Mother Murders Baby Over Farmville?

I saw this outrageous story today about a young mother who killed her 3-month-old son because he was crying while she played the popular Facebook timesuck game, Farmville. The mother, 22-year-old Alexandra V. Tobias, told the police that she shook the baby, left to smoke a cigarette to compose herself, and then returned and shook him again. She offers that he may have hit his head when she shook him and has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder carrying a possible sentence of 25 to 50 years in jail.

There is no doubt that this story is absolutely appalling and quite sad. The natural reaction is to ask how a mother could be so evil to kill her baby over a video game? But it can’t be just that simple. While I do not condone her behavior, what jumped out at me was that this woman must have been experiencing some severe postpartum depression. I am not excusing her actions but postpartum depression is real and often underestimated.

Women are expected to be all exuberant and glowing with the birth of their new baby but sometimes reality come crashing down on new moms. While they truly love their babies, sleep deprivation, hormonal fluctuations, or painful breastfeeding can trigger unpleasant feelings and hopelessness.

Tobias is a young woman and I wonder what type of support she had in raising her baby. There is no mention of the baby’s father or family in the story, only that she pleaded guilty to spare her family the pain of a trial. I also wonder what type of access she had to doctors and/or therapists, and if she had information or resources about postpartum depression. Was there anyone she could talk to about her feelings? Was she predisposed to depression anyway? Maybe her cries for help were dismissed as “baby blues.” My point here is that situations like this may be preventable when women are given support in childrearing and accurate information before the baby is born.

I don’t have children but new mothers have told me that they have experienced that feeling of being pushed to the edge. Not that they don’t love their child but something hormonal is making them feel angered and frustrated to the point where they could hurt the baby or themselves. It is a chemical reaction and deserves to be more seriously addressed so that these situations are less of a reality.

I’d love to hear thoughts from mothers. Did you experience postpartum depression and if so, how did you handle it? Is 25 to 50 years in jail an appropriate punishment? I get a feeling there’s more to this story than what’s reported in 4 paragraphs.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/athenia/ athenia

    I don’t even think we have to consider depression—some people out there need to know that shaking your baby is just as dangerous as anything else.

    I mean, I don’t know parenting classes are required to take your baby home, are they??

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I dunno, this all seems speculation based. Based on the little bit of information released so far, we have no way of knowing yet whether she suffered postpartum depression or what kind of support she had from family and friends. While it’s true that PPD can be a serious problem and that society expects new mothers to be constantly glowing and happy, I think we should wait till we actually know that that’s the case here.

    • davenj

      Very true. Every case of infanticide is not an issue of PPD. There’s no evidence here to make a claim like that, and let’s be clear that making serious medical diagnoses is a SIGNIFICANT claim.

      I also don’t like the phrase “But it can’t be just that simple.” What if it is that simple? What then?

      This seems like it could be an issue of PPD or lack of support and info, but on the other hand this post could be an issue of gendering criminality such that women can’t possibly commit callous crimes for really stupid reasons.

  • http://feministing.com/members/april/ April Streich

    There’s no reason whatsoever to find a reason to sympathize with someone who murdered a baby. You want to talk about postpartum depression, great. That can happen independently of this atrocious story. God, how disgusting. I don’t even want to give a hint of justifying or even explaining that murderer’s actions by speculating about her medical history.

  • zill222

    Yeah, there is almost no information in the article about the woman’s situation. I am also one of those people who likes to make excuses for people who commit crimes, especially when it is some one that I identify with. So in this case trying to explain her behavior with PPD is understandable. However, I think that murder is murder, depressed or not. For murder, 25 to 50 years is completely appropriate.
    She shook the baby and maybe hit his head, then she left and had a cigarette, and then returned to shake the baby again. As far as I know depression does not negate your ability to tell right from wrong (such as mental impairment or intoxication) she was thinking clearly to take a break and have a smoke.
    It is a really sad story. Either way I hope she gets the rehabilitation she needs and justice is done.

  • http://feministing.com/members/qqob/ qob

    “this woman must have been experiencing some severe postpartum depression.”
    Not necessarily. Some people behave violently towards infants, and do not have a legitimate mental illness like postpartum depression.

    “Not that they don’t love their child but something hormonal is making them feel angered and frustrated to the point where they could hurt the baby or themselves.”
    I have felt like this once or twice while babysitting in stressful situations (I am not a mother, so this is not ‘hormonal’ in the sense you seem to mean ). Small children can be stress-inducing, but a person can choose to walk out of the room rather than shake their baby repeatedly.

    The symptoms of postpartum depression do not normally include violence: this is postpartum psychosis http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/depression-pregnancy.cfm

    It seems like you’re basing this post on (a) a very incomplete version of the facts of this woman’s case and (b) a misunderstanding of what postpartum depression is.
    In doing so, you’re doing a disservice to this woman in particular, and sufferers of postpartum depression in general.
    I expected better from Feministing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/thematicdevice/ TD

    Why, if a woman is accused of a crime is it automatically assumed that there must be some reason why she is not fully culpable or is for some reason to be forgiven for her actions?

    Is it possible she suffered from PPD? Certainly, but it is not reasonable to leap to that conclusion before even her defense raises that as a possibility. That suggests not a critical analysis but a refusal to believe that any woman could ever do something evil.

    • nicolechat

      I totally agree, although I don’t think the OP was suggesting we forgive her. It is very, very likely that this woman does indeed suffer from postpartum depression. It is possible she didn’t have good support systems in place to help her with her pain and her new life as a mother (assuming that this was her first baby – we don’t even know that much).

      But who are we to speculate? I hate being the Analogy Person, but what if this were a man? Postpartum depression couldn’t be used to explain the case of course, but other types of depression do exist and men do suffer from them. Look, we say this stuff all the time about men – many guys who abuse their wives/girlfriends/children suffer from depression or other mental illnesses but we can’t justify what they do because of that. We call them what they are: Abusers. Men who hit the people they love. It’s time we held women to the same standard.

      Maybe – even probably – this woman suffered from postpartum depression. But she still abused her child. A person used violence and aggression to silence and/or punish another person over whom they had physical and authoritative power. She probably didn’t inted to kill her child (I’m hardly speculating here, very few infant deaths from the result of being shaken were actually intentional murders) but even if she didn’t – she physically abused her infant son. That is an atrocious thing to do and it’s ok for the public to be outraged.

      As for the life sentence, that seems quite extreme to me – this person murdered her own child and the guilt and remorse she will endure the rest of her life is going to be an awful punishment in itself. I do think she deserves jail time, but certainly not 25 years. Making an example out of this woman won’t help anyone.

      • nicolechat

        You know what? I’m going to retract from my comment a bit. I’ve just re-read the OP and I really don’t see anything here that suggests PPD is an excuse for this kind of behaviour.

        Others below me have said it better than I can and I don’t want to be an echo so I’ll just say this: We need to be better equipped to help women deal with post-partum mental illness. It is not an excuse for what she did, and of course we don’t even know if she’s been dealing with that, but if she is, and especially if she already has underlying anger problems – then she needs therapy and possibly medical attention. It could have prevented this tragedy from happenig.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ohlookitssara/ SaraC

    While PDD definitely needs more attention (prevention and treatment as well), I think it is inappropriate to jump there here. It is much more likely that this woman has inappropriate coping mechanisms and impulse control.

    Personal responsibility is an issue here. Even if this woman had PDD (which I believe she did not), that is not even 1% of an excuse for doing this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sandra/ Sandra Goodick

    I don’t think that post-partum depression typically manifests in violence towards the child. Typically, women suffering PPD turn the violence inward or the abandon the child.

    The sad truth is that giving birth to a child does not guarantee that you’ll be a decent parent. This story is heart-breaking but a lot more common than we’d like to think.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ferriswheel/ Amelia

    I’m a nanny and a student nurse, so I work with a lot of mothers. Of course we can’t know for sure, only speculate, but that sure does look to me like post natal depression. Anyone who’s looked after small babies before can tell you how frustrating it is when they cry and you can’t figure out why, especially when you’ve had enough of it, you haven’t had a break from it in days, weeks or months. Healthy parents or carers can deal ok, with help. Depressed people without help – can you even imagine? everyone tells you that you will love your baby no matter what – and what happens if you don’t? and then it cries at you incessantly, but there’s no one to go to for help, no break from it without admitting to someone that you don’t know how to cope, that you’re not even sure if you love your baby – people will think you’re a monster. But that’s what PND is like for some mothers. It’s not their fault – a lot of it is hormonal, PMS is bad enough, but hormones go through a massive upheaval during and after birth, and can take a long time to readjust. and meanwhile you’re supposed to be taking care of the most needy creature you’ll ever come across and give your whole life up to the care of this creature. it can’t be easy.

  • http://feministing.com/members/dampscribbler/ dampscribbler

    I think that post-partum challenges get far too little attention in our culture, and while I appreciate that you are feeling sympathetic toward this mother because she may be suffering from a chemical imbalance, I have to agree with the others above that we just can’t say in this case whether she was suffering from PPD or not. And if I were armchair-doctoring, (which I’m not), I’d say that the fact that she left the room to smoke a cigarette and THEN came back and shook the baby again suggests either PostPartum Psychosis or intent to kill.

    As someone in a supposedly privileged position (over 30 years old, financially stable, good marriage, and good health insurance) I can tell you that there absolutely is not enough support out there for new mothers. What concerns me most is that stories like this become the public face of PPD, and that mothers who are feeling desperate and undersupported and overwhelmed but have never even come close to shaking their baby, abandoning it, or any of the other dramatic images that come from the media will look at this face and say (like I did) “that’s not me.” This is a double-negative in that the sufferer believes that there is something wrong with her but not wrong enough to warrant seeking help, and that if she did seek help she wouldn’t get it because she hasn’t had thoughts of killing herself or her child. Add to that the shame of not being able to “get it right” and the fear that asking for help will get you labeled as a “family at risk” (and therefore watched by CPS) and you’ve got a world of hurt.

    I can’t speak to this young woman’s case at all, except to say that if a father shaking his child to death were typically sentenced to less than 25 years in jail (as I suspect he would be) then a sentence of 25-50 years for this young woman is too harsh.

    I can, however, speak from my own experience of Postpartum Depression/Anxiety/Desperation, and say that there is a profound need in our society to support our new mothers better, and to represent Postpartum issues as common and treatable rather than as defenses for horrible behavior or for the state putting a child in “protective custody.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/kcar1/ kcar1

    I agree, we don’t know enough. However, I would give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she probably was experiencing mental distress — and not just about having Farmville interrupted. Honestly, having gone through 9 months of pregnancy and 3 months of newborn care, a mentally healthy, even if irresponsible, disaffected, etc., person does not just end it like that.

    I experience ppd. It is an ugly experience that robs you of the joy of one of the most important part of your life… and, I don’t know exactly why, but it is something that I still feel embarrassment and even shame over, 5 years later — there are still only a few people who know I was diagnosed and treated.

    This was not something I was ignorant of in advance – Andrea Yates was in the news as the time – and I had (and have) great support from family and friends. I made my husband aware of the stats before I delivered, my mom is a mental health professional (they knew something wasn’t “right”). But it was the delivery nurse who ran a young mothers’ group who identified it and encouraged me to get treatment- including referring me to the appropriate doctor (upon whose referral I was squeezed in) and watching the baby while I went to the appointments. She had, over the years of running this group, developed a greater awareness of the signs and symptoms.

    I never thought about or got close to hurting my child – I was at the other extreme actually – but I can see how it could happen. It wasn’t as if I did have a host of coping skills, I grew up with loving, attentive, and skilled parents, had experience caring for babies and being around new moms, my husband enjoyed caring for the baby, helped with household chores, and continued to express his love and attraction to me. But still, something clicked in my brain and my reactions were not “rational” or healthy, frequently out of proportion to the stimulus.

    I wouldn’t underestimate people’s ability to avoid information but the “Never Shake a Baby” campaign is (almost) inescapable for expectant and new parents. It was covered in prenatal classes (but not everyone takes those), handouts included. If memory serves, it was covered during discharge (but not the best time to take in “new” information), brochures sent home, I am sure. Posters are in the pediatrician’s office and the OB’s office and I am pretty sure both peds I have had talked to me about it. They are also plastered all over a lot of social service agencies.

  • kisekileia

    Postpartum depression doesn’t eliminate a woman’s ability to tell right from wrong. Postpartum psychosis, which is rarer but not that rare, can. Look at the Andrea Yates case–she killed her kids because she was delusional. I don’t know what sort of condition this woman was in, but if she had postpartum psychosis, it’s fairly likely that a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict would be appropriate.

  • sleepybones2

    There’s room for both condemnation and understanding here.

    Women and men should be held to the same standards with this kind of crime. Some men are depressed and kill their whole families. I don’t think there can be any justification for that. Yet I do feel bad about the man being depressed and other men who feel that way (but don’t kill their families). Same standard should be held to women who kill their babies or children. Let’s assume she was depressed and lacking support. Then, I really feel sorry for her and I recognize my own “closeness” to that situation, in that I know the frustration that a young infant can cause. Yet, I have to draw a line and say “this is wrong and must be punished”.

    It’s like I can know the feeling of being enraged at a boss, yet still condemn workplace violence. What’s tough is seeing murderers as human, yet still recognizing the need for sanction.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nwoslave/ John

    Ask yourselves if you would make excuse’s for a father’s depression if he killed his child and you’ll have your answer.

    • http://feministing.com/members/kcar1/ kcar1

      @John, there is a some evidence that fathers experience ppd too… but we aren’t talking about “excusing it” but “explaining it” — maybe there is something that could have been done (and could still be done for similar women). Even just a reminder of the dangers of ppd…

  • honeybee

    Even if she was suffering PPD are you saying that that excuses her behaviour? Perhaps it can be a consideration in sentencing but I don’t see that it changes much overall. She still murdered the child.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nerdette/ Rea M.

    sleepybones has the right approach to this. The action is condemnable, but the woman is pitiable, assuming that she is in fact under mental trauma and not pathological. There is too little information here to make any judgment.

    A similar case came up in Kansas: A woman threw her newborn baby into a dumpster. So many people are quick to condemn her for her action, which is condemnable, but we have to wonder if this horrible action would have occurred if the clinics in Wichita hadn’t been closed. We have no idea what sort of pressures the woman was under to maintain the pregnancy, and why she couldn’t drop off the child at a safe haven. We simply don’t have enough information, and I don’t like judging people based on hearsay.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mysticdoula/ Sarah

    I definitely know how this mother felt, and how she could be driven to do what she did. Having a small baby is just so overwhelming and some days you just want your “real” life back. I felt that for the first year I was simply at the mercy of a tiny little dictator who didn’t give a damn if I was sick, tired, busy and so forth. Some days I felt so close to the edge of my mental ability to deal with a baby that i would just sit and listen to the baby scream while crying myself. The only difference between me and this woman is that she shook her baby and I didn’t. I can’t tell you why that is though.

    This is the very dark side of motherhood that no one talks about. An artist friend of mine tried to convey this in some self-portraiture (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindnergander/), especially about the ambivalence some women feel but can’t express due to the stigma.

    I can’t condemn this woman. I just can’t. She was trying to play a game on the computer, and I was just trying to move some furniture around. Perhaps like me she was just trying to do something to feel like she used to before the insanity. I had it in me to leave the baby and phone someone for help, but she shook her baby and it died. I guess the world we live in dictates that she be punished for killing her child, but society at large needs to wake the hell up and realise that as much as motherhood is a joy (at times) it can also take people to the darkest moments they will ever experience. And not everyone has the strength or will power to get themselves through those moments without killing either the baby or herself.

    • http://narrowcrafts.blogspot.com chelsa

      I think this is the perfect response to this.

      After my mom had my youngest brother, she needed a hysterectomy for some complications during the birth. After that, the docs never put her on supplemental hormones. I don’t know if it just wasn’t done back then or her doctors were just out-of-the-know, but that’s how it turned out.

      She told us that so many times over the years until she was diagnosed with the chemical imbalance resulting from the hysterectomy, she wanted to kill me and my brothers. We’d be crying or yelling or screaming and she told me every ounce of her being wanted to go pick up a big kitchen knife and make us shut up.

      Luckily for me and my brothers, whenever this feeling got overwhelming, she would have no qualms about leaving us in the house by ourselves and walking over to a friend’s place to talk. She’d just leave us there. Which may sounds like being a bad parent… but it saved our lives, frankly.

      Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if she didn’t have a number of friends living in the same housing units as us? What if she’d had no where to go? What if she thought it would make her a bad mother to leave us in the house screaming our little heads off?

      I could have easily been this headline 25 years ago. So I have sympathy for the mother and child that *are*.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kcar1/ kcar1

    I think that many are missing the more important point of asking the question…

    It isn’t about whether or not this woman is culpable for the crime, though we recognize, through sentencing, etc., that individuals’ culpability may be less if they are suffering a mental illness.

    The problem here is that portraying this woman as some selfish, Farmville-obsessed woman who just didn’t want to be interrupted by a crying baby does substantial harm to both her (if she was suffering from ppd or ppp or some other pre-existing mental illness, the death of her child will probably only worsen it) and to women in general. This is so dismissive — it automatically makes this woman “undeserving” of our compassion and understanding, apart from whether we want to hold her responsible for it. And it reinforces this idea that women are automatically happy and well-adjusted mothers or they are evil — making it harder for people to seek help when needed. In other words, if I am struggling, I am a bad person, undeserving of help or compassion — which feeds right into the depression spiral.

    No, we don’t want every crime women commit to be “hormonal” but failure to recognize that women experience ppd (to a far lesser extent ppp), lack of support and resources contribute to it and failure to address it has negative consequences for child (even if moms never physically harm them), women, their partners, and their communities.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nwoslave/ John

    You can not use PPD or any type of “depression” or “chemical” imbalance as a defence. Being a man you’ll say that I can’t understand, which is true. The flip side is that we know men have a monsterous drive to reproduce, the same lawyers to which you turn to “lessen” or “dismiss” the punishment for this crime will do the same for violent rapists, claiming a “chemical” imbalance.

    Make no mistake, once you start down this road no crime will be inexcusable.