There can’t be many JT readers who haven’t heard about the plight of Beth Alexander by now. For those who need a reminder; Beth is a young mum, originally from Manchester, now living in Vienna. She is fighting to regain custody of her twin toddler boys who were taken from her, apparently on the basis of a psychologist report, after her ex-husband claimed she suffered post-natal depression.
I don’t know Beth personally and can’t claim to know any more about this tragic affair than any other casual observer, but I do think that the case raises concerning issues for all. For a start, Beth’s cases challenges the assumption that a child is usually better off with its mum. Correct me if I’m wrong, but most people (and I am one), think that unless there is something seriously amiss, a child should not be taken away from its mother. Even in today’s supposed egalitarian world, most people take the view that, where possible, a mum should have primary care of her child.
This assumption has caused some angry contention among some observers who argue that fathers should have just as much right to custody as mothers. No one, this minority point out, gets so het up when dads are denied custody. Why is it always assumed that mum is the best primary carer for the children?
Well, in my opinion, this is because mums are generally superior at the everyday aspects of the job. Of course, dads can be, and often are, brilliant parents too, but generally, they do it differently to mums. The fact is that mums (generally) start caring for their child a whopping nine months earlier than the father. These nine months are crucial and start the woman on her mothering journey which normally only ends when her life does. When a pregnant mum stops drinking Palwin No 5 and eating chopped liver (whilst dad carries on tucking in cheerfully) she is beginning a lifetime of care and worry about her child. When she then spend at least six months with sole responsibility for the infant (except, perhaps for bath time when daddy gets home), she quickly learns to take on that unique 360 degree caring role that means she is forever the one woken at night by the slightest childish snuffle, the one who sets the school uniform out at the end of the bed ready for the next morning; she is the one who hangs around doctor’s surgery for immunisations and reassurance about fevers, who organises the dentist appointments and play dates, who kisses scraped knees and trapped fingers, who tells them to ‘be careful!’ as much as she tells them she loves them and who worries constantly about everything from their progress at school to whether their shoes might be pinching their toes.
Dads are great for lots and lots of stuff, but they don’t generally take on this all-encompassing burden (and joy) of care and worry that seeps into and out of every one of mummy’s pores. The evidence? Daddy might switch his phone off during an important meeting; mummy probably won’t (in case school rings). Mummy never, ever switches off.
Which, all makes it so much more startling when we hear of kids being removed from their mum. Ah, we think, the mum must be a danger to her kids. She must be ‘unfit’ – in which case, few would deny that a loving, competent Dad should take over. Is this the case with Beth Alexander? Were her toddlers at risk?
Shockingly, there seems to be no proof at all of this. ‘Evidence’ of Beth’s ‘ineptitude’ as a mum apparently includes her taking her twins to an ‘age-inappropriate’ puppet show (Punch and Judy), being unable to use paracetamol suppositories on them after their Brit (circumcision), and taking them to a play area too often. The rest of the ‘evidence’ appears to consist of unfounded claims from her ex (a doctor) or his friends (prominent professionals within the Jewish community) that she apparently suffers from paranoia/schizophrenia – despite having no history of mental illness and several subsequent assessments refuting this.
According to recent news reports on Austrian TV, following the accusations about Beth’s alleged mental illnesses, Beth was condemned to lose her kids largely on the basis of one psychologist’s report. As a psychologist myself, I find this apparent over-reliance on a report of a one of my fellow professionals, worrying. Analytical reports should only be used in conjunction with other evidence; for example, I conduct personality analyses for employment purposes but always with the disclaimer that they should not be used in isolation to make hiring/firing decisions. Over-confidence in ‘experts’ is a human failing and one has only to think of Professor Meadows, whose flawed evidence led to the wrong convictions of murder for mothers Sally Clarke and Angela Cannings (amongst others) to appreciate the immense damage it can cause.
I can’t testify as to Beth Alexander’s competence as a mum; I’ve never even met her. Clearly, her vast army of supporters in Manchester (plus the 6500 supporters on her Facebook campaign page) who have watched her grow up have seen no evidence of emotional imbalance, never mind any sufficient enough to present a danger to her kids Indeed, the ‘evidence’ against her seems extremely flimsy to say the least. From what I have read (including material that I can’t report here but is available on her Facebook page), there seems to be more evidence supporting her superior competence as a parent than refuting it.
Should we care? Should we not leave Beth’s fate (and that of her babies) to the Austrian courts to decide?
Beth is a northern lass; she’s one of our own and she and her children may well be the victims of a grave miscarriage of justice. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that if it were our own children in such an unfortunate position, that their home towns would be behind them all the way?