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Split family, shared responsibility

What I will miss most is my sons’ laughter. Next best: hugs and kisses just before bedtime.

This afternoon, my 12-year-old twins fly back to Detroit to resume living with their father and stepmother. Our one-year co-parenting experiment turned into a pledge to keep them through high school.

I never thought mothering would be this complicated. Or that I’d have to deliver my homemade nurturing through a postal carrier. But this is my way of making amends for contributing to the epidemic of children being raised by single parents. I’ve come to realize: Fatherlessness can sometimes be a result of the mother’s choices.

When I decided to divorce my children’s father and move to Portland when our twins were 2, I thought I was the only parent Alex and Zavier would ever need. I was mistaken.

No matter how much love I poured into my children’s hearts, my sons were starving with “father hunger” for the man named Lee, who named them and held them when they were just a few seconds old.

So, about a year ago, I decided to let go of what went wrong in the marriage, and I shipped my boys off to Detroit to experience puberty through their father’s eyes. I owed them the chance to discover all of their father’s charms as well as his failings and be shaped by Lee’s modern-day initiation rites, in which a father teaches his sons secrets that only men know.

When they returned to me for the summer, my now-taller and hairier sons took a while to get readjusted. They too often repeated the warnings their father drilled into their heads: Don’t be a burden. Offer to clean up. Be respectful.

I indulged them with homemade strawberry shakes and made-to-order hamburgers. And I let them get a little carried away with their horseplay. And although I occasionally let them off the hook, other demands were non-negotiable, despite the whining: attending an eight-week academic and outdoor camp, getting their hair cut and limiting the hours spent on computer video games.

So by the time we left Seattle for our last summer outing together, they allowed themselves to be my babies again, just children hanging out with their mom, playing with the stuffed animals they won by popping balloons with a dart, and snuggling on the couch and talking.

I share this journey with readers because I know men aren’t always the only ones to blame when Daddy isn’t a part of his children’s lives. Women have a larger role in that than we’d like to admit – before and after conception. That means single women need to shoulder some responsibility for having unprotected sex with the wrong men.

And women of divorce need to lose the anger so our children don’t become pawns in a game to prove how much we don’t need a spouse to survive. At times, a man’s character, life circumstances or domestic violence keep children from having access to their father. Sometimes, though, women just need to get out of the way.

Of course, letting go is so, so hard. But I don’t regret sharing Alex and Zavier with their dad. Both sons are on the honor roll. They say “Yes, ma’am” and open doors for their elders. They’ve learned how to wash their own clothes and cook simple meals. They are becoming young men, in height and in heart.

Of course, Mom will be in their corner, in spirit and in flesh as often as possible. But I have to give Dad credit, my sons are becoming more like their father than they’ve ever been. I’m so proud of us all.

S. Renee Mitchell is a columnist for the Oregonian of Portland. Her e-mail is


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