- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Taking an informal poll reaffirmed what I already suspected: You’ve got to walk a mile in a mother’s shoes to empathize with a mother’s challenges.

Most of you have seen the story of the single Rockville mother who spent two days in the Montgomery County Jail this week because her two teenage sons took too many days off from school.

To be exact, the 13-year-old and 15-year-old Julius West Middle School truants each missed 50 days during the 2004-05 school year.

Maybe the boys took the “Huckleberry Finn” homework to heart. But why weren’t the boys, not their mother, taken to the woodshed?

Shirley Lumbao, 44, is the first Montgomery County parent to be incarcerated for playing hooky. Not from her job, but from school, which she does not attend. And she faces more time in the slammer if her sons’ school attendance doesn’t improve.

Maybe that characterization sounds too flip or outrageous. After all, truancy is no laughing matter, especially when you learn that school officials even purchased an alarm clock and provided movie tickets, virtually bribing the boys to come to class.

These solutions barely scratched the surface of an underlying problem.

Not the least of these issues is the glaring contradiction in our society about motherhood. Some women are shamed into thinking that they should forgo careers and work to stay home with their children. (They are even granted tax credits to support their middle-class families.) Meanwhile, poor women are shamed into taking minimum-wage jobs, with insufficient child care options or subsidies, and are forced to leave their children at home, often unsupervised. (They are even stripped of stipends the more they earn.)

But a mother’s got to do what a mother’s got to do.

In my woefully unscientific poll asking whether Mrs. Lumbao’s truancy sentence seemed harsh, two men said no; one single woman said no; five single mothers (one rushing from one job to the next) said yes; and one married mother, who adopted a teenage girl, couldn’t even make the tough call.

One friend said Mrs. Lumbao’s problem “is that she had two teenage boys; the only thing worse is two teenage girls.”

Anyone who has been the parent of a teenager and survived those rough-and-tumble years knows the danger zone of which she speaks. How many single mothers wouldn’t love to play Huck Finn or Ferris Bueller for a day? The jailed mother of at least three sons, Mrs. Lumbao works two jobs, one of them as a hotel housekeeper, according to a televised report.

Mrs. Lumbao symbolizes millions of working mothers, who all too often find themselves juggling employer’s needs with children’s needs just to survive.

Mrs. Lumbao’s assertion that the teenagers defied her orders to go to school were backed up by her eldest son, Timothy. He told a WRC-TV (Channel 4) reporter that his mother tried her best to get his brothers to go to school, and they simply defied her. Sound familiar? “You know it’s not fair they put my mother in jail because it’s my brothers’ fault,” he said.

Worse, Timothy was worried that his mother might lose one of her jobs for failure to show up because, uh, she was otherwise indisposed.

And what happens to the family should she lose her job for her unexcused absence? And why weren’t the boys punished too? It was noted that the truant boys were in court during their mother’s trial during school hours.

Montgomery County school and law-enforcement officials must uphold the law and punish wrongdoing. Indeed, they should send the message to parents and students that truancy will not be tolerated. Neither should a whole lot of activities that go unsanctioned by parents who definitely abdicate their responsibility. But this sentence goes a little too far.

Had the Lumbao boys harmed someone or destroyed property, I agree that parental punishment is in order. But when was the last time you heard of a parent going to jail or paying restitution for their children’s crime, even petty ones? Maryland is leading the way as more states and localities hold parents accountable for their children’s actions. But the law should be amended to reflect the dual responsibility of the parent and the child.

The knee-jerk response is to suggest that this outrageous truancy infraction called for an outrageous punishment. On the other hand, you might assume that this single mother and her family are dealing with outrageous challenges, and truancy is simply a side symptom of deeper demons.

Where is the father? Don’t fathers bear some parental responsibility too? If we want to keep more growing boys off the street and out of gangs, we need men to take their fatherhood and mentoring duties more seriously.

Does the lack of a father figure or the need to work absolve a single parent of responsibility for their children’s upbringing and resulting behavior? No. But we also need to recognize that some working mothers, without support systems and day care subsidies (which, by the way, continue to be cut by the federal government) need additional help from social-service agencies.

The big question here is: Is society being served by jailing a mother, who is obviously overwhelmed because she has to work and she can’t sit on her children 24/7 to get them to behave? Having been a married mother and a single mother, I think not.

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