As a young 20 something back in LA, there was a story on the news about a woman leaving her beloved Schnauzer in a hot car in the middle of July, only to return and find the poor creature no longer alive. I remember brainstorming with an artist pal about how we wanted to make a social statement about this kind of horrific act. So we came up with this live art installation concept. We were going to call it “Baby on Board” and we were going to glue an infant car seat on the roof of his Volkswagen Jetta, stick a life like baby doll in it, start driving, and observe the reactions from everyone on the road. We roared as we imagined panicked motorists with rolled down windows screaming and pointing at us as we sped along the PCH.
As a responsible human being and a mother of two boys who are my life, I am horrified to think that I even momentarily thought this was a clever idea. I remember back in the Arizona summers when you would hear tragic reports about busy, stressed out parents who actually left their babies in the back seat while they frantically went into an office or lunch appointment.
I lived in fear of making an unforgivable mistake like this due to sleep deprivation, “mom brain,” or just some momentary lapse of attentiveness.
I often became paralyzed with grief over stories like these. Friends of mine were concerned and would ask about my overwhelming depression at those times. I would tell them that I understood how a parent could accidentally do something like leave their beloved child trapped in a hot car and only realize it hours later. For me, I lived in deep gratitude every day that I didn’t make some kind of disastrous mistake like that. As a working, stressed out mom, it seemed all too easy to suddenly lose focus and watch as one by one each of my proverbial spinning plates crashed to the ground.
Once in a while another mom might nod in agreement and tell me that “she got it.” But for the most part, anyone I confided in about this told me that I was crazy and that they knew I would never do something unspeakable like that. But some other parent somewhere, had done just this and had to try to live with themselves for the rest of their miserable life. It was a staggering thing to ponder. (Full disclosure, I am also the woman who recognizes how thin the line is between my happy little suburban life and a few bad financial decisions that land you in Tent City. )
I learned to not share this particular insecurity with other parents. It tended to dramatically reduce the number of mom groups to which I was invited. But I realized that I was right. Tragedy can befall any of us. And yet, most people were so afraid of accepting that reality, they simply dismissed the possibility that anything as careless and shameful as forgetting to take your kid out of the car could actually happen to them.
I tell you this story because Wednesdays are early release days here in Seattle. We’ve just moved into a new house to be in the right high school district (no open enrollment out here). Unfortunately, we are no longer on a bus route for my 8th grader to get to and from his middle school. So I’m back with full time driving duties and frankly, I’m seriously out of practice.
Today over lunch with a friend,I lamented my new chauffeur duties and checked my watch repeatedly, telling her I had to have enough time to get to the bank, the dry cleaner and pick up my son at 3pm. We departed around 1:30 and I popped into the bank to make a deposit.
As I left the bank, I saw I had received several texts from my son inquiring about my whereabouts. Then a few minutes later, another text came in asking who was en route to pick him up. Then finally, a text that just read, “Um…hello???”
Suddenly the reality that it was Wednesday flooded into my consciousness. I became frantic and texted him back that I was on my way. “Are you okay?” I texted. “I’m an idiot.” “I forgot it was Wednesday.” But nothing I could say could quell my horror.
I got to school at 1:47. He was casually hanging out under a tree reading a book. He had been there for exactly 22 minutes. But to me, it felt like 22 hours. I wrapped him into my arms and apologized over and over again. He put on a brave front. “It’s okay, mom. I figured eventually someone would notice I was gone.”
I took him to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and bought him a giant Hulkbuster Funco Pop. If he had asked for the moon, I would’ve found a way to get it for him. He played it up with his big blue eyes and sad pouty face. He was having fun with me.
I told him that this was definitely the moment that would drive him into therapy someday and to please understand and explain to the therapist that this hideous event had nothing to do with my love and devotion for him. Instead it was an illustration of my inability to do anything right as a parent and that he should never think I didn’t cherish him in every imaginable way.
“You do a lot right, mom,” he said, “And I love you. But it is kind of fun to have my own chocolate muffin moment.” He was referring to a vacation where I woke up starving in the middle of the night and scarfed down his older brother’s chocolate muffin. I’ve never been able to live that down. “I guess everyone has a chocolate muffin moment,” he sighed.
I felt parental shame wash over me anew. But then I realized something huge. “Well, most people have those muffin moments when they’re too little to fully comprehend them,” I pronounced. “Luckily for you, I waited till you were 14 and had the smarts and sophistication to handle it, before I traumatized you.”
It really is all in how you look at things, isn’t it?