Fred Guttenberg has two children: his son Jesse, who is 22 and works in building operations for the Florida Panthers, and his daughter Jaime, who was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School along with 16 other people on Feb. 14th, 2018. Since the shooting, Guttenberg has dedicated his life to fighting gun violence, founding Orange Ribbons for Gun Safety to fight for gun reforms like Jaime’s Law, which would require universal background checks for the sale of ammunition. His new book, American Carnage, is about the myths that fuel America’s obsession with guns.
Guttenberg has been an outspoken activist since his daughter’s murder, but I was curious to hear about how he has changed as a parent.
How has this horrible tragedy affected your identity as a parent? What was your identity as a parent like before, and what is it after?
After Jaime was killed, I struggled with that question. Because I was a parent of two kids. I had dreams and aspirations for two kids. I responded and reacted to what happened to two kids. And after this, we just kind of stopped doing half of what we did. For quite a while, I talked about Jaime in the past tense. I said, ‘She was my daughter, she was murdered.’ And it wasn’t until months later that I came to this realization that I didn’t need to do that. Jaime still is my daughter.
When I stopped thinking of Jaime in the past tense, I started thinking of my relationship with Jaime as just having changed. I’m still a dad, who will spend the rest of his life reacting to what happens to his two kids. In the case with my son, that will be ongoing. I’ve already told him I’m going to live to 100 so I can continue to do that even when he’s 50 and 60. But in the case of Jaime, I’ll always be responding to what happened on Feb. 14, 2018. Because I’m her dad, she is my daughter. Not was, but is.
It was such a struggle for a while. It still is, but I think of my relationship with Jaime now as not one of new memories, not one of doing the things we planned to do, not walking her down the aisle. Our relationship is based upon memories that we had, and it’s based upon memories or new events that will exist because of what happened to her. And she stands with me and she guides me through it. I have to believe that she is doing that at all times. Because that’s how I take her with me when I pursue this mission. I am Jaime’s dad. I always will be. And Jaime is my daughter. She always will be.
So what is it like to be Jaime’s dad right now? What does active parenthood look like when the child in question is Jaime?
Active parenthood looks like continually doing what you need to do to ensure you always maintain your focus on your living child. Because he is still a very active part of our life and everything that we do. Everything he wants to pursue in life, I have to make sure I’m a part of it.
At the same time, I also have to do what I need to do because of what happened to Jaime. So active parenting for Jaime actually looks like activism. I discovered things about myself that I never knew until after Jaime was killed.
I never knew, for example, how much writing would become important to me. It became my therapy after she was killed and it has really been a huge part of the advocacy that I do. The other thing that is becoming a huge part of my life now is how much I rely on others. I’m not someone on this mission because I want something personally out of it. I’m not gonna run for office. There’s gonna come a day where I’m going to step away, and I’m so thankful and appreciative for how many decent people have stepped into my life to join me as I continue in my role as Jaime’s dad. Whether it’s lobbying, whether it’s showing up at events, or simple things like just picking up a phone and talking in a moment where I’m struggling through my role as Jaime’s dad. Because while I know how important this is, I can never escape why I do it. And it’s freaking sad.
Often when people talk about parenthood, they talk about frenzy: juggling their career with getting bath time done, you know the drill. They often talk about parenthood as almost like a set of chores, or a lifestyle. And obviously, that probably looks very different for you. So I’m wondering how you think about parenthood differently now that one of your children has been killed. You’re still an active parent, but it’s not really about these frenzied tasks anymore.
The way you described some of those conversations, it makes parenthood sound like a job. Which, I don’t know, maybe in the past, I might have made it sound the same way. So what I’ll say to you is this: it’s the greatest role on earth. It’s the most important thing I will ever do in my life.
And I try to tell every newer parent that I meet now: Don’t stress over the hard moments. Make sure you’re there for all the moments. Don’t miss a minute. It goes fast, and enjoy it. I was a really goofy dad. I enjoyed being a dad. My wife and I didn’t take vacations by ourselves; everything we did was with our kids. I never thought of it as a job. I mean, it’s an obligation, there’s no doubt, but it’s the greatest role on Earth. And I will forever be thankful to my two children for giving me the chance to be their dad.
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It ain’t easy. There’s no doubt being a parent comes with all sorts of worries and concerns. What I never expected is how small all those worries and concerns would seem once gun violence visited my family. It changed everything for me. The whole idea of protection. The whole idea of how important it is to keep our children safe. I didn’t put my voice into doing bigger things. I never thought it would matter to me.
And now I think of myself as a parent doing these things because I don’t want the next one to happen. Because there is truly nothing more important that I will ever do in my life than this work to reduce gun violence. Because I wasn’t doing it before it was my kid. And I should have thought about that as part of my role as a parent. Maybe if my voice was in this before, I could have been a part of doing something to change the dynamic and my daughter would be alive today. I never thought of that as part of my role. And I was wrong. It was a mistake on my part. But it’s my role now, and it’s how I am Jaime’s dad now.
What advice would you give to other parents of kids who are alive, and what advice would you give to other parents of kids who have been killed?
To parents of kids who are alive: don’t blink. Don’t miss a minute. Enjoy every second, even when it’s hard. And don’t avoid being involved in hard conversations outside of your immediate family that are about your family’s safety. You could potentially be the person who breaks through and stops the next one. And if you don’t, someone you love may be the next victim. Be involved. Make that a part of your job as a parent.
As for those who have already lost someone due to gun violence or any other way: loss is loss. Grief is a brutal thing, and we don’t all grieve the same way. Make sure you’re there for those you love even if they’re going through it differently than you, and allow them to be there for you as well, even if your struggle is different than theirs. Because you need each other. And I think for me the greatest lesson following Jaime’s murder is just how much I realized I needed my people.
What makes you feel like a good parent?
I struggle with that question. Because the truth is, I live with guilt that I wasn’t doing something I should have been doing before my daughter was killed, which was trying to reduce gun violence. I feel I failed because I wasn’t doing it then. And because of that, I won’t get to really answer that question in an ongoing way with Jaime.
When my kids were both alive, you push your kids, you want the best for them. You want them to try their hardest; you want them to achieve big things. We’re all pushing to get them into the greatest schools and into the best sports programs and to have the greatest careers.
I just want my kid to be okay. If he’s productive, but he’s physically and mentally okay, I’m thankful, and I feel like a good parent.
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