It is likely that we won't ever know or much less understand what was going on in Lisette Bamenga's mind when she killed her two young children last week. Psychosis is one of the most terrifying aspects of humanity, and this is a tragedy beyond our comprehension.
I work with Lisette at Public School 58 in Brooklyn. She is warm, calm, and confident. She is one of the least stressed out teachers in the building, and we all admire her for it. Even with all of the current demands of public education -- increasingly large class sizes, the pressures of state testing, and never enough hours in the day, Lisette strolls through the hallways, smiling, always taking the time to say hello and to talk. The children adore her.
When a friend called with the shocking news on Friday morning, I was in disbelief. "Oh, my god," was all I could say.
After I hung up the phone, more texts, e-mails and phone calls began firing. Each person I spoke to came to the same conclusion. Postpartum psychosis was the only explanation for a beloved colleague to commit such a senseless and tragic act. Each phone call that day began with shock, tears, and grief, and each ended with, "Why doesn't this country take better care of its mothers and children?"
The city of New York gives teaching mothers six weeks of unpaid maternity leave after the birth of their children. If you happen to have a C-section, you get eight weeks unpaid. It's actually classified as disability leave, because you are physically unable to work after the toll the process of childbirth takes on your body. It has nothing to do with caring for your child or your psychological wellbeing.
I have known teachers (myself included) who have gone into labor in the classroom while trying to work up until the very last minute to avoid going off payroll too early. They have no choice.
This problem isn't just with the board of education, or the city of New York. It is a systemic failure in this country to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. It is a fundamental lack of understanding of what should be our greatest priority, and it is downright inhumane. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world with no national law mandating paid time off for new parents. In fact, we are one of only four countries in the world without such a law. Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are the only other sovereign nations who choose not to ensure that infants and new mothers get the proper pre- and post-natal care that they deserve.
Even in Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq new mothers get at least two full months of paid maternity leave. How can it be that these countries that are by no means known for their progressive stances towards women's rights and gender equality have better policies in place? We pay a very high price for our poor policies in this country, and our government should be ashamed.
Any parent in this country without the financial resources to cover a period of an extended unpaid leave (ninety nine percent of us) must return to work immediately, find affordable child care, and trust someone else with caring for her infant in those first crucial months. Then, the parent must come home exhausted and depleted to begin the second shift, to bond with her infant. Without systems in place to protect mothers and children, we can only expect more senseless tragedies.
For women who are not predisposed to postpartum depression and psychosis, we can push through, unhappy with the circumstances but knowing that this is what we have to do for our babies and our families. We suffer situational depression and lean on our co-workers, families, and friends to help us through. For Lisette and other women whose mental state is more precarious, the stress of juggling sleep-deprivation, caring for an infant and an older sibling, the demands of a full time job, and holding a marriage together is more than enough to trigger an acute postpartum psychosis. Lisette will never recover from this. She has killed her babies. Her life is over.
We don't know the details yet about all that happened, or exactly how Lisette found herself in such a deranged state. But we can know with certainty that this country's parental leave policies did nothing to protect those poor children. We should be ashamed.