Bipartisan Mothers’ Call to Action After Connecticut School Shooting: An Open Letter to American Leadership Voices

15 Dec

statue of liberty mother archetype image

December 15, 2012

When first we heard the news yesterday coming out of Newtown, Conn., we reacted as parents across the country did. We imagined for a moment it was our children.

No parent can fathom that sort of horror for more than a moment. You can imagine losing your parents, your spouse, your best friend. The thoughts fill you with fear and sadness. But, when you try to imagine losing your child, the pain in your chest is immediately unbearable and tears well up in your eyes exactly as they did to President Obama yesterday. It is completely unfathomable in a way that is utterly foreign to non-parents, however much they are also horrified by such events.

There are some things we are just not capable of preparing ourselves for. An event such as the mass murder of very young school children at the safe haven of their community school is one of them.

The news streamed at us from all directions as we started talking about what we felt compelled to say about the tragedy. No matter where you got the news yesterday – from television, radio, social media or online news outlets – the responses to this immense tragedy were almost horribly predictable. Eyewitness accounts from children at the school. Calls for prayer. Statements that this was not a day for politics. Immediate calls for gun reform. Equally immediate reactions against gun control and for greater enforcement.

Yesterday morning, Dawn, in her Christmas t-shirt planning a trip to Disney World for the next day, was attending plays at her children’s private school, working on her blog post about her local Republican Executive Committee where she serves as an elected representative, and catching up on some shopping for the T-minus 10-day Christmas countdown in Central Florida. Gayla was busy cleaning, shopping and cooking in preparation for the evening’s annual children’s holiday cookie decorating party and cookie exchange in her suburban home outside Memphis.

This news stopped us both in our tracks. As parents of five elementary school aged children between us, the images were far too close for comfort despite being thousands of miles away.

Neither of us has ever been to Newtown, but we recognized it immediately as similar to our so-called safe havens where we have built our lives and families, where we have tried to move about our lives with a feeling of security and safety. It was Anytown, USA. And, Sandy Hook Elementary was Anyschool, USA. We recognized our children and their friends in the faces on the scene. If it could happen there…

It was impossible to entertain that notion for long. The pain in the chest. Nausea. The immediate physical desire to think of something else, anything else. It couldn’t happen where we live. Things like that happen somewhere else. But, why would we allow ourselves to communally think that, we wondered? Such a tragedy would have been no less horrid if it had happened in a large city instead. We are both self aware enough to realize that this train of thought was nothing more than a construct to help our minds handle the unfathomable truth: it could happen anywhere. It could have been our children. And, as mothers, on some level we see all of those children in Connecticut as our children, the same as we see the children all across America- in urban and rural areas, in churches and temples. We neglect these feelings the majority of the time as we, of course, struggle to meet our own family’s needs first. But, we believe, most any mother has maternal instincts toward any child in need. These babies were ours in that way.

We did what probably every mother across the country did yesterday. We hugged our children tighter and more often last night. We prayed for the families of the teachers and the children in Connecticut. We forced ourselves to stop thinking about it and get on with the day’s activities after tearing up at the sight of the school bus in Tennessee and the car dealership flag at half-mast in Florida.

Gayla was extra grateful for the diversion of a party with holiday movies, sweet treats, and children running amok around her home. She decided that explaining the tragedy to her twin eight-year-old boys would wait. As six children squealed with delight from the backyard tree-house, illuminated by holiday lights for the occasion, she sat around her kitchen table, that most sacred area for American political discourse, with girlfriends: two mothers, a newlywed without children, a divorcee, a social justice worker, a successful small business owner who has worked as a Gun Range instructor, and a public policy research analyst. The conversation moved quickly to the shootings. Although emotions were high, one thing was clear: all seemed to think the debate needed was not as much to do with gun control, but with mental health.

Discussions ranged from the death of a Memphis policewoman that morning to guns (most favored Second Amendment rights but a majority also favored an assault weapons ban), to blame (did the shooter’s actions reflect on his parents or were they innocent victims), to religion (why did so many friends start posting about the end of times in relation and, more curiously, why were so many acting almost excited that Jesus must soon be coming), to China (why were these things happening so frequently and why were their school attacks knife- related instead of gun), to the recent ranking of America as only the 16th best place to be born today, to the most uncomfortable topic: how to prepare children for a similar event. The consensus around the table, however, seemed definitely to lean toward the need for real government policy leadership on mental health care.

Across the country in Florida, the car dealership flag caused Dawn to have the uncomfortable conversation begged by questions from her older two children. She considered lying or feigning ignorance but decided it would be a disservice to them and perhaps cause them even more pain later. They needed to hear from their mother about what happened in the kindest way possible. They also needed to learn about the brave student who saved his friends and the teacher who would not unlock the door no matter what. As their mother, when Dawn tells them about the realities of this world, she allows herself to show fear or anger and how to work through them as a role model to emulate during such times of crisis as we all find a way out of this dark place.

Dawn ended her day in reflection about a shooting at her younger cousin’s high school in Jacksonville last year where the principal was killed. Her entire family had been shocked and saddened by such an act of violence in their lives, but she had not immediately thought to ban firearms as so many seem to do after these types of events. She, too, found herself wondering if the shooter had ever had access to a mental health specialist as she reviewed her Twitter and Facebook feeds — full of opinions for and against stronger gun control but so few questioning the root motivation of the shooter. If this person had chosen a different weapon, or perhaps a bomb, would there be so much focus about guns? Would fewer children have died? Would that have made the tragedy any less horrible? Lots of things are dangerous in the hands of a killer, and thinking about the stabbing in China yesterday reminds that survivors are much better that victims, but the bigger underlying issue she found the most compelling to answer was, “why?”

WHY did these men get up yesterday morning and do these unfathomable things?

We both completely agree that this day in America is not one for politics and the usual arguments. It is, however, a time for leadership voices to move this debate from talk to action. Although it is easier to focus our attention on things we can understand, such as gun control laws and contrasts between killing ratios between the two monsters separated by oceans yesterday, we must show the backbone of real leadership and tackle the real problem: mental health.

The mental health debate is much trickier to discuss because it is a road much less traveled than the endless gun policy arguments. The opposing side voices are not as clearly understood or identifiable. The mental health issue involves things as complex as civil liberty privacy concerns, government healthcare, treatment and institutionalization options, post-traumatic stress identification and treatment for military and first responders subjected to such horrors, and many deeply held stereotypes and stigmas about mental health disorders.

Because a thing is the more difficult to tackle does not make it acceptable to take the easier road, however. We need real leadership. Not the kind that kicks the fiscal can down the road, drowns our immediate needs in incremental policy changes, or refuses to allow any voting on various important issues as a tactic to win other debates.

That is why we, as a bipartisan unified couple of plain, old suburban mothers, wanted to co-write this piece. Together, we call on our elected and government leaders to stand together in this national day of mourning to agree that there are obvious policies that can be tackled right now to encourage more effective treatment and identification of mental health disorders before they escalate. Pause the never-ending and divisive gun debate, or at least agree to take off your combat boots for a few hours a day and put on your friendly thinking caps, to implement some solutions on the important, but less sexy issue, of mental health.

Don’t let the unfathomable problem keep you from facing the painful truths needed to solve it.

Tackling the root causes of these tragedies should be the battle-cry. Moms who support the NRA grieved no less yesterday than moms who support assault weapons bans. Those who blame a lack of God in schools for our nation’s troubles were no less horrified by the carnage than Atheist parents. Those with children at inner city schools were no less terrified than those at elite suburban schools.

We all love our children. We all agree, without a doubt, that anyone who could commit such atrocities must be extremely mentally unbalanced.

Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be by drumming up the same old divisions.

We hope you will hear our @LeaderVoices and use your own to remember these children and families, and all of the Americans impacted by mental health related violence. Turn this moment of tragedy into a moment of unified leadership for the benefit of all American children.

It is time for parents and leaders across the nation to swallow that pain in our throats and instead of looking for diversions, to rise to the occasion as strong leaders. For our children. They are all our children.


Dawn Mays and Gayla Schaefer

Leadership Voices

“The time for using our indoor voices has passed. It is time to use our Leadership Voices!”

4 Responses to “Bipartisan Mothers’ Call to Action After Connecticut School Shooting: An Open Letter to American Leadership Voices”

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