This week, a portion of the Internet decided that parents who lose track of their children deserve to be shamed, ridiculed, and castigated. Some even feel that they should have their kids taken away and placed into foster care.
Welp, I figure it’s time for me to come clean, since I’m clearly overdue for my Unfit Mother Internet Flogging. So here goes . . .
When my second child was a few weeks old, I forgot she was in the car on a trip to Michael’s. Her older sister was four, and it had been a long time since I’d been in a silent car unless I was by myself. Our 4-year-old wasn’t with me, and by the time I got to the store, I was in autopilot alone mode. A child in the car always meant talking, talking, and more talking, and there was no peep to remind me that a child was there. My sleep-deprived brain thought I was on a solo trip to the craft store.
I locked my car, walked into Michael’s, grabbed a cart, and started heading toward the back of the store. Eleven years later, I still remember the moment when I realized what I’d done. I set an item in the child’s seat of the cart, and that triggered it. I panicked. In one second, everything went silent. All I could hear was my heartbeat in my ears, and the world started moving in slow motion. I dropped everything and ran full-speed through the store, though it felt like running through molasses. Of course, there was my sweet baby girl, snoozing away in the backseat. It was a cool summer evening, and she’d been there alone for a minute, maybe two. She was fine, but I was totally shaken.
When that same baby was three, we went on a family trip to the zoo. While we were there, we decided to get some ice cream at the zoo’s ice cream shop. While we were all consulting about what flavors everyone wanted, I suddenly noticed our preschooler wasn’t there. She had been right next to me, at the counter, just a second before. We searched the shop, calling her name, thinking maybe she’d wandered to the bathroom or behind the counter. When it was clear she wasn’t there, I got frantic. My heart beat in my ears again. I ran outside, and there she was, hanging out with another family who had just left the shop and didn’t notice her coming out with them. It was maybe 15-20 seconds where we couldn’t find her, but it felt like an eternity.
And then there was the time we lost a kid and didn’t even know it. Six years ago, when our kids were 9, 5, and 1, we took a trip to Disneyland with my extended family. There were six adults and nine kids between us. Somehow, my 5-year-old niece got separated from us and none of us knew it until my sister-in-law got a phone call from an employee saying they had her daughter. Thankfully, my niece had been wearing her mom’s cell phone number, she immediately found an employee when she couldn’t find us, and she wasn’t too scared (she’s a very cool-headed kid). It had just been a couple of minutes, but between the crowd and our large group and trying to coordinate where to go next, none of us had even noticed that one of the kids wasn’t with us.
THE BIG QUESTION
Should my sister-in-law and I lose custody of our children? Should we be accused of child endangerment? Of course not. That’s ludicrous. We are loving, attentive, nurturing parents who are also human beings. We spend enormous amounts of time with our children and take them lots of interesting places. It is nearly impossible to do that with three kids year after year and never lose track of any of them even once.
But what if something tragic had occurred in those 15 seconds to two minutes that those kids were missing? Whose fault would it be?
WE DON’T HAVE TO FIND SOMEONE TO BLAME FOR EVERYTHING
I’d like to propose the radical idea that we don’t have to place blame every time something bad happens. Every tragedy doesn’t have to be someone’s fault. Kids bolt. Things happen. It’s so easy to judge until you look up to search for a bathroom, and just like that, your kid’s gone.
The truth is that thousands of small children get lost at zoos, amusement parks, museums, fairs, and other large, crowded places every day. Small children with good, loving, attentive parents who take a few seconds to look at a map, or tend to another child, or pull something out of a bag, or ask an employee a question. It happens SO. FAST. You wouldn’t believe it unless you’ve been in that situation.
Parents who have had children disappear in a crowd know the long terror of those seconds. And those unlucky few who experience real tragedy because of it have to live with that tragedy and all of the emotion and guilt that go with it. It is patently unfair, even downright cruel, to pile more blame and guilt onto those parents.
For some reason, our society is big on blame and short on empathy. I think it’s because we don’t want to believe that our kid could ever end up in a dangerous situation while under our care. It’s too painful to admit our vulnerability. It’s easier to think, when a tragedy occurs, that we would have been able to stop it. That if we had been in that situation, we would’ve done something differently. It was because the parent did x, y, z, or didn’t do x, y, z that that tragedy occurred. Therefore, I am safer, I am better, I am blameless because I would NEVER do or not do x, y, z in that situation.
But you can only say NEVER until it happens. I was the mom who could NEVER forget that her baby was in the car. I was the mom who NEVER let her kids out of her sight in crowds. Right up until the moment I became the mom who did. And I instantly became more understanding of how it happens. Thankfully, nothing bad happened in my personal experiences, but I can totally empathize with those moms whose normal, human moments end in tragedy.
SAVE THE OUTRAGE FOR REAL ABUSE AND NEGLECT
So please, save the righteous outrage for children whose parents really do neglect or abuse them, or for the children who are sold into slavery, or for the children in war-torn or impoverished countries who are separated from their families. Enough with the berating and shaming of loving parents who have honest slipups. We all have them.
And if you haven’t yet, never say never. It’s those of us who swear we would never let something happen who are the most blindsided when it does.