When I heard that “a million moms” were gathering in the nation’s capital to protest gun violence, I was intrigued–and skeptical.

I’ve only been a mother for three years, but it doesn’t take long to realize that our society has mixed feelings about the power and value of motherhood. Asserting that power seemed like a good idea. But focusing collective attention on modest gun-control proposals seemed overly polite. If a million moms were going to march, why not do it for something farther-reaching, like affordable, quality child care? How about a million moms astir for universal health care?

I was also put off by the slick and sentimental appeals of march organizers. A visit to the million mom Web site revealed screens full of apple-pie imagery and warm-and-fuzzy slogans, including threats to put politicians in “permanent time out” if they don’t pass sensible gun-control laws. Such coy messages yield clever soundbites. But they also leave a lot out: For instance, how does handgun registration stop gun violence when the person wielding the weapon is a cop?

There is historical precedent for making Mother’s Day a protest against violence. Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, created the holiday in 1872 as Mother’s Peace Day in reaction to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. In Howe’s era, middle-class women and working-class women formed a successful alliance for social change.

Would the Million Mom March encourage us to do the same?

Mother´s Day, 6:30 a.m.Even this early in the day, the march is running like clockwork. Eleven buses have just left Durham with more than 400 protesters, armed with plenty of sunblock and bottled water. People are joking that things feel this organized because moms are in charge.

On my bus, there are eight men among the 42 passengers, two toddlers and several mother-daughter pairs. Olivia Singleton is sitting toward the back with her two teenaged daughters. A part-time businesswoman and pre-school teacher, she heard about the march through her Durham church. Singleton thinks it’s wise that the official goals of the protest aren’t too threatening. “Being general is how you have to be,” she says. “It’s a start. I know certain moms who’ve never stepped out on anything who are coming along on this.”

Singleton hopes the protest will help dispel the current of fear that she says runs through contemporary family life. “Violence just seems so random,” she says. “It could happen anywhere, anytime. My kids go to the School of the Arts downtown, and security there is not great. There’s just no safe haven anymore.”

How did things come to this pass? “I don’t know,” Singleton says, pulling a strand of blonde hair from her face. “We’re all trying to cram so much in and we’re all sleep-deprived and snarly. I just don’t know how we got this way.”

11:25 a.m.From a spot on the National Mall beneath the North Carolina contingent’s banner, I look out at a river of people moving on either side of us toward the main stage. A loudspeaker announces the crowd has reached 500,000. The faces I see are mostly white, but there is a generous sprinkling of black and brown. There are strollers, bicycles, wheelchairs. And signs: “Freedom from Gun Trauma!” “Mama Says a Pistol is the Devil’s Right Hand!” Some protesters hold up photographs of loved ones killed by guns.

Next to me, Charlene Young is keeping a close eye on her four children and her niece. She’s lives in a mostly African-American neighborhood in D.C., where shootings are common. “A lot of the moms out here, this hasn’t affected yet,” Young says, gazing over the crowd. “They’re here trying to prevent it. I’m here because of the kids in my neighborhood.”

Young says she understands why some people feel they need guns for protection. “But it’s just not worth it,” she says. “I’ve tried to stop a lot of kids in my neighborhood from having guns. I know this is really hard on the kids. I’ve seen them the next day after someone’s been shot. They’re trying to understand what happened.”

March emcee Rosie O’Donnell’s face appears on a huge TV screen that partially blocks our view of the Capitol dome. O’Donnell calls on the marchers to “let our voices be heard and our votes be counted.”

“America needs its butt kicked,” on this issue, O’Donnell says, because “good kids get shot, too.”

Young nods her head vigorously. “Right,” she says. “That’s right.”

1:10 p.m.The march has taken on the mellow haziness of a huge outdoor picnic. The speeches continue, but most people are busying themselves with other things: logging onto Web sites in the voter-information booth, buying T-shirts, standing in line for the carousel.

Looking for something more challenging, I walk down the Mall toward the Washington Monument, site of a counter-demonstration organized by the Texas-based Second Amendment Sisters. Here, the crowd is smaller and whiter than at the Million Mom March. There are fewer strollers and more American flags. And, true to stereotype, there are also more cigarettes and dogs.

Laurel Coates has come from Havre Degrace, Md., with her mother and two of her four kids. Caroline, 11, has several miniature American flags stuck into her waistband so that they fan out behind her. A sign around her neck reads, “Libertarian peacock.”

Her mother, a former CPA who is now a stay-at-home mom, is here because she believes guns are needed to protect the home front. “I want to be able to defend my kids,” says Coates. “The real problem isn’t guns. It’s the parents who aren’t there for their kids.”

Moments later, the Armed Informed Mothers’ March moves out in the direction of the Mall. As gun-control supporters encounter signs reading, “An Armed Woman is a Safe Woman” and “Lock up Criminals, Not Triggers,” many shake their heads in silent disgust. One mom has a more vocal reaction. “No more guns!” she yells, from her post on the sidewalk. Her daughter holds up a homemade sign that says, “I want to be a doctor and a singer but I can’t if I’m gunned down.”

The contact between the two sides is fleeting, since the Second Amendment supporters’ march lasts only a few blocks. The small army of cameras that has tracked their path quickly breaks up and disappears.

2:50 p.m.I’m sitting on a low railing, watching marchers head for the Metro and debriefing with Yvonne Latty, a reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News. “I get so sad when I see all these black women in Million Mom T-shirts,” says Yvonne, who is also a mother. “Because that means they’ve lost somebody. I think it’s different for a lot of the white women who haven’t experienced this yet.”

Will that be the focus of her article for the paper?

“I’ll try to mention it,” Yvonne says with a weary smile. “But there’s no way to really make it the story.”

Our conversation makes me realize that we’ve failed to get to the real issues. The Million Mom March had been a positive experience for those who participated. But, for too many of us, being there seemed just a little too easy. More powerful actions will come after we’ve acknowledged our class and cultural differences, and after we’ve begun to talk across the barriers that divide us.

Then again, maybe it takes an event with overly broad appeal for us to start noticing each other and reaching out.

And maybe next time we will march for a livable wage. EndBlock