THE BLOG
02/06/2012 02:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012

How To Hear, Not Condemn, 'Bad Mothers'

The story, or versions of it, is sounding far too familiar.

In Brooklyn last week, 26-year-old Dalisha Adams reportedly left her toddlers, who are 3 and 4, alone in the middle of a Canarsie housing project. They were each wearing parkas and Ugg boots, and each had a fistful of diapers.

In Denver a few days earlier, Sarah Hatfield is accused of leaving her two sons, ages 4 and 2, in a car at a filling station and just walking away.

In Portsmouth NH last month, Miranda Rifenburgh, 25, allegedly left her three children -- all under the age of two -- at home alone and never returned.

And in Indianapolis in December, a mother is said to have hired a babysitter for her 13-month-old on Craigslist, then disappeared and left her baby with the near stranger.

The reaction to these recurring tales of maternal abandonment is becoming numbingly familiar as well. "Hopefully these kids will be taken away from this woman and they'll end up with caring people, because this woman clearly has not understanding of what a caring parent is," was one comment left about Hatfield on a local newspaper website. In response to the Rifenburgh story, another reader wrote: "I hope she rots in jail. Mandatory sterilization should be a possible sentence for people like this."

And when the Daily News polled its readers about whether Adams deserves "to get her daughters back," 14 percent said "I'm not sure," 15 percent said "Yes, we don't know all the circumstances surrounding why her daughters were abandoned," and 71 percent decreed "No, any parent who can leave their kids all alone on the street should never have custody again."

You get the idea.

But as "mundane" as this type of tale threatens to become, and as predictable as the outrage that follows can be, you will probably still not be surprised to learn that in each of these stories, things were not as they first seemed. While the particulars were different, one thread was the same: each of these women, who were quickly labeled "bad mothers," turned out instead to be reminders of the burdens and obstacles that so many mothers -- particularly those who are young and poor -- are likely to face while trying to do the best they can. (And as an aside, in more than a few of these tales, where we castigated a mother for leaving, the father of the children was already gone, without headlines...)

Dalisha Adams eventually turned herself into the police, after a friend reached her and said she was the subject of a manhunt. Until then, she says, she was at a friend's apartment because she "needed a break" from what appears to be the frustration and exhaustion of single parenting. But, she says, she did not abandon her daughters. She told police that she dropped the girls off at their paternal grandmother's in the housing project, but did not actually go into the apartment because she feared her ex-boyfriend might be there. She has an order of protection against the father of her children, who has been arrested three times for violent acts over the past five years, though all the charges were dropped.

Sarah Hatfield, in turn, surfaced twelve hours after she disappeared -- hysterically calling her husband from a pay phone outside a hospital saying she had no memory of how she'd gotten where she was. That phone was 11 miles from where she'd left her boys and her minivan. Was she abducted? She did not know. Was she suffering from epilepsy? Depression? Post-partum psychosis? A brain injury or tumor? Doctors are still trying to figure that out.

Miranda Rifenburgh turned herself in to police in Massachusetts. She is said to have told police that the children were never actually at home alone, meaning she may have waited by a back door until her fiancee came in, then left unseen. It has been a grueling month for the young mother. Her 22-month-old daughter, one of two sets of twins, died a few days after Christmas. Could Rifenburgh have been acting out of grief? Possibly. Or maybe not. Perhaps she did callously abandon three children, one nearly two, the others six-months-old. That is certainly the tidier solution, allowing us to believe that WE would never do something like that, and that society has no responsibility to help a woman who might be losing her mind to sadness.

As for the woman who left her son in the care of a babysitter she found on Craigslist, that one is still a mystery. But there are hints of a desperate life in the fact that the mother apparently worked as a stripper, and did not have the money to pay the sitter she had hired. Was she a bad mother? Odds are she will not be winning any Mom Of The Year Awards anytime soon. But she did find someone to care for her son, which, with a turn of the lens, can look like a piercing cry for help.

Who out there is listening?