Demon mothers and media darlings

Ashton Kutcher and I had very different reactions when we first heard the story of baby Leo. Kutcher posted a link to a fundraising website on his Facebook page, accompanied by the words ‘We got your back’. By contrast, I wondered about the welfare of Leo’s mother, Ruzan Badalyan.

Badalyan gave birth to her son, Leo, in Armenia on 21 January. She was living with her husband, New Zealander Samuel Forrest, in Armenia when Leo was born. He was diagnosed with Down syndrome soon after his birth.

On 21 January, Forrest set up a fundraising page called ‘Bring Leo Home (Down Syndrome)’ on crowdsourcing site GoFundMe.

The page told readers that Leo’s Armenian mother and her family had abandoned him at birth and Forrest was no longer welcome in their home because he wanted to keep his son. Donors were asked to contribute money so Forrest could return and raise Leo in New Zealand, where he would be better accepted and have a higher quality of life.

Leo’s story exploded internationally, drawing attention from media in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as New Zealand and Armenia. Forrest appeared in television interviews saying Badalyan had left him as he refused to place Leo in an orphanage, as was the practice in Armenia when children were born with genetic conditions. More and more media outlets began covering the story, and international condemnation and vilification soon rained down on Badalyan. She started receiving a hundred messages of condemnation a day and went into hiding.

But amidst the wall-to-wall media coverage, pictures of Forrest and Leo, and updates on the generosity of people in many different countries, there was one glaring omission: Badalyan herself.

Media reports said Badalyan had endured a difficult birth, but journalists did not appear to have spoken to her at all. Did none of them wonder how difficult it must be for a mother to give up her child? Did they ask whether she was in any physical and psychological condition to make decisions about the future of herself and her baby? How did she feel, trapped between her husband and baby on the one hand, and her family and cultural expectations on the other? Was she receiving any support at all from anyone, or was she alone at one of the toughest times in her life?

In the meantime, the fundraising drive swiftly gathered momentum. By the time it ended, nearly 17,900 donors had contributed $663,000.

Journalists did not seem to be asking many questions of Forrest, either. If he had no money to bring his son back to New Zealand, how had he and Badalyan planned to support Leo in Armenia? Was Forrest working? Did he have any savings or assets? Did he have other children and, if so, where were they and was he financially supporting them?

The first inklings of another perspective came in a Facebook post from Badalyan, in which she said she that, out of love, she had made the ‘hardest decision’ to let Forrest take the child with him to New Zealand.

Badalyan wrote that Forrest had not supported her, saying he left the hospital and informed her ‘without giving me any option’ that he was taking Leo and going back to New Zealand without her. She said the suggestion that she had given Forrest an ultimatum of marriage or Leo was ‘absolutely not true.’

When journalists finally began asking questions about Forrest, it emerged that he had four children from his first marriage, and had not seen them in four years. By July, concerns were emerging about how the money raised for Leo was being spent. It was also revealed that Forrest had a conviction for assaulting his former father-in-law, and had also been charged with assaulting the former co-trustee of Leo’s trust fund.

Badalyan and Forrest eventually reconciled and moved to Auckland to bring up Leo together. But Badalyan has continued to receive media and public condemnation. In an interview on TV-3’s 3-D programme in June, she was asked whether she had reconciled with Forrest because of the $663,000. Newspaper headlines the following day blared ‘Mother denies her return to Down Syndrome son was because of $500k fundraising’.

The story of baby Leo is a story of international generosity. But it is also a story about our different expectations of mothers and fathers. We take it for granted that mothers will care for their children. But when fathers stand up for their children, they are rewarded with hero status and financial support. And we reserve special vilification for mothers who are considered not to have displayed the appropriate maternal behaviour.

Would the fundraising drive have raised as much money if it had been Leo’s mother who was seeking donations? And if it had been Leo’s dad who had decided not to raise him, would he have been subjected to the same level of global vilification as Badalyan?

There are close to a million single parents in Australia, and more than 80 per cent of them are women. In New Zealand, 83 per cent of the liable parents who have unpaid child support debts are men. In total, they owe NZ$3.2 billion. Yet public and media condemnation focuses on single mothers on benefits as bludgers, sucking money from the state to support their children instead of providing for them themselves. Criticism of fathers for abandoning their families and failing to pay child support is rare.

When media outlets do stories about single parents – often at Christmas time – it will frequently be the plucky single dad battling against the odds who is featured. Stories lauding single mothers are uncommon, even though, statistically, it is mothers who comprise the overwhelming majority of single parents.

As far back as 1979, the American movie Kramer v Kramer praised the heroic single dad, battling for his child. The fact that this narrative remains embedded in our culture helps to explain the international rush to judgment in the case of baby Leo. The media and the public were happy simply to accept the story publicised by Forrest, without waiting to speak to Leo’s mother, because we believe that fathers stepping up publicly for their children are somehow extraordinary.

Catriona MacLennan

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist. She helped establish Nga Ture Kaitiaki ki Waikato Community Law Centre in 1999. Catriona was the project director for Nga Tangata Microfinance Trust, a loan scheme to keep families out of the clutches of loan sharks. She is an advocate for rape law reform and domestic violence elimination.

More by Catriona MacLennan ›

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  1. Thank you very much for this article. I will put it out at the Women’s Centre in Christchurch where I work. So often the important questions are not asked with as a result that assumptions become deeper entrenched in the public psyche.
    Thank you so much for bringing in different perspectives. May we all be reminded to at least ask the unasked questions for ourselves. Even if the media don’t give the answers we can keep our minds open and our thinking sharp to the wider picture.

  2. Ms MacLennan gives a disturbing account of media bias against a mother who had to make an agonizing decision about what would be best for her child. It is indeed a sorry fact that many permanently absent fathers don’t pay for the support of their children. It is blinkered or lazy journalism that fails to point this out.

  3. Great article. Every piece that brings out such inequities is worth more than just the words; it’s the guts it takes to keep saying one more time, look this way, not that way. Thanks.

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