My 6-year-old son speeds into the living room clutching his tablet. I suspect based on the brief amount of time since I last told him to brush his teeth that he has yet to follow my direction. I’ve asked three times now and am beginning to lose patience. Instead of raising my voice, I inhale deeply and count to three in my head. I ask him yet again to set down the iPad and brush his teeth so he doesn’t miss the bus. I don’t lose my temper. I remain almost freakishly calm. Because as always, simmering quietly in the back of my mind is the worry that this interaction could be our last. My daily undercurrent of dread is that today could be the day—the day a lunatic shoots his way through my kids’ school, taking my whole world away in an instant.
Like millions of other parents, I’ll never forget the moment I learned that a gunman had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdered 20 first-graders and six educators, after killing his own mother. I sat paralyzed at my desk at work, staring at the live news feed chronicling this unspeakable thing, and felt panic wash over me. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to pick up my daughter, in kindergarten at the time, and grab my toddler son from day care so I could take them home and never let them out of my sight again. I’ve never been what you’d call a helicopter mom—I’m normally pretty relaxed. And over the years they were in day care, I handled it well. Being separated from them wasn’t my favorite thing in the world, but I was never afraid for their lives. That all ended on December 14, 2012.
I got permission to leave work early and hauled ass to their school and day care, wiping hot tears from my eyes. I could so easily imagine the tiny, lifeless bodies of those sweet babies in their classrooms and immediately put my kids’ faces on them. How could I not? This hit way too close to home for any parent of a small child. Up until then, it seemed unfathomable that first-graders would be victims of a mass shooting. But the unfathomable happened, and it was no longer just a horrid nightmare. It was a living one. I spent the weekend in a daze of sorrow, watching the news coverage and Googling home-school curriculum plans, utterly determined to never send them back.
Of course, this wasn’t an option for us. We needed my income, so I had to work. Besides, the kids loved school and their friends—they were thriving. My emotions and mommy gut told me to keep them safe with me, but my rational side won out. That didn’t stop my brain from continuing to imagine horrifying scenarios though. It’s been over three years and it continues to affect my parenting each and every day.
Now, to be clear, this isn’t something I’ve ever discussed with my kids. It doesn’t stop me from taking them places, and I’m not obsessively worrying all day long. It’s more like a constant and quiet hum in my mind—it’s always there and it’s changed my attitude and behavior, but it’s not as though I spend every moment of my day bracing myself for that awful phone call. I’m not a crazy person, just a parent doing what I have to do.
To that end, in the mornings before school, when my kids misbehave, I summon the chill of a Zen Buddhist monk. No matter what they throw at me, I won’t allow myself to yell. I do everything in my power to avoid negative interactions. My need to send them to school absolutely certain of my love for them runs so deep—so if that awful thing comes to pass and an unbalanced young man makes his way through the hallways massacring innocent children at least they’ll know that I love them.
How fucked up is that? Writing these words, I realize how it sounds. But in my mind, there’s no other way for me to be. Not anymore.
In the weeks and months after Sandy Hook, I read stories from the parents of those lost babies. One in particular stuck in my head—the mother of Jesse Lewis told news outlets how the morning of the shooting, the little boy wrote “I love you” in the frost of her car window. She spoke of how comforting that was to her in a time of unimaginable grief, that the last memory she and her son had of each other was a positive and loving one. That struck me like nothing else I’ve read about that terrible day, and I became determined to send my kids off with those feelings every time they went to school.
If I’m trying to find a silver lining, I guess it’s that my children head to school every day knowing how loved they are. In my saner moments, I know it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever be victims of a school shooting and that the legacy Jesse Lewis and the other children who died that day have left behind is one of love. That so many parents like me are now making a conscious choice to let their kids feel nothing but love, calm, and patience before they leave for school each day. But the reasoning behind my last interactions with my kids each morning is so deeply sad and sinister. I hate that my parenting is being informed by the heinous actions of one evil person, yet here I am.
Do I have solutions? No, not really. I know the issue of gun control, and even more, the issue of how to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill, is an immensely complicated one. It’s one I can’t solve on my own. None of us can. All I know is that this isn’t right. Our parents and their parents and their parents before them never had to worry like this. It’s a problem entirely unique to this generation and I don’t see it going away any time soon. All I can do is what feels right and what helps me get through the day without careening into a spiral of panic, and that means making my children feel loved before they leave me. No matter what.