It seemed an idyllic neighborhood--pastel stucco and tile-roof houses, thick green lawns, fountains and bright flower beds--and Kristine Cushing and her two little girls came to personify the wholesomeness it represented.
She was a room mother at Moulton Elementary School where 8-year-old Amy Elizabeth was in third grade, a Brownie troop leader, a soccer mom, and a Sunday school teacher at the church where 4-year-old Stephanie Marie attended preschool.
There was nothing, neighbors would say later, that signaled the inner torment that was gnawing away at the 39-year-old homemaker. It was only in retrospect that neighbors would recall that Kristine Cushing seemed to be gradually losing weight, and suffering from a chronic heart condition.
And it was only later that they would re-examine their conversations with Kristine Cushing regarding the breakup of her 17-year marriage.
The facade that was Kristine Cushing’s life ended in violence shortly before midnight Oct. 13. Kristine Cushing--the model of the modern super mom--shot and killed her two daughters and then turned the gun on herself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Police said she later called 911 and told dispatchers what she had done.
“I’m crazy, I shot my daughters. They’re upstairs,” she told the first sheriff’s deputy to arrive at the house near midnight, according to court documents. At the time, her husband, Lt. Col. John P. Cushing Jr., a decorated Gulf War veteran and commander of a squadron of jet fighters at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, was on a fishing trip.
When Kristine Cushing was taken to the hospital for treatment of a graze wound on her head and was talking to a nurse, she blamed what happened on depression, court documents said. “I’ve been depressed for about three months,” she was quoted as saying.
The tragedy left neighbors, friends and family members wondering what could have triggered such an outbreak of violence in a woman that, according to one of her many friends, could have won the award for Mother of the Year.
Psychiatrists and family counselors, however, note that all too frequently, women who struggle to be perfect mothers are at risk of becoming child abusers when their marriage, and thus their world, falls apart.
A debilitating illness such as Kristine Cushing’s heart virus can add to the sense of depression and hopelessness, as can the prospect of financial problems that often accompany divorce.
“I think this is the story of American families trying to live the American dream,” said Sally Kanarek, director and founder of Parent Help U.S.A., a nonprofit organization based in Huntington Beach that provides family services, including crisis counseling and in-home volunteers, for parents who want help to prevent themselves from harming their young.
Kanarek said there may be many women like Kristine Cushing in need of help.
Many mothers, especially those with military husbands, strive for maternal perfection, she said.
“They have unrealistic expectations of themselves as a parent and of the children and when a marriage breakup occurs, the stress is unbearable,” she said.
Kanarek said that each year in the United States, 2,000 children are left brain-damaged, 45,000 are hospitalized and an estimated 5,000 die at the hands of their parents.
Factors that trigger this kind of behavior, she said, include marital stress, financial difficulties, a sudden loss of a job, isolation from community services and family support, emotional or physical problems, alcohol or substance abuse and lack of parenting skills.
Although many of Kristine Cushing’s neighbors may not have known, divorce records indicate that she was under a great deal of personal stress at home. She claimed in her divorce papers that her husband was provoking constant arguments.
“We have tried staying in different parts of the home, but this is not working at all,” she said.
In addition, because of a heart virus, she said she had been hospitalized twice last year and was under the care of a cardiologist. Her attorneys said that over the past year she also had been counseled by a psychiatrist. The attorneys refused to disclose the reason for the treatment or what kind of drugs she might have been taking.
Kristine Cushing’s depression, Kanarek said, probably was exacerbated by the stress of waiting so long for a reunion with her husband, who had served in the Persian Gulf War, only to find when he returned that their 17-year marriage was not going to last.
Divorce attorneys also say that the Cushing case illustrates the despair felt by many older mothers facing the increasingly frightening prospect of a failed marriage.
“There’s a tremendous depression that happens with women, especially in some of the traditional marriages,” said Mari Frank, a Mission Viejo attorney who specializes in divorce. “In a lot of cases, the male was the dominant one in the family and he continues to try to dominate in the divorce.
“They come in fearful. If they’re the ones who want to leave, they’re afraid their husband will kick them out, they won’t be able to see the children, they’ll become destitute and bag ladies. If they’re the ones being left, they have this tremendous rejection, their self-concept is so horrible, they feel totally impotent.”
Add the emotional problems of the children they are responsible for, the loss of friends, the myriad hurdles of reduced income and benefits, re-entry into a flagging job market, moving, day care or elder care, legal or custody battles, and the result is quickly overwhelming.
Some psychiatrists say killing one’s children is an abnormal reaction to even the most terrible stress and results from a severe and pre-existing pathology.
Nevertheless, counselors say when battering is involved, women frequently talk about killing themselves and their children.
Susan Leavy, a marriage and family counselor with Human Options, a women’s shelter in South County, said at least 26 battered women with dependent children have told her “the children and I would be better off dead. I am so helpless, and it is so hopeless.”
Dr. Bruce Danto, a Fullerton psychiatrist who specializes in violent crimes, also said that a woman with a religious background like Kristine Cushing, who was considered a devout Catholic, may be driven in a moment of unreality to kill herself and her children as a means of escape.
“At the time they shoot, they do not think they are killing their children but that they are saving them,” he said. “They believe they will be safe together in heaven.”
In the past 10 years, re-entry has become more difficult for the older divorced women known as displaced homemakers, said Linda White, director of the UCI Women’s Opportunities Center.
Frank said many of her clients are so traumatized by impending divorce that they turn to antidepressant drugs that some experts say can cause the release of angry impulses. It is unclear whether Kristine Cushing took such medications.
Kristine Cushing had been out of the job market for nine years and had spoken of returning to school for training. Under military rules, all her health benefits would end at the time of the divorce. She had expressed fear to a neighbor that she would lose her daughters in a custody dispute, and had complained in court papers that her husband had been refusing to pick up some of the expenses from Amy’s dental work.
Through all of the turmoil, however, Kristine Cushing apparently was able to maintain the outward appearance of a competent super mom, a Brownie troop leader, room mother and a Sunday school teacher.
As in any upper-middle-class suburb, appearances count in Laguna Niguel, residents say.
“People in Laguna Niguel, that’s upper crust,” said Frank, who lives in the community. “We’re supposed to have it all together. For us to admit we don’t have it together is embarrassing, humiliating. We have to be everything.”
Those pressures can intensify after divorce. “Most of the burden is on the woman to be the super mother, the super worker, the super financial whiz to keep it all together,” Frank said.
Divorce contributes to depression and many people with major depression do commit suicide, said Mark Zetin, associate professor of psychiatry at UCI.
“Strength of the support system would make the world of difference,” he said. “Family and friends.”
At the very least, Leavy said, women can call 411 and ask for suicide hot lines or the nearest women’s shelter.
People going through divorce also need more support groups, more personal and concerned professionals to help reduce their stress, more mediation and less adversarial litigation, Frank said. They may also need therapy.
“Obviously not all women are going to kill their children, but we don’t always know who is capable. There are no rules for that sort of thing,” Leavy said.