It was a beautiful, bright fall afternoon, and my kids were hanging out in the playground of my older son’s school, as they’d had dozens of times before. School had just let out and there were kids everywhere, playing tag, hanging from money bars, zapping around this way and that.
My third grader was playing soccer with his friends and my three-year-old son, Peter, was playing with the other young siblings who were milling about. He seemed a little extra temperamental this afternoon, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for a passionate, active little kid like him. He’d whined to me that he was ready to leave, but I told him to wait a few more minutes for his brother to be done.
I remember looking down at my phone because a text was coming in from my husband about what time he was coming home. I still kept an eye on Peter like a hawk, because I knew he had a propensity to wander off, but I calculated that I had enough time to attend to a quick text.
I was wrong. When I looked back up, Peter was gone. I thought at first that he had just gone off to play in a different area of the playground, but when I scanned the playground for his turquoise hoodie, there was nothing. I called out his name in a panic: “Peeeeeettteerrr!!!! Where are you?”
My friend saw that I was in a panic, asked what was wrong, and quickly amassed a team to go hunting for Peter. At that point, my heart was racing in my chest, and I wasn’t thinking rationally, but I remember deciding to take the stairs up out of the playground to the sidewalk, having a vague recollection that that’s where Peter had been hanging out when he was begging me to leave, right before I’d received the text.
I bolted up the stairs. Time does funny things when you are in a total panic, looking for a lost child. It was like time was moving at the slowest possible pace in the world, and also at rapid fire speed.
I remember feeling certain that he was going to be found and be okay, and also absolutely sure that I’d never find him or that he’d be harmed in some way. It was strangely possible to feel both things at once.
I made it to the top of the stairs and had to decide which way to go next. Again, I followed my instincts, and hung a left. I couldn’t really tell you why, but it felt right. I saw a woman who looked like she’d just came off the train, her briefcase idling coolly by her side, like today was a normal day and not the day I might have possibly lost my beloved son.
I crossed the driveway of the school (Cars!!! He could have gotten hit by a car!!!) and went another half block to the church lawn where we sometimes also play after school.
And there he was – Oh my God, there he was – lying on the grass, sobbing.
I don’t remember much of what happened next. I tried to get a story out of him about why he’d wandered off. He thought it was time to go, he said, and he thought I was coming. He told me he was scared. I told him I was scared. He told me not to be scared. I told him I couldn’t help it.
Then I told him in no uncertain terms that he was never, ever, to go anywhere without telling me. As I scooped his little body up in my arms and sobbed all over his turquoise hoodie, I remember having every possible scenario speed though my head.
What if he’d wandered off into the street? What if a car was coming when he walked past the school parking lot driveway? What if someone had kidnapped him?
I tried not to think of those things, but I obviously did. How could I not? The worst part was how deeply I blamed myself. I consider myself to be one the most safety-conscious, careful mothers out there. And I knew he wandered sometimes. Why did I think I had even 30 seconds to look down at my phone?
Blame, blame, blame. I could rationalize it by saying that even the best mothers make mistakes. I could talk about how you sometimes don’t know what your kids are capable of doing until they do it. I could congratulate myself for finding him so quickly, for having the mama-instincts to know which way to go to find him.
And I did those things. I still do them to this day.
But I will tell you this. Nothing I can do will ever take the guilt and worry I feel about that event away. My son is fine. He’s healthy. I was lucky. He never wandered off again, and I didn’t take my eyes off of him for many years, probably much longer than I needed to.
The wandering off event happened over three years ago, and I don’t really like talking about it. I don’t like thinking about it. And if it ever gets mentioned by my husband or one of my kids, I begin to have those panicky feelings again. I remember so vividly what it felt like to not know where my son was, to not know if he was okay.
I’m sharing the story both as a sort of cautionary tale (yes, your kid can wander off in as little as 30 seconds), but also to say remind myself and every mother out there that we all make mistakes. Things happen that are of our control. But that doesn’t mean we are bad moms. That doesn’t mean we need to be steeped in guilt for all eternity.
And yes, when I say “moms,” I means “moms” specifically, because I think this sort of self-blame is most commonly an experience of being a mom as opposed to being a dad. I’m not saying at all that dads don’t love their kids to the moon and back and don’t feel incredibly bad when anything goes wrong.
But I think it’s less likely that dads blame themselves so squarely, and that the guilt and self-doubt linger with them for years … for a damn eternity.
I am so, so grateful that nothing worse happened to my son that day. I do believe that my quick instincts and whatever ways I’d prepared my son to make smart choices (like not walking into a street) did protect him, or at least not make the situation worse.
Still, I’m pretty sure the experience will always live in my bones as one of my biggest failures as a mom – one I will continue to re-live over and over, wondering how I could have done better. But I guess that’s just what it means to be a mom, to have a piece of your heart walking outside your body, and never feeling like you could possibly do enough to love and protect it.