When we set about mapping out The Motherless Child Project–as if–it was more like operating a runaway car that kept careening off the road, stalling and even crashing on occasion. Yet ultimately, we managed to glide safely–albeit somewhat suddenly–into our own space in the Library of Congress. How we managed to arrive with a book as a whole sometimes seems beyond us.
What we always felt certain about, however, was its message. We had it covered–Robin knew the pain of living without one’s children firsthand, and we’d both read and collected so many stories that we felt motherless children were well represented in the book, in Emily Amber’s Motherless Child Project community.
We were wrong. There was a glaring omission. In the midst of our excitement about creating a world in which parents and children might find each other–apart and away from the family court system and greed that separates them–we didn’t consider an essential exception. In other words, we’re talking about children who can no longer be found, embraced or saved.
Suicide among children is an agonizing news subject and we hear reports about it every single day. Depression, bullying, divorce (even when extreme decisions are not made), breakups and loss of friends, can all certainly break the heart of a child who sees only his or her immediate life and can’t imagine things ever changing.
Just a few days ago, we were rocked to the core by the news of a 13-year-old Georgia girl, Jayla, who put a gun to her head on January 25 and ended her own life. We always ask why when we hear of an untimely tragedy like a suicide or a murder, but this is especially true when involving the death of a child.
Except in some cases, we might know at least partly why. We have no insights into Jayla’s short life except the facts we have, and we don’t personally know the parties. In some ways, I’m writing as I did back when I was a crime reporter and had to write about a death or a murder, in carefully separating facts and possibilities.
But also from a reporter’s POV I can state unequivocally that in many instances, a child embodies what it’s like to bear the brunt of cruel, one-sided court rulings. It’s a parents’ fight. It’s about power, control, money and punishment. It’s seldom about the child–at least in terms of how the judgments go. We hear far too often about parents murdering their own children as a means of punishing the other parent–“If I can’t have the child, no one will.” “This is my final act of revenge on her (him).” “I’ll take away the thing she loves most.”
But this is more than revenge. This is about real lives being cut short that shouldn’t have been. It’s just struck us full in the face that some scenarios are playing out even when a vengeful parent isn’t the one doing the killing… but rather enabling the death to occur at the child’s own hands.
By all accounts, Jayla seems to have been a popular and active girl. She was definitely a beautiful girl. She seems to have done everything right. For motherless children though, this shell–however busy and beautiful–is never enough. This disdain for mothers, this disvaluing of their roles, this ripping apart of the lives they literally brought forth–this “Fathers’ Rights” era promoting the utter dispensability of mothers–is a deep evil. Need an example of the implicit dispensability of mothers? Not only was Jayla’s mother not allowed in her life, she apparently wasn’t allowed to be part of her death either. Jayla’s stepmother and her respective family were subbed in as the “maternal family” in the obituary.
An Instagram post Jayla made not long before she took her life.
Facts like these sometimes reveal the spirit of a particularly vengeful custodial parent and the new spouse, and significant others who help them perpetuate the cruelty. This kind of thing happens all the time. We just didn’t realize how often death results until we started paying closer attention and recognizing how many mothers in our own ranks suffer because they lost a child–and the child the chance to realize a full life–as a result of their unnatural separation. Not only that–consider what it’s like for the child to live with the narcissist who heartlessly enforces the rules.
Was this Jayla’s situation? I think all we can say for certain about her parental situation is that she indeed was what can be called a “motherless child.” Whatever the reason her family situation came to be, I hope anyone on any side can admit it had to play a part. Mothers are not so dispensable as we pretend.
Michael Melinn shot and killed himself on April 27, 2010 – only two weeks after turning 18. He had gone to live with his father at age 17. In his mother’s words: “CPS was called five months prior and told he was threatening suicide. It was known that Michael had access to illegal drugs, alcohol and guns at his father’s home.”
Jayla reached out to her mother before she died. She called her mother on a friend’s cellphone, because she wasn’t allowed any contact–no matter what she wanted or needed. Reports say contact between mother and daughter had been severed for close to two years. The phone call was an unpardonable offense and Jayla knew it.
We thought the best we could accomplish with our book (and the sequels to come) was to facilitate “mother and child reunions.” We were all Paul Simon about it. We’ve read he was actually writing about a Chinese menu item and the death of his dog, but still… Mother and child reunions represent the ultimate good we can envision coming from The Motherless Child Project. We knew it would be tough to foster reunions like this, but we believed–and still believe–in the importance of story. How life sometimes imitates art. How you can speak far more effectively when you tell someone an entertaining and emotionally involving story rather than bash them over the head with carefully-collected statistics and real-life horrors people simply do not want to hear about or see.
Jayla and her mother reportedly had a meeting–a reunion. It doesn’t happen very often in this venue and both undoubtedly knew that. We have no idea how the reunion went of course, but Jayla’s mother likely thought her own life had changed for the better and that Jayla’s life was certainly on the way to improvement.
But change and improvement were not to be. The very next day, Jayla–at 13 remember–put a gun to her head. We’ll never know what else was going on in Jayla’s life, but the sequence of events makes it obvious that her mother missing from her life played a role or Jayla wouldn’t have taken the risk of reaching out to her. Did she miss her that badly? Did she have a message? Was she sharing a problem with her mother, seeking help? Was being in the middle, stuck holding the bag, too much? Did she feel guilty or despise herself for what she might have imagined as putting her parents in pain?
Even our book’s main character, Emily Amber, fleetingly contemplates not going back to the surface of the pool in the very first scene of the book. Although eventually rescued, she thinks twice–she considers whether dying might be better than going back up to the life of lies she realizes she’s led.
Even before then, the weight of the wisdom Emily Amber gained through her Motherless Child Project, coupled with the blow of her father’s (and others’) betrayal are simply too much. She succumbs to an emotional breakdown. She’s not well. Who would be?
Byron, pictured here, died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head on August 22, 2013. Police had delivered him into his father’s custody when Byron was 8. The day he died, he did some homework and chores before turning his father’s gun on himself. He left no suicide letter. Byron’s stepmother, who found his body, called his mother, stated that Byron was dead, and hung up.
Robin and I thought we’d had our bases covered. We thought–and still do–we were giving a voice to these children. Whether they were like Emily Amber, who doesn’t know what happened to her mother; or Bright, who wants to live with his mother but can’t because his father forces him to remain in his abusive hold; or LanceB, the boy whose mother forbids him to know his father and the paternal side of his family; or the kids whose parents are in jail for disobeying court orders–we had it covered.
But now, we realize we have to give voices to children who are no longer alive to tell their own stories.
Are we glamorizing motherhood? No. Downplaying fatherhood? No! Children need a mother and a father. But as opposed to what the Fathers’ Rights promoters love to peddle (inserting the normal caveat here that we are not talking about loving fathers–for a father who doesn’t want his children to know their mother, when she is a good mother, is no true father, and the reverse holds true as well of course), nothing will ever replace a mother. The bond between mother and child is a sacred one.
Really, there shouldn’t be a need for caveats here. Look at all the men present in our lives and our kids’ lives–and the men and father figures in our book–and any objective mind will see no one is saying fathers aren’t essential. But there is no war being waged against fathers. That is the truth.
The need for a mother is a fundamental need. It is a necessity. Several Motherless Child Project readers, whose mothers died during their growing-up years, have reported that their feelings of loss are just the same as the kids’ in Emily Amber’s community. The Readers’ Favorite reviewer said she suspected Robin or I had lost a mother. Neither of us has, but it’s an interesting remark because as Robin puts it, “losing a child through life”–or losing a mother that way–is remarkably like a death.
So–what about the children? What does it look like to bear the cross of so much unbearable pain? The Motherless Child Project tells the story of what it looks like–a convincing one. We’ve been gratified to hear many comments from readers who identify with the book, even if they’ve not necessarily lived the same battles. But what the book doesn’t tell is the story of the children who did not live through the battles.
Emily Amber’s story, and those all around her, just go on and on and on. As with The Motherless Child Project, we hope the ensuing incarnations of the book will be quite a ride, ever-dangerous but joyful and fresh and sometimes funny – qualities we felt important to instill in the first book.
But for now, we’re mourning the children we will never know, who had voices we will never hear but whose stories we vow to continue to tell.
Jacob had aspergers syndrome. His doctors believed he would not thrive if taken completely from the care of his mother. Ignoring their testimony and advice, the family court judge sent Jacob to live full-time with his father when he was 17, essentially cutting off his mother’s care. A little over 16 months later, on March 27, 2011, Jacob fatally shot himself. His official death date occurred on March 29, when he was taken off life support.
Click here to read Robin’s poem To Lose A Child Through Life