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When Mothers Neglect Children

In response to:

The Strange Politics of Saving the Children from the November 5, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

It is entirely possible, as narrated by Helen Epstein in “The Strange Politics of Saving the Children” [NYR, November 5], that former UNICEF official Alessandro Conticini’s suspicions that emergency nutritional packets for severely malnourished children were being sold on the market by the children’s mothers were accurate.

But then Ms. Epstein goes on to astonishingly assert that “in impoverished regions the world over, the bond between mothers and children forms slowly; loving a baby who probably won’t survive carries enormous emotional risk and many poor women neglect sick children, assuming they’ll die no matter what.” Subsequently, Ms. Epstein states that Mr. Conticini “introduced a program to help mothers reconnect with their sick children,” which saw the children recover.

Such assertions challenge African credulity at least, and are bound to deeply offend many Ethiopians and others. They cannot be made in this offhand manner on the basis of one person’s observations, as if this is an established fact recognized universally. Interpretations of the kind Ms. Epstein draws surely need to be supported by trained anthropologists, who might indeed find them to be accurate—or find that the mothers’ actions indicate deep mother–child affection of a kind not known in the West.

Let me add to this issue of mothers not having close bonds with unwell children. In 1984, the actress Liv Ullman, who had just returned from a firsthand look at the crushing Ethiopian famine on behalf of UNICEF, was asked at a media encounter in Los Angeles why some mothers had been seen abandoning or giving away their very sick children. She replied in the gentlest way:

I do not think we should see the mothers as abandoning their children. I have seen hundreds or thousands of Ethiopian mothers in the last week clinging to their children to somehow bring fresh life into them. Yes, there is an occasional desperate mother who cannot stand it anymore. Do not see them as abandoning children. These are mothers who have been abandoned by their societies, and by us in the rich countries.

Distressing actions of those suffering severe impoverishment, hunger, or oppression do need to be professionally studied, but within the context of the fullest compassion.

Salim Lone
Spokesman for Kenyan Prime Minister
Raila Odinga, 2007–2012
Princeton, New Jersey

Helen Epstein replies:

I thank Salim Lone for his letter. The point I made about the fragility of the mother–child bond was not meant to refer to Ethiopians or Africans in particular. It is seen in many societies where women are forced to live with the stress of poverty, including the West before the development of the welfare state.

The most comprehensive anthropological studies of this have been conducted by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and colleagues in Brazil, India, the UK, and other societies. See for example Scheper-Hughes’s Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Live in Brazil (1992); Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children, edited by Scheper-Hughes (1987); and Claudio F. Lanata, “Children’s Health in Developing Countries: Issues of Coping, Child Neglect, and Marginalization” in Poverty, Inequality and Health: An International Perspective, edited by David Leon and Gill Walt (2001).

For historical studies of child neglect in the West, see Philippe Ariés, Centuries of Childhood (1960); Lawrence Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977); and David Lancy, The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (2015).

I apologize for not including these sources in the published article.