A very sad couple of stories have been dominating the news over the last couple of weeks here in my home town. A 17 year old girl was attacked and killed while out jogging. She was missing for a couple of days before her body was found. They have arrested a 30 year old man who has previously served time for attacking a young teenage girl. And now, they have found the skeletal remains of a 14 year old girl who went missing on her way to school just over a year ago. The same man is a "person of interest" in that investigation.
These stories hit harder now that I am a parent. I look at my two beautiful little daughters and can barely comprehend the pain that the parents of those two young women are feeling.
But I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about the other parents in this story- the parents of the little boy who grew up to be a rapist. I think they must be feeling a lot of pain right now, too. I do not in anyway blame them for these attacks. Their son is a grown man now, and surely, at some point, we have to be responsible for our own actions, regardless of what mistakes our parents make. To say otherwise would be an affront to the many people who go on to lead perfectly normal lives despite bad childhoods.
I am also not saying that this man's parents necessarily did something wrong. There are surely people out there who had idyllic childhoods and still go on to commit crimes.
But clearly something went wrong here. And clearly we, as a society, have an interest in figuring out what goes wrong in cases like this and determining how we can prevent these things from happening.
There are many people in my community calling for the death penalty, or saying that after this man's first offense he should have been locked up for life. I don't think either of these things provides an answer. Yes, executing this man will ensure that this one man never commits a crime like this again- but there will be other men who do, and I think the evidence is pretty clear that they won't be deterred by the thought of the death penalty. And yes, a longer prison sentence would have prevented these crimes- but it would not have prevented the first crime.
So I come back again to the parenting. It seems to me that the only way to stop these crimes is to prevent little boys from turning into men who could commit such an act. This man's parents will never know if there was something they could have done differently that would have changed the outcome for their son. From what has come out about his background, it does not seem that there was any obvious warning sign, any clear point at which his parents should have intervened. There was just an average boy, perhaps a little more troubled than most, trying to find his place in the world. If there was anything his parents could have done differently, it is buried in the mundane details of raising him- in how he was disciplined and how he was praised, how he was taught to respond to disappointments and what he was taught to expect from the world. In short, it is in the sum of all the everyday decisions that parents make, while they are also trying to keep food on the table and hold their own lives together.
And that is what has me stuck thinking about this story, reading every new little update that comes out. It is a reminder that parenting is such a high stakes game, and one with very delayed feedback. We muddle through as best we can, but won't really know the outcome for at least 20 years.
For such a high stakes game, we play it with very little support from society. We are presented with unrealistic images of what parenthood will be like, and society frowns on frank discussions of things like the fact that some children are harder to parent than others. We isolate new parents by creating a fiction that the tight knit nuclear family should be able to handle it all, and show images of the joy of parenthood without fully acknowledging the frustrations. How easy it is to think that you're doing it all wrong. How easy it is for new mothers to slip into depression (which studies show can lead to an increase in aggression in the child) and how poorly prepared we are to catch it. I had prenatal appointments every week by the end of my pregnancy- but my first post-partum appointment was six weeks later. A lot can happen in those first six weeks, and a lot can happen after that one post-partum appointment is past. Why does it fall to pediatricians to try to catch the signs of post-partum depression? Why don't we follow up with the women directly, rather than via the proxy of their babies?
And then there are the pressures on working families. Women get a guilt-trip regardless of what choice they make about whether to go back to work or not- and many women don't really have a choice, anyway. But any attempt to require more family-friendly workplaces is met with cries of how it will destroy jobs, or of how unfair it is to the people who do not have children. I think cases like these show that policies that degrade our ability to parent are risky for all of society, not just painful for the families in question.
I look around my community, and I see a patchwork of programs and organizations trying to plug these, and the countless other holes in our support network for families. They are constantly underfunded, and usually overlooked. It must be difficult work. I suspect their success stories are not always easy to recognize, because you're looking for an absence- an absence of depression, an absence of abuse, and absence of troubled children- and how do you know that the program caused that absence? In some ways, this work is like the work of parenting. Its difficulty is underappreciated, and its importance is hard to pinpoint because it is so all-encompassing.
I don't know what to do to try to fix this mess. So I give a little money to the programs I think are trying to address the problems, I try to reach out to other parents where I can, and I hug my little girls a little tighter, and I hope for the best for all of our kids.