Yesterday afternoon I had the rare opportunity to run errands with just one child in tow. My older son, Chase, was still down for his nap so I took my younger son, Sam, with me to grocery shop and pick up our weekly Walmart haul while my husband did some work around the house. Normally my car is bursting with noise—I almost always have the radio on and the sunroof open; Chase is usually chattering away in the backseat from the moment we pull out of the driveway until the moment we reach our destination. With just my 11 month old in the back, the radio off and the sunroof closed in favor of the air conditioning, the interior of the car was eerily quiet.
My normal Sunday routine is to run these particular errands when both boys are down for their afternoon nap. It’s quicker and easier without them in tow and Adam is home if they wake up before I’m back. Already fighting through a fog of exhaustion from being up the previous night with my older son, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about Sam’s missed afternoon nap—I knew shopping would take twice as long, thereby lessening my chances of getting in a nap myself before both kids were awake. As I navigated my car to the grocery store across town, I found my mind drifting between the strawberry shortcake I planned to make later that evening, the half-finished blog post I should really complete this week and several other idle thoughts marinating in my sluggish, swampy brain. I was anesthetized to the world around me, pleasantly zoned out.
Just as I pulled up to the stoplight before turning into the grocery store plaza, Sam made a tiny, almost imperceptible noise; if I’d had the radio on or the windows down like I usually do, I would’ve surely missed it. In that moment, a sudden realization grabbed me by the shoulders and forced me to look it full in the face: I had forgotten that Sam was with me. After just a few minutes in the car, I’d somehow managed to forget all about my sweet, loveable baby boy who is one third of the most important people in my world. All it took was a change in my normal routine, a few minutes of zoning out in an exhausted haze and a quiet baby for me to forget that I was still on mom duty. The thought was horrifying. It was also uncomfortably eye-opening.
Almost two years ago when I first started my blog, I wrote a scathing post (that I have since deleted) about the reason children die in hot cars, forgotten by their overly-distracted parents. I was prompted by an article I’d recently read about putting one’s shoe or purse or cell phone in the backseat with the child in order to prevent a situation in which they could be forgotten. I was instantly enraged. How the hell could someone remember their fucking iPhone but not their life’s most precious asset? It was incomprehensible to me and I was ruthless in my assessment of these parents with their horribly skewed priorities.
Then I had a second child and it suddenly became very apparent to me how these accidents happen. A change in routine, a quiet car, an overfilled, exhausted mind: all the things I experienced yesterday. For the better part of a year, I took both kids to the grocery store with me on Monday mornings. I only recently started this Sunday afternoon solo shopping routine and yet, it is already burned into my brain, a fully-formed habit after just a couple months. Though I don’t drive to an office everyday, I can imagine how easily one could find herself operating on autopilot, driving the exact same route Monday through Friday every week for years on end. And then, when suddenly the child that she never drops off at daycare is her responsibility because of a spouse’s dentist appointment or early morning meeting, she forgets entirely that he is there in the car with her. Nine times out of ten, something will jog her memory: a noise from the backseat or a glance in the rearview mirror that reveals a soundly-sleeping child. But what if she were that one in ten? What if she got out of her car, entered her office building and didn’t remember that she never brought her child to daycare until it was already too late? What if she jumped out of her SUV, grabbed a shopping cart and began filling it with bagels and hummus and cans of tuna and didn’t realize until she reached the fruit snacks and applesauce that her toddler wasn’t with her in the store?
Now, what if instead of some faceless suburban mom halfway across the country, that woman was you?
We, as humans, are not infallible—we are capable of making terrible, fatal mistakes. Looking away for three seconds at a crowded zoo. Letting a toddler dip his toes in a pond with a “No swimming” sign. Leaving a child in the backseat on a swelteringly hot day. No matter how horrifying or tragic, they are still mistakes. It all qualifies as human error.
I am not a monster. I think of these children who lost their lives because of their parents’ mistakes and it feels like I’ve swallowed a cannonball. Now that I am a mother, the loss of a child—even a virtual stranger to me— is a weight that can so easily sink me. I picture one of my own precious children being killed in front of my eyes or breathing his last breath in the backseat of our overheated car and it’s all I can to keep my lunch from making a reappearance.
But then I think about the parents. I think about the mother who is forced to live with her mistake—a mistake that rests squarely on her shoulders alone but has repercussions that span families and generations—the mother who knows that if she’d done one thing differently, her child would still be alive. I think about the father who took his eyes off his daughter for a fraction of a second, never realizing that one second would alter the entire course of his life. I could be that mother. My husband could be that father. I have made so many mistakes in the short time that I’ve been a mother and these recent news stories have forced me to put those slip-ups under a magnifying glass. I see my transgressions play out in my head with very different outcomes; I picture my son’s face on the news or my name on the lips of parents at the playground as they shake their heads sadly and say I’m an unfit mother who didn’t deserve to have a child in the first place.
If we’re deeply, unflinchingly honest with ourselves, we have all made mistakes that have had the potential for lasting, irreversible effects. So many of us are fortunate enough that those mistakes are nothing but a slightly uncomfortable memory—the time our child ran out into the thankfully empty street, the thud from across the room when our infant rolled off the bed and onto the forgiving carpet below.
What if those mistakes were so much more than a memory? What if they played out on the evening news and within the walls of our tragically emptier homes and in our minds every single day for the rest of our lives? What if that mom in the Facebook post that everyone so flippantly dismisses as a terrible parent was me?
Yesterday I realized something that will haunt me all of the days I am a mother: no matter how vigilant I am or how much I love my children, that mom could always be me.
And if it could be me, it could so easily be you, too.