I’ve tried to write this since Friday, struggling to process and put my thoughts into words.
But my heart is so full it aches, and I need to find a place for all that aching to go. Writing has always been a form of therapy for me, and if there was ever a time for catharsis, it would be now. So I apologize for being selfish, but this post (this very, very long post) is largely for me. If you’re patient enough to read it however, I hope that you’ll join me in recommitting to doing all we can to protect all our children.
Friday morning I sat in my son’s kindergarten classroom, my knees to my chest in a child-sized chair, as I led the Christmas activity for the winter holidays’ learning centers. I keep reflecting back on those darling faces, lit up with the excitement of the holidays. I keep thinking about my own son’s exuberance as I entered the room, and how he ran to greet me with an enthusiastic hug. I think about his teacher, how wonderful and sweet she is and how much she gives to every one of those kids.
I finished the activity, gathered my two littlest boys from a friend, and circled back to pick up my older two from school. Finally home and all my boys busy, I sat down to my computer and took in the days’ news.
Shock. Heartbreak. There really aren’t words sufficient for the task of describing what I read.
I glanced at my boys, cheerfully unaware of what I now knew, playing together and going through another normal Friday afternoon. I kept thinking of the kindergarten room I had just left, of 23 beautifully beaming faces. There were miles and miles separating them from another classroom in Connecticut, but, as every parent will say, the events hit much too close to home.
As I read reports and news releases, in my mind it was the cozy classroom I had just left. It was those sweet faces I had seen only two feet away from my own. It was the nightmare I had tried to tell myself could never happen.
I prayed — and continue to pray — for those families, their community, and our nation.
My mother bear instincts and control freak tendencies kicked into gear. What can I do now? What can I do to stop this?
It’s long been my coping mechanism. When I can no longer bear to think about something that has happened in the past, I look forward and try to find some way to move on. I have to find something to DO to feel some sense of control. As much as I and every other feeling person would do anything to change what happened that awful Friday morning, we can’t. We can only look forward and ask, “What can we do now?”.
I’ve been pondering the question ever since Friday, as I’m sure many people have. I realized that much of what I need to do are things I’ve been doing all my life, but now I view them with renewed purpose and passion. Here’s what I’ve concluded — what I’ve committed to do:
I Will Start at Home
My first reaction, as it was for many, is to hug my boys a little tighter. Talk with them a little longer. Look at them, really look at them, and love them fully with every moment.
As my friend Rachel at Hands Free Mama poignantly reminds us in her beautiful post, XO Before You Go, I will hug and kiss my boys goodbye, even on those crazy, busy mornings. As she wisely points out: “While I can not control what happens when they leave my side, I can control what happens in those sacred minutes before we say goodbye.” Every parent should read this post.
I will start at home to build boys who will become young men who have been taught to love others, to express emotion in healthy ways, and to live life with a noble purpose.
Any quick look at the history of mass shootings shows one thing very clearly amid the twisted, convoluted, and often incomprehensible details. The vast majority of the offenders are young males.
I’m not about to place the blame for these heinous acts upon the shoulders of the parents of the perpetrators. But as the mother of four boys myself, I owe it to my sons and to the society in which they live to be aware of the risk factors that psychologists and other professionals have been pointing to, and to provide as much of a safeguard as I can. Factors like inculcated violence, the influence of relationships (both positive and negative), media input, and the need for future orientation. Factors, that deserve a post all their own.
Last Friday’s events give me reason to recommit to loving my boys more fully in every minute that I am given, and to also do all I can in my own home to raise boys who are socially, emotionally, and mentally healthy and whole.
I Will Be an Advocate for Mental Health
As I mentioned earlier, while I feel moved to do more as a parent I have to make it clear that this is not to place the blame on parents for the struggles, reprehensible choices, and even illnesses of their children.
If you haven’t read it already, you have to take a moment to read Thinking the Unthinkable by The Anarchist Soccer Mom. She bravely shares what it’s like to live with a teenage son who struggles with mental illness. In raw honesty she paints a picture of both love and terror and the frustration of being offered the advice to create a criminal paper trail as the best route to getting help. She shares as only a parent can:
“No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.””
In my view, mental health (and illness) can be understood much like physical health. There are some organic illnesses that come without any apparent rhyme or reason. Like my sister-in-law who developed lung cancer in her early 20s, having never smoked a day in her life, there are mental challenges and illnesses that have no apparent cause. There’s no one to point fingers at, you just have to try to get the best care you can and fight it the best way you know how. You need professionals and a plan.
Then there are threats to health that come through trauma. Like a broken leg or torn muscle, these challenges come from impact. Painful events that tear at hearts and minds and souls. Trauma can be prevented, mitigated, or treated, but only with the right resources.
Lastly, we have to be aware of everyday health. Like the effort you take to wash your hands, get a good night’s rest, and hoist yourself up off of the couch for a good workout now and then, there are things we can do on an on-going basis to establish and protect social, emotional, and mental health. This work can start in simple ways.
In all three areas of mental health care, I feel there is so much more that could be done for all of our children.
Working there has taught me that mental health is not just clinical, and we can’t chase it with a deficit model. We can promote mental health and be proactive about it. We can build healthy environments, nurturing relationships, and promote healthy development. That’s the work that I do, working with teachers and care providers to teach them about positive guidance and social and emotional development as components in healthy, whole child development.
And that’s the work you do as well, in your homes and classrooms, in any role that gives you the opportunity to build relationships and influence people.
There is a need for improved mental health in our country, but it’s not just the work of therapists and clinicians. It’s something we can all take part in today. All of us. That may be the only way to really make a change.