Robert Holmes looks anguished in the photos — face tense, arms stiff — walking out of a Centennial, Colorado, courtroom, where his son, James, is on trial for committing one of the most grisly mass shootings in American history.
In a distant part of the world, another father awaits the outcome of the penalty phase of the trial for his son. No doubt Anzor Tsarnaev hopes that his son Dzhokhar — known as the Boston Marathon bomber — does not receive the death penalty. If so, Anzor will have had to have buried two children, including his older son, Tamerlan, who died in the 2013 shootout with police following the murderous mayhem caused by the brothers’ homemade bombs.
These two fathers are separate but equal — the fathers of sons who murdered strangers. They are fathers who — according to accounts — were present in the lives of their children. Their sons belong to what is defined as an intact family.
It is ironic, then, that recently Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican presidential candidate, blamed the recent violence in Baltimore on the absence of fathers.
“There are so many things we can talk about; the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of a moral code in our society,” Paul said.
I am tired of such moralizing oversimplification. Together or alone, there is no magic parent.
The absence of a father — or a mother — is not an automatic prelude to disaster for sons and daughters. And yes, it is also true, as evidenced by the cases of James Holmes and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that the presence of both parents is not an immunization against tragedy.
It is time to realize that the complicated layers of societal ills result from a melting pot of factors — socioeconomic, geographic, educational, racial, gender and a host of others too lengthy to list. Violence in children does not erupt because of a simple family formula of mommy plus daddy, mommy minus daddy or daddy minus mommy.
Violence erupts from a cadre of societal failures. So let’s stop blaming the fathers who leave and the mothers who stay. Or the other way around.
According to a 2011 U.S. census report, more than 4 million single women ages 15 to 50 gave birth that year, 35. 7 percent of total births in this country. An earlier census study reported that in 2009 there were 11.6 million single parents in the United States, with 9.9 million of them single mothers.
I am the head of one of those single-parent families. I have raised three sons alone for more than 20 years. My sons, 26, 24 and 21, are good men and are so without financial support or contact from an absent father.
Like millions of mothers and fathers — married and single — I, too, know firsthand the herculean task of raising children. Parenting is not a predetermined equation with a predictable outcome. We need to stop pretending it is.
I acknowledge my sons didn’t like me all the time. And, yes, as preposterous as it sounds now, I expected that they would cherish me 24/7. Our house was not always a calm or predictable haven from the world’s injustices and chaos. I yelled. They all yelled. Unspeakable things were said. Apologies were delivered.
I punished. I cried in the car driving to work. I speed dialed them over and over so they would answer me. I waited up. I waited in the car. I waited in the gym. I waited in the doctor’s office. I waited in the emergency room. I waited in the front hall, clutching my cellphone, peering down the block, holding my breath at 3 a.m., praying to see the headlights of the Nissan Altima pull into the driveway.
Nothing catastrophic has happened to my sons. They have committed no heinous acts. I am extraordinarily grateful. I know I am lucky.
Sunday we celebrate Mother’s Day and next month, we flip to celebrate Father’s Day. But I suggest we instead celebrate Parents’ Day.
We need to praise the parents who stay to do whatever is needed. And we need to stop blaming the larger problems on the parents who don’t.
Michele Weldon is emerita faculty at Northwestern University and director of the Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship for The OpEd Project. Her latest book, “Escape Points: A Memoir,” is due out in September.
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