We missed the first bell this morning, so I dropped off the kids in front of school to enter through the main doors. I sat in the car watching them run toward the building on earnest little legs, breathing steam into the frigid air like baby dragons—heads bobbing and arms straining from the weight of backpacks half the size of their small bodies. As the door closed behind them, the thought that’s flooded the minds of nearly every American parent since the morning of December 14 rushed into my head: Will I ever see them alive again?
In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/50464296#50464296 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/50464296#50464379), David and Francine Wheeler–the parents of six-year-old Ben Wheeler, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School—spoke with breathtaking poise about their son and their involvement in the new advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise. “Don’t stop thinking about this. . . . Keep having the conversation,” they urged.
I agonized over having kids. I was newly pregnant shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, just a couple years after 9/11, when we all felt like kamikaze airplanes could rain from the skies at any moment. I had lunch with a friend at that time and told her that we had no idea what the hell we were doing, having a baby right then. She answered in her quiet, considered manner, “I don’t think the world would be a better place if you and Dan didn’t have kids, but it might be better if you do.” Well, it was too late, anyway. And then we had another.
As much as I try not to view every single thing I do and think and say through the filter of motherhood, it’s always there. My personal identity, like everyone’s, has as many facets as a finely cut diamond, but Mother stands out among them as one of the clearest and most brilliant. Women who are wildly accomplished in their personal and professional lives but who happen not to have kids tell me that they are interrogated and judged regularly for their decision. No amount of accomplishment matters, it seems, if you don’t have a kid on your lap. You’re so selfish! You’re not a real woman!
Here’s a thought: People who don’t have kids have nothing to justify or explain to anyone. People who do have kids have everything to justify. We have brought into this dirty, overcrowded world even more people, some of whom are going to be sick or damaged in some way, due to genetics, accidents, or upbringing. Nancy Lanza made the decision to have a baby, just like I made the decision. She was a mother, just like I am a mother. Yet at some point something went horribly wrong. And it didn’t start on the day of the shooting. Nobody with a normally functioning brain wakes up one day and decides to commit mass murder.
“He was a loner.” We are a country of loners. And if anyone tries to stop us from being loners, we start hollering about socialism and Big Brother. Well, yes, I suppose on some level living in a civilized group with laws and consequences for breaking them is “socialism.” Living as a social being is socialism. This is the meaning of “community.” If I’m watching my kids like a hawk for the most minute sign of trouble, why wouldn’t I watch your kids like a hawk too? And, I’m sorry to be intrusive and all, but if I see or hear or sense that something’s off, I’m going to be on it like white on rice. I’m going to talk to you about it. I’m going to talk to other people. I’m going to offer to help in any way I can. I’m going to keep having the conversation. And I expect everyone else to do the same.
So this is my pledge to the world as a mother: I will watch and listen to and at all times be aware of those around me. I will pay attention to the words, actions, and gazes of my children—and of your children. If my gut tells me something is amiss, I will talk and talk and not stop talking about it until I am satisfied that a solution is in reach. I will keep talking to teachers and pediatricians and my kids’ friends’ parents. I will take the raw materials of agony and make of them a monument, because I owe the world. I made my choices that led me down the path of motherhood. I bred like a good girl should. Now it’s my responsibility to make sure my choices didn’t result in people who are cruel, sick, lacking compassion, or who are silently screaming for help but whose mother balks and equivocates.
Will any of this vigilance make a difference? I have no idea. Will I alienate my kids by being a perpetual nag? Perhaps, but only if we operate under wildly divergent ideas about the definition of the word “mother” and the duties inscribed therein. I am no diviner of future events, and no one has to be told how unpredictable life obviously is. But if my kids end up having half the courage, dignity, and grace of the children, staff, and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job–as a mother and as a human being.
Don’t stop thinking about this. Don’t stop having the conversation.