It’s always difficult to process the death of an infant or toddler at the hands of an abusive adult. Because children are so utterly defenseless, so completely dependent on and trusting of the adults in their lives, and so vulnerable to any domestic violence that may be occurring in their homes, it’s hard to know what to say when the unimaginable befalls them.
Generally, as a writer and as a mother, because I’m so at a loss for words when news like this surfaces, my instinct is to refrain from public comment — at least initially. But in the case of the death of NFL player Adrian Peterson’s son, I can’t remain silent, allowing for the family of the murdered child to process their grief beyond the glare and accusation of the public, since far too many news outlets are going out of their way to either to fault them for the baby’s death or to use this tragic occurrence an object lesson for single mothers.
Consider the online publications that have used this news as a peg for their “single moms, watch who you date” pieces. Though generally useful, tips like these at a time like this read as indirect finger-pointing and victim-blaming. The inference is: “If only she’d done a background check, her child would not have died.” And this is a charitable inference.
In truth, when the child of a single mother suffers injury or worse when left in the care of another adult, she is — almost without exception — blamed for the child’s fate. These accusations range from “well-intentioned” (as in the case of the “message to dating single moms” pieces) or outright judgmental (e.g. the “mom’s too busy looking for a spouse and/or partying to take screen her child’s caregivers”).
There are useful, empathetic ways to broach sensitive subjects like this. There are ways to converse with single mothers and fathers, as well as the adults to whom they entrust their children, in ways that make clear that the conversation’s intent is to secure the best possible environment for an innocent and defenseless child. And those conversations absolutely should happen, particularly within family structures where children often need to be left with caregivers.
But when public discourse on the subject occurs, using the death of a single mother’s two-year-old as a conversation-starter, we really have to question what we hope to gain. We’re asking the grieving mother to endure our criticism, scrutiny, and scorn as a way of distancing ourselves from her (indicating that our own mothering is somehow superior) or from her tragedy (asserting this could never happen to us because we’re already privy to the useful “dating tips” we’re dispensing to others).
Children befall harm at the hands of trusted caregivers on a daily basis. Sometimes, the warning signs are noticeable; sometimes they’re far less apparent. At no point should the parent be blamed, scolded, or condemned in the direct aftermath of harm to their children.
Not only is this callous, patently unfair, and wildly unproductive, it also diverts focus from the tragedy itself, recentering the grieving parent as the prime suspect, rather than the child abuser.
The mother of the deceased child isn’t the only one who’s found herself under a microscope in this case. A truly ugly and, frankly, illogical piece by Susan Reimer ran in The Baltimore Sun this morning, dissecting Adrian Peterson’s choices in co-parents, questioning his personal responsibility, and calling for the public to voice its “outrage” at his parenting.
Similarly, newly vocal conservative CNN anchor Don Lemon used an appearance on The Tom Joyner Morning Show today to lecture listeners on the importance of personal responsibility, in light of this baby’s death. He criticizes Peterson’s lack of visitation with the child (whose paternity was only confirmed a few months ago), as well as the number of mothers with whom he’s co-parented. He also draws on statistics about the increased likelihood that children of single parents will suffer injury at the hands of their significant others.
Again: it’s not that conversations about healthy, safeguarding measures for single parents should not occur. They just shouldn’t occur at the expense of families in mourning. Criticism and finger-pointing shouldn’t be our priorities just after a child has died.
In all things, timing, tone, and empathy make all the difference in how messages will be received with their intended audience. It’s clear that many news outlets, cultural critics, and communities have a long way to go.