I still vividly remember that sizzling hot July day, even though it happened more than a decade ago. I had taken my stepdaughters and daughter to see a movie, leaving my 4-month-old son at home with my husband. The theater was in an urban neighborhood, so we parked in a nearby lot and walked a block to the theater. We bought our tickets and snacks and found our seats, and as the movie began, a nagging fear in the back of my mind blossomed into panic. I excused myself to go to the restroom and instead pulled out my phone and dialed my husband as soon as I reached the lobby.
“You have the baby, right?” I asked breathlessly as soon as my husband picked up the phone.
“Yes,” he said. “Why? Is everything okay?”
“I know this sounds crazy,” I said, “but I am so sleep deprived that I started convincing myself I had actually brought him with us and left him in the backseat outside. I mean, I knew that I hadn’t, but I started panicking and I just needed to call and… I’m sorry,” I finished lamely.
“Don’t be,” my husband said. “I totally understand. The baby is with me and he’s absolutely fine. Enjoy your movie.” I said goodbye and ended the call, grateful to have a husband who wouldn’t start looking up postnatal psychiatrists the moment he got off the phone with me. He knew as well as I did that the combination of sleep deprivation and stress that came with a caring for a new baby, particularly in combination with two teenagers and a three-year-old, could make even the sanest person feel completely nuts.
I remember that day every time I read about a mom or dad whose baby has died after accidentally being left in the backseat. It happened here in Nashville recently, and I was horrified to see my own Facebook feed fill with posts much like these:
Would I forget a baby in my backseat today? I don’t think so. I really don’t. I get plenty of sleep these days and my life has calmed down considerably from the maelstrom it was ten years ago.
Would I forget a baby in my backseat back when my infant son cried much of each day from acid reflux and woke several times every night? When I was also caring for an active three-year-old and chauffering my two teen stepdaughters to and from school and sports practices and games and play rehearsals? When breastfeeding had my hormones in an uproar and sleep deprivation made me question reality on a daily basis?
It’s horrifying to even consider, but looking back… Maybe. I mean, if I could feel so certain my baby was in the backseat of my car when he actually wasn’t, who’s to say I couldn’t be equally convinced he wasn’t in my backseat when he actually was?
As a mom, I can say I’ve done the very best I could, but I’ve definitely made some mistakes along the way. We parents don’t like to talk about it, but I’m guessing nearly all of us have had a couple of near misses — times when things could have gone very, very wrong because of our poor decision-making or momentary inattention, but mercifully didn’t.
Today, when I read about otherwise devoted parents who somehow forgot their baby was in the backseat, I don’t feel anger. I feel empathy and deep, deep sorrow. They will have to live with their actions for the rest of their lives and endure unimaginable judgment from friends, family members, and total strangers. I believe the suffering and guilt they will experience makes a jail sentence completely unnecessary — They will be in their own mental prison for many years to come. Check out this excellent story from the Washington Post on the subject if you don’t believe me.
I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion — I just want to add a little perspective for those who wonder how this kind of thing continues to happen year after year. Please share your thoughts if you’d like. No matter what you think, it’s a worthy topic of conversation. The more we talk about this issue, the more it’s going to be on other parents’ minds — And it might even end up saving a child’s life.