I can remember the day the mask dropped; the moment I realized that I didn't have to pretend in public that parenthood was one unbroken string of loving moments.
Susan Smith had just confessed to killing her children. It had been the young mother--not some ominous carjacker--who drove her car to the edge of a South Carolina lake that day in 1994 and, with her two young sons in their car seats inside, pushed the vehicle down a ramp into water 16-feet deep, sending the boys to a watery grave.
Wire accounts had just reached our newsroom and all around me reporters--most of them young and single, unfettered by kids--were recoiling in disbelief. How could a mother kill her children; get rid of them so callously because they were complicating her life?
"Can you believe that?" someone asked, turning toward me, a newly single mother of three.
I said nothing, just looked up to meet the sleep-deprived eyes of a colleague, a single father raising three young kids, like me. "Yeah," he mumbled. "I can believe it."
And I had to stifle a smile at the look of horror that crossed their faces, as he turned and walked away from a desk covered with smiling photos of his children and hand-drawn "I love you, Daddy" pictures.
Russell Yates buried his five little children last week, choking back sobs long enough to eulogize Noah and John and Paul and Luke and Mary--all drowned in a bathtub by their mother, who was either depressed and psychotic or angry and overwhelmed, depending on what lessons you're trying to draw from her family's tragedy.
Just what went on in that family--in their crowded, messy home, behind the manicured hedges and tidy lawn--we are left to wonder uneasily.
How to imagine the life of a bright and loving woman, hemmed in all day and night by a needy baby girl and four rambunctious little boys and belittled by her husband because the house was never clean.
I am not about to try to diagnose or explain. Maybe Andrea Yates was certifiably insane. She had been prone to depression--some say as far back as her teens--and had attempted to kill herself two years before, just after the birth of her fourth child.
But whatever inner demons she battled, they were aided and abetted by the feelings of failure that all parents sometimes face, and by her family's penchant for privacy.
She and husband were the "private type," her brother said. They home-schooled their kids, never took them out much, had few close friends and didn't confide in relatives.
Maybe if they had, she might have realized that every mother battles feelings of inadequacy: My house is too messy, my kids won't mind, there is never enough money or time.
And we all hate ourselves or resent our kids--or both--from time to time.
Police say Andrea Yates told them she was a terrible mother, that her attempts to raise her five children had left them hopelessly damaged, beyond repair.
But neighbors said they thought she was an excellent mom. Her kids never fought, she never raised her voice, she made a point of getting them to appointments on time and made sure they avoided sugary foods. She never left them with a baby-sitter.
And I--a screaming mother, with kids who fight, show up late and gorge themselves on sugary foods--can only imagine the weight of her burden, locked in solitary inside the image of perfect mom.
"Sometimes," a teary-eyed friend once confided to me, "I just want to put a pillow over her face and hold it down until she stops screaming." Her baby was almost 6 months old and was still in throes of what her doctor called "persistent colic" that just required "a little more patience" to work out.
I had been through similar sleepless months, and survived, as she would, without killing my child. And we both learned that sometimes saying it out loud--acknowledging our frustration and helplessness and rage--was what it took to break the power of the urge.
And I wonder if it would have helped Andrea Yates to realize that hers wasn't the only house where children made messes and ran wild, and mothers were too exhausted to clean up the spilled milk or wash the glasses or put clean sheets on the baby's crib....If she had known that it is OK to love your children imperfectly, as they take a wrecking ball to your life.
She might have been a better mother than she thought ... right up until the moment she gave up and drowned her children one by one.