Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Type of Story No One Likes to Talk About

Around this time every year, Facebook seems filled with cautionary tales about all kinds of summer dangers--secondary drowning, pool safety, how to check kids for ticks, and pieces about leaving kids in cars.

Leaving kids in cars, especially, always seems to be a hot topic. Inevitably, the comments start to include things like:

"What kind of horrible person forgets their kid in the car?"
"How can someone not notice that they forgot their kid in the car?!"
"I hope they burn in hell."
"If you leave a child in a car, you don't deserve to be a parent."
"If you're so busy that you forget your newborn, you need to seriously re-evaluate your life."
"There is NO excuse for forgetting a child in a car."
"How do you forget a child?! Mine are the first thing on my mind, always!"
"If you can't manage to look in your rearview mirror and make sure there isn't a kid back there, you're an idiot."
"If you're on autopilot while responsible for a baby, you're doing something wrong."

I get it. I understand how incomprehensible it is. But let me tell you a story.

The spring after Becca was born, I was having a playdate with a friend who has a little girl Lizzy's age. During the playdate, she had a serious family emergency occur, and asked me to take her kiddo home with me. No problem.

It was a weird day--my aunt was flying in to the airport, and we were meeting her there. My sister was also meeting us there and then everyone was coming back to my house for a visit. So, my sister, the kids, and I piled into my car and we headed home.

On the drive home, Becca fell asleep in her carseat. Lizzy and her friend were getting tired, were both hungry, and were also doing that whole, "MOM, she said I'm not hungry, but I AM!" thing. I dug out a couple of juice boxes, hoping to tide them over until we got home.

Anyway, we got home, and I unloaded the two bigger girls first. One of them had to go potty RIGHT THEN, so I ran up to unlock the door so that they could go inside while I grabbed Becca. Only, she had an accident on our doorstep. I helped her get to the bathroom, and on to the toilet. While I was doing that, the other kiddo somehow squirted her juice box everywhere, then proceeded to slip on it, and cut herself. I got her a band aid. The kiddo in the bathroom started crying because she couldn't reach the toilet paper. I reached the toilet paper for her. My phone rang, with Justin calling about something urgent (if I remember correctly, I think he was working out of town at the time). Lizzy and her friend both started whining that they were SO HUNGRY. I grabbed them some fruit snacks. I felt like I had been putting out small fires all morning.

I did a mental check that I'd tried to start doing since Becca was born--one kid? Check. Two kids? Check. Then, I sat down on the couch and sighed.

About that time, my sister said, "So, do you want me to grab Becca out of the car, or do you want to let her sleep there?"

You guys, it still makes me want to vomit just typing this, but I had completely and totally forgotten about Becca. Had my sister not been there that day or not said anything, I have no idea how long she would have sat in the car before I remembered her.

At that point, she had probably been in the car for between five and ten minutes. We don't have air conditioning in our car, so in the spring and summer, all the windows are always down, and she was totally fine and sleeping away happily. But my mind couldn't stop going to all the "what if" scenarios that could have resulted in and ending that was not nearly so happy.

I really don't know if I can explain how I felt that afternoon. I called Justin hysterically crying. I felt like the worst mother in the history of the world. I still don't like to talk about or even think about that day.

I was one part exhausted. I was one part off-routine with three kids instead of two.

But what I was not (and it's taken me awhile to be able to say this confidently) was an idiot, a bad mother, someone who doesn't care about her kids, a horrible person, or someone who needed to re-evaluate her life.

A few years ago, Gene Weingarten wrote a piece for the Washington Post about forgetting children in cars that won a Pulitzer. If you haven't read it already, I really would suggest it. It's not an easy read, but it's an important one.

The part that sticks with me the most?

"The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world."

It happened to me, and it could happen to you too.  I don't care if you are rolling your eyes because you think there's no way. It could.

I'll also note here that there are simple things that could help. The biggest thing is to make a plan with childcare providers that if a child isn't dropped off as usual, they call, and sooner rather than later.

Some parents put their left shoe in the backseat along with their kids in car seats, I took to putting my purse back there.

Inventors have begun producing things like a smartphone car seat monitor (though at $399, it's still a bit spendy).
But really, the point of this all is that pointing fingers and saying "That would NEVER happen to me--they must be bad parents!" is not only untrue, but it's also unhelpful. It certainly hasn't decreased the number of tragedies at all. But talking about it, openly and honestly...might. Talking about practical solutions that help...might. Realizing that people who have forgotten their children are, by and large, not criminals or druggies or terrible parents, but people just like you and me...might help as well.

And in this situation, "might" is better than nothing.


  1. I always feel so bad for both parents when I hear these stories. People spend too much time harping on them vs the child abuse stories and malicious things done intentionally to children. I recently left my 3yo unbuckled in her car seat. I still feel so guilty about it. It just happened when we got ready to go in a different order than normal. Luckily we made it the 15 minutes home and nothing happened. Definitely makes me look again.

  2. So I just read the article. It made me want to super ugly cry and go pick up my kiddo from daycare to hug her tight.

  3. As I was reading this, I was thinking of the exact article you posted. I read it when Isaac was just a few weeks old and it had a profound affect on me. I actually woke Chad up in the middle of the night and made him work out a game plan with me to ensure it wouldn't happen to us. Because you are absolutely right - it can happen to ANYONE. And it has nothing to do with your mothering skills.

    I'm glad you shared your story, Mere. How can we learn from each other if we can't be honest?

    (And you are a great mama.)

  4. Honestly, stuff can happen to ANYONE. I had a scary (very brief, 5 second) near-drowning experience with Lucy last week and it absolutely scared the SHIT out of me (sorry, it's true). She didn't even cough/swallow water/NOTHING, but in 2 seconds that someone said "hey can my daughter borrow your daughters swimmies?" and I looked up? Was the exact second Lucy stepped down from the ledge SILENTLY into the pool. Seeing her little face still scars me even though I got her a within seconds. I cried to my husband. She was fine. BUT WHAT IF SHE WASN'T???? it haunts me. Honestly.

  5. This scares me so much. I can say my husband and I would NEVER do that because do I really think we would? Probably not. Could we? ABSOLUTELY! I can't really remember a time that I've been absentminded enough that I would let it happen, but I also never thought I'd forget to pay a bill. Or lock myself out of the house. And I've done those things more times than I can count since Beckett arrived in March. As scary as it is and as much as people think it's overplayed, I'm so glad it is because it puts it on my mind a lot more than it would be if it wasn't all over the media. Every little reminder helps!

  6. I fully agree that this could SO easily happen to me or anyone. I am human and I get distracted. I'm sure it'll only get worse with another baby. Thanks for being so brave and putting your story out there. It's a really great reminder that it can (and has) happened to people that really do have it together. So scary. I'm so glad your story has a happy ending.


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