.

“I beg and plead with everyone: please don’t judge,” she said.

“And if you are currently having these thoughts of filicide, please don’t be afraid to speak up. It isn’t you. If I can [get through it] so can you.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

If you are experiencing perinatal depression or anxiety, or have thoughts about harming your children, speak to your GP or call PANDA's national helpline (Mon-Fri, 9am-7.30pm) on 1300 726 306. If you are in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au