PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Single But Not Broken

I am a single parent.

It wasn’t what I set out to do. When Steve and I had Duncan and Ian, I had all the hopes and dreams of a young married mother, raising my children in a loving, intact family.

However, that was not to be.

Steve and I separated the weekend Ian began kindergarten and Duncan started second grade. I remember it well. The boys and I went away that weekend to my friend Holly’s parents house so they wouldn’t have to watch dad move out and returned to a much emptier house.

Because I was determined to do everything I could to save my children from the stigma of coming from a “broken home,” Steve and I reunited after a year of separation, but ultimately, the demons caused by his addiction became too great a burden to bear, and we had to tell our heartbroken children that we were divorcing. I can still see the look of sadness in their eyes.

From that point, I became, for the most part, a single parent. During the first couple of years, Steve had the kids for a night or two every few weeks. After that, there were occasional visits, though never overnight. As the years rolled on, the visits became less and less frequent, and sometimes they would go months at a time without hearing from him, as his addiction took its toll, until he tragically died from alcoholism when the boys were 14 and 17.

I tried to do what I could to promote a relationship with Steve, knowing that they needed a dad. And I was grateful for the men who stepped up over the years in different capacities to help — Bill, who taught them to drive; Tristan, who helped paint Ian’s room and would talk to him; Aaron, who provided a spiritual influence, and Doug, who taught them a little here, a little there, and just cared.

There were also a couple of men at school who went above and beyond — Darcy, their band teacher, and Coach Schauer, who was such a kind man.

But mostly, it was just me.

I was a single parent.

But my sons did not come from a broken home.

There was nothing broken about our home. They may not have had a dad around, but we had each other, and together we made a whole.

We developed, over the years, deep and honest relationships with each other. We were vulnerable, we expressed frustrations directly, and we supported each other in meaningful and real ways. And we spent a lot of time talking. There is an authenticity in our relationship that has created a strong and enduring bond.

My sons say that they were each other’s father, filling in for the other the gaps that happened because there wasn’t a dad in the house. Although my sons did not have a present father, I know that their lives would have been much more broken if Steve and I had stayed together the way things were.

Which is why it makes me so angry when I see single mothers become the punching bag for those who want to change the subject from sensible gun laws whenever there are school shootings.

Take Rick Santorum. On Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he changed the subject from the gun control debate by saying there was “another debate” we should have, and that’s “the fact that these kids come from broken homes without dads.”

For the record, this was the same man who in 1994 in Mother Jones, with regard to crime rates, said “What we have is moms raising children in single-parent households simply breeding more criminals.”

It’s so easy to throw stones and simplify the problems of society by blaming it on single mothers and “broken homes.” My home was far more broken when I was not a single mother. And I know I am not the only parent who can say that.

Thanks to the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  may be used to advocate or promote gun control , there is precious little research on mass shooters or school shooters.

However, in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, the National Science Foundation did a study on youth violence, published in American Psychologist in 2016.

In it the researchers determined the risk factors for increased violence included “harsh and rejecting parents, interparental violence, child abuse and neglect, chaotic family life, inconsistent discipline and poor monitoring by parents of children showing early signs of aggression.”

Conversely, the factors associated with lower risk for youth violence included “close attachment bonds with consistently supportive caregivers, effective and developmentally sensitive parenting (including consistent disciplinary practices and monitoring) and families operating in ways that children experience as safe, stable, well-managed, and well-regulated.”

Note neither of these groups include the number of parents as a factor.

The truth is, single mothers get blasted by people all the time as the reason for a whole host of societal ills, when the facts bear out that it is the quality of parenting, not the quantity of parents.

Sometimes, one can avoid the factors that increase the risk of violence by divorcing. I know I was a much better mother when I was able to focus my time and energy on parenting my sons and not trying to salvage a union ripped apart by addiction.

Yet, I stayed in it for longer than perhaps I should have because I wanted to avoid the scarlet D of divorce and having my children deal with the stigma of coming from a “broken home.”

It was only when I got those shaming voices out of my head that I was able to do what was in the best interest of my children, even if the politicians, pundits and, sadly, religious leaders leveled blame on me and my ilk, condemning our home and labeling us broken.

My sons are now young men and both are fortunate enough to be students at Harvard, where Ian is a sophomore and Duncan is a senior. They have done well for themselves, largely because of their natural talent, work ethic, communication skills, willingness to face challenges and grit — all but the first of which were honed because of the home in which they were raised.

But for me what is more important than where they go to school is the fact that they are kind and compassionate men who have empathy and integrity.

Society may look down on my family and call us broken. But we know better. We know we are strong in the broken places, and because of that, there is nothing fragile about us.

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