It seemed an idyllic neighborhood--pastel stucco houses with tile roofs, 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 Cushing was in third grade. She was a Brownie troop leader, a soccer mom, and a Sunday school teacher at the church where 4-year-old Stephanie Marie attended pre-school.
There was nothing, neighbors would say later, that signaled the torment that was gnawing at the 39-year-old homemaker. It was only in retrospect that neighbors would recall that Kristine seemed to be losing weight and suffered from a chronic heart condition.
And it was only later that they would reexamine their conversations with Kristine about the breakup of her 17-year marriage.
The facade that was Kristine Cushing's life ended shortly before midnight Oct. 13. The model of the modern "super mom" shot and killed her two daughters, then shot herself in a failed suicide attempt. Police said she 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, 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.
At the hospital, where Cushing was treated for a graze wound on her head, she told a nurse that "I've been depressed for about three months," according to court documents. She has been charged with two counts of murder, but prosecutors say they will not seek the death penalty.
The tragedy left neighbors, friends and family members wondering what could have triggered such violence in a woman who, 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 marriages--and thus their perfect worlds--fall apart.
A debilitating illness such as Kristine'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 to prevent themselves from harming their children.
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.
Each year in the United States, abuse by parents leaves 2,000 children brain-damaged, 45,000 hospitalized and an estimated 5,000 dead, she said.
Factors that trigger abuse include marital stress, financial difficulties, 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 it, divorce records indicate that she was under much personal stress. She contended in divorce papers that her husband was constantly provoking arguments.
"We have tried staying in different parts of the home, but this is not working at all," she wrote.
In addition, she said she had been hospitalized twice last year because of the heart virus and was under a cardiologist's care. Her attorneys said she had been counseled by a psychiatrist. They refused to disclose why, or what kind of drugs she might have been taking.
Kristine's depression, Kanarek said, probably was exacerbated by the stress of having to wait so long for a reunion with her husband, who served in the Persian Gulf War, only to find when he returned that their 17-year marriage was going to end.
Divorce attorneys say the Cushing case illustrates the despair felt by many middle-aged 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, the loss of friends, and 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.
Under military rules, all of Cushing's health benefits would have ended with the divorce. She had told a neighbor she was afraid she would lose custody of her daughters, and complained in court papers that her husband had refused to pay some of Amy's dental expenses.
Killing one's children is an abnormal reaction to even the most terrible stress, psychiatrists say, and results from a severe and pre-existing pathology, psychiatrists say. When spouse abuse is involved, however, women frequently talk about killing themselves and their children, according to counselors.
Susan Leavy, a marriage and family counselor at the Human Options women's shelter, said at least 26 battered young mothers have told her: " 'The children and I would be better off dead. I am so helpless, and it is so hopeless.' "
"That is their way of protecting their children from what they cannot control," Leavy said.
Dr. Bruce Danto, a Fullerton psychiatrist who specializes in violent crime, said a woman with a religious background like Kristine Cushing, considered a devout Catholic, may be driven in a moment of unreality to kill the children and herself as an 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."