In the past week, mother Brenda Heist reappeared, 11 years after going missing. She was last seen by her then-young kids when she dropped them off at their Pennsylvania school. Just coming out of a marriage breakdown, she had just been told that her application for financial aid had been denied. According to Brenda, she was crying in a park when she met hitch-hikers who asked her to join them on their way to Florida and, on a whim, she accepted.
Now she has told police that she did it because she was stressed.
Sad and shocking as it is, I immediately dismissed it as a rare case. But according to an article by Peggy Drexler (author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family and assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University), this is actually becoming a bit of an alarming trend. While she admits that there are no hard numbers, there has been a substantial increase in the number of mothers walking away from their families. In the US the number of single fathers more than tripled between 1982 and 2011, and believe it or not there are now support groups for mums who have chosen to leave.
Drexler argues that this could have a lot to do with our individualistic societal values. Research shows that clinical narcissism has had a 30% rise in the last 20 years, in the context of a culture that takes “being true to ourselves” and “never compromising” to a whole new level. How sad it is however, that being true to yourself can be an excuse to give up when the going gets tough. Surely hanging in there would help you grow in character and become even truer to yourself?
Hand in hand with this self-seeking culture comes always putting our own pleasure before the needs of others. I’ve met so many people that tell me that meaning of life is just to enjoy and have a good time. Case in point is a 2004 study by a behavioural economic which Drexler mentions. It saw that child care ranked 16th in terms of pleasure out of 19 activities amongst the Texas women surveyed. This ranking is not really the concern though, but rather the fact that people expect parenting to be fun! Doesn’t anyone remember that generally the hardest things in life are the most worthwhile? No wonder mothers are walking way, if their expectations of motherhood are all about the good times.
The facts may be disheartening, but I think that understanding these trends can help us to fight and overcome them. And with Mother’s Day this weekend, all I can really say is that I am thoroughly grateful for my mum – and hopeful that one day I’ll be as good a mother, who puts my kids’ wellbeing before my own despite how tough it’s bound to be at times.