The story of Madeleine McCann, the British three-year-old kidnapped from her resort apartment during a family vacation in Portugal, has obsessed the British public and media for the past three weeks. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, Simon Cowell from “American Idol” and Virgin founder Richard Branson have offered rewards for her return; a Web site has received over 65 million hits; Madeleine’s aunt, Philomena McCann, has reported more than 2,000 responses to a chain e-mail appeal she sent out internationally in the hopes of increasing the odds of a chance sighting of her niece.

The initial wave of press coverage in Britain – a mixture of empathy, despair and blame (by some) of Madeleine’s parents, Gerry and Kate, for having gone out to dinner, leaving Madeleine and her twin siblings alone in a ground-floor apartment – has now given way to a secondary shock wave of self-questioning: Why, pundits ask, has the public turned itself inside out to find this one child? Isn’t there something awful about the degree of attention she has inspired while children in Darfur and Iraq – or in Britain’s public housing – die or disappear unnoticed?

Comparisons to the paroxysm of national mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana have been made. And, again, the whole issue of Britain’s new penchant for public displays of emotion has been dissected and, by some, found inappropriate. “The spasm of national grief that followed her abduction, the generous donations to the Madeleine fund, the lighting of candles, the celebrity appeals, the brimming lakes of sympathy: all this is of a piece with the way we deal with vicarious tragedy in these 24-hour, rolling media, emotive times,” Jan Moir wrote this week in The Daily Telegraph. “As in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, people are no longer content to merely sympathise or empathise; they need to feel a part of things, too.”

In the United States, only People magazine has so far given Madeleine’s abduction the kind of front-page play it has garnered in Britain. And, as did the British press, People anchored its coverage around a “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God” kind of emotion; what happened to Madeleine, the magazine’s cover copy read, was “every parent’s nightmare.”

But then People went on to do something very American. The writer, Bill Hewitt, said: “Those closest to the McCanns described Kate as a devoted mother who had scaled back to working only a day and a half a week as a general practitioner (Gerry is a cardiologist) so that she could be with her children.” He went on to quote Aunt Philomena: “She’s working to keep her career up but spends the majority of her time with the kids.”

Message: Kate McCann is a Good Mother. Hence – unlike some other mothers – she didn’t even remotely deserve to have terrible things happen to her.

It’s at times like this that I just hate being a mother in America.

I did a pretty thorough article search through the British press this week. I searched “Madeleine McCann” and “mother” and “career” and “doctor” and “part-time” and countless other permutations. I found many, many mentions of Kate and Gerry as doctors. I found a description of how, by working hard, they’d raised themselves up from their modest roots to a solidly comfortable middle class (we would, I think, say upper middle class) lifestyle. These aspects of the McCanns’ life were evoked to spur sympathy and identification; to identify the McCanns as good, solid, striving Everypeople. Nowhere did I find Kate McCann’s Mommy Track work status exploited as a sign of personal virtue.

Only in America can you count on such drivel. Only in the country that, in 1997, attacked the working mother of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen (the infant who was shaken to death by the 19-year-old British au pair Louise Woodward) as “self-absorbed,” “materialistic” and “negligent,” would the push/pull of self-distancing and self-mirroring that binds the reading public to the Madeleine McCann case be framed, so unquestioningly, around the issue of her mother’s working status.

You may wonder why I feel so strongly about this matter of wording, which pales in importance next to the horrific tragedy of a child’s abduction. The epidermal ill-temper and sense of besiegement that fills me at the end of the school year (more on this next week) is undoubtedly part of it. But there is more. And it is this:

I fear that, at this point, there may well be nothing that you or I or any other journalist or reader or celebrity or politician can do to help poor Madeleine and her family. But there’s much we can do to cut down on the level of insulting and idiotic verbal pollution that creeps into the discourse of our everyday lives. The vile discrimination against working mothers in our country is now so ingrained and so poisonous and so taken for granted that it seeps, all but unnoticed, into the oddest of places, like an otherwise unrelated People story about a distant and heart-rending crime.

The foul poison of working-mother-hate is not, of course, absent in Britain, nor is the maternal guilt and self-doubt, the hand-wringing and the agonizing over other-than-mother care that generally accompany it. Clearly, the McCanns were susceptible to some of this cultural noise. They reportedly left their children in an apartment unattended, even though their resort offered both drop-in child care and babysitting. The reason: they didn’t want to hand their children over to “strangers.”

Had they not fallen victim to this fear of babysitters – this grossly over-generalized terror that is a corollary of the cultural hysteria over working motherhood – Madeleine might be with them today.

Or perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part, an attempt to find rhyme or reason – and a blueprint for safety – in an incident of random horror.