When I first had my son, a friend of mine told me about an article she'd read about babies dying when their parents had accidentally left them in their carseats for extended periods of time. This friend went on to inform me of the recommendation that parents leave their purses, laptops or briefcases in the backseat with the child, so as not to head in to work for the day without peeking in the back and making sure it's empty. Apparently, I thought at the time, we are conditioned to remember our cell phones more than our children.
I recall scoffing at my friend. If not to her face, then certainly when I recounted the conversation to my husband. I brought the conversation up with friends of mine - some who were parents, some who were not - and each time I adamantly expressed that I could not fathom leaving a child in a car or needing some kind of back-up plan to ensure I didn't make that error. I had the same thought that many people have upon hearing a horror story like this - what kind of a parent forgets about a baby?
But, part of what makes being human so special is the ability to recognize when we've made a mistake. Our ignorance is dangerous to our well-being and sometimes we don't even realize the ways in which we are just plain wrong. For me, this is one of those cases. I reread a 2009 article from the Washington Post yesterday dealing with this epidemic. It is called hyperthermia - when babies literally overheat from being in the car too long. It is an incredibly traumatic piece of writing, filled with images and scenarios that could give a person nightmares for years.
I realized after I read it that I was having a really hard time thinking about anything else. Initially, I thought this was because, as I said, the article was very descriptive and disturbing. But upon further reflection, I came to the conclusion that the reason this article was haunting me so much was the understanding I have after two years of motherhood that this could potentially happen to me. Not because I am a bad mother or because I don't love my son enough. On the contrary, I like to think I'm a pretty decent mother and it would be impossible for me to love my son more than I already do. But I now understand that bad things can happen when the right set of circumstances come together.
Consider these two facts:
1. My son is in daycare three days a week. On the days he is not in daycare, we often make plans to go to friends houses or museums. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten in the car on a non-daycare day and instinctively driven in the direction of daycare. Sometimes I get all the way there before realizing that's not where I meant to go.
2. A few weeks ago, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up one or two things before getting my son from daycare. Then, I picked him up, drove home and brought him inside, leaving the groceries in the trunk. I had to throw away milk, eggs, and produce after it sat in the heat of my trunk for hours before I remembered it.
I understand that it seems like a baby is different. I understand that to the typical, functioning, non-stressed out brain, it seems impossible to forget about another human being. But what's important - imperative - to understand is that our brains go into autopilot. The reason I've driven to daycare so many times on days I don't need to go there is that I'm not actively thinking about what I need to do. I have a routine and my brain automatically follows it. If that routine gets changed for some reason - and in the large majority of these tragic cases, that is exactly what has happened - the brain often doesn't remember to make the adjustment.
The complexity, however, is that it thinks it has. Many of these parents report that when the sitter called to find out where the baby was, the response was 'What do you mean? Isn't he with you?' Their brains have checked off the box that says they've taken care of everything that needs taking care of. It's exactly what my brain did with the groceries. I didn't remember leaving them in the car until I went into the fridge for the milk and it wasn't there. I thought I had done it. It's not that I was careless because the items in my car didn't hold a lot of value to me. In fact, I was really pissed at myself for wasting all that food. It happened because I was doing many things at once and I got distracted and I thought I'd done what I intended to do. I am not so sure I couldn't have done the same thing on a much more horrific scale given the contributing circumstances that are present in most of the reported cases of hyperthermia.
I bring this up for a couple of reasons. One, I am always saying that, as parents, we need to judge each other less, and that is never more true than in these situations. I was right there two years ago, thinking that these parents must be morons or at least extremely neglectful people. But, really, these parents are just human beings who are juggling jobs and responsibilities like all of us are and whose momentary brain dysfunction led to the ultimate loss. There is no experience worse than losing a child, except perhaps losing a child due to something you did. These people are suffering enough without our judgment.
And two, because I shouldn't have scoffed at the notion of putting my purse in the backseat. There are all kinds of bills being proposed to enhance car safety standards and lower the instances of hyperthermia. Hopefully, in time, changes will be made. But, in the meantime, there is something we can do as parents. We can take the extra precautions to make sure we protect ourselves against our own hard drive malfunctions. We can stop being ignorant to the point of thinking it can't happen to us. Brains are funny things. Sometimes they really trip us up. Most of the time the consequences are minor. A wasted half-gallon of milk. A 10-minute detour in the wrong direction. Sometimes, they are much more severe. Why chance it?