Extended Family Could Have Helped Andrea Yates

Vilifying feminism in the extreme while at the same time calling attention to the double standard that characterizes motherhood is not untypical of Norah Vincent, whose sardonic opinion piece appeared in The News & Advance on July 22 ("How Society Drowned Five of its Young").

While The Los Angeles Times readership by now may be familiar with Ms. Vincent, Lynchburg probably isn’t. She is an avowed lesbian, a regular contributor to both the liberal Village Voice and the gay Advocate. Oddly enough, she is also pro-life. Normally, that would be the only common ground between us, but this time I find myself on her side of the fence.

She characterized the problem, but her youthful lack of wisdom makes it difficult for her to offer any plausible solutions. What has happened to the revered institution of motherhood? Why are so many moms drowning in the cesspool of depression? There are no easy answers, save perhaps one.

In earlier generations, extended families lived under one rood and, at the very least, in the same community. It was a system that had merit, lending extra hands to a household so a mother didn’t have to shoulder the whole load. Older women mentored the younger. Older children helped raise their younger siblings.

Generation X on down can barely grasp the concept of extended family or appreciate why they’re important. There’s little or no time for work-preoccupied fathers to listen to concerns or to console. Mothers are burdened with a near-impossible task. Shallow root systems are easily upended in a storm.

We cringe especially at the Yates tragedy because this was a white-collar family in upper middle-class America. The family next door. The problem is, did anyone next door really know or care about the silent suffering that went on in the Yates home?

We want to blame the fractured and alienated culture that grew out of the last half of the 20th Century, but we can’t get out hands around its ephemeral throat. So we wring our hands and wonder how such a sad day could have dawned, much as we did when we heard the shocking news of the Columbine massacre. Or we lambaste the APA, religion, patriarchy, whatever is convenient. We just don’t get it.

We know there really is such a thing as postpartum depression, a whole range of depressions, in fact. My grandmother, my mother and I all battled the demon. There is evidence that some antidepressant medications can actually exacerbate the problem and even spark violence. What do we expect in the age of microwave medicine?

During my lowest ebb while my husband was working out of town and with my extended family disbursed across the continent, my two babies and I survived only with the help of close, caring friends. I’ll never forget their compassion. When my husband was at home, he was a loving and nurturing father. He was my rock.

No, I couldn’t consider taking my children’s lives, even in the direst of times. But I know the pain that lead to such desperate measures. To me, motherhood was a precious and sacred charge. I can thank my own upbringing for that conviction. I also believed there was a God who held us all in His loving hands. Sadly, that is universal strength that fell victim to so-called postmodern humanism.

Something was terribly broken in the Yates home. Andrea Yates needed help she didn’t receive. A dear price was paid. Will we learn from it or simply file it away under T for tragedies and go about our business?

I am one of those people who happen to believe in recycling the good graces of others. I was always taught that I am my brother’s keeper and that "he ain’t heavy." Regrettably, whenever our sense of community broke down, we abandoned that belief and bought into the mantra, "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the shrink we go." Only our problems didn’t shrink. Instead, they began making headlines.

© 2001 Deborah M. Thurman