Ah, summer — the season of cooking out and camping out, swimming and biking, lounging and playing…
…and sometimes, leaving your babies in hot cars.
I have four children, and I am by all accounts a responsible mother. I may make the occasional mediocre parenting choice, such as feeding my kids chicken nuggets and counting the ketchup as a veggie, or letting them play a few too many video games. But aside from minor infractions such as those, nobody — including myself, not even on my most self-doubting of days — would call me a terrible or negligent mom.
Up until a couple of summers ago, I would have scoffed (vehemently, with some serious side-eye thrown in) at the suggestion that I would ever, could ever, do something as stupid and careless as forgetting that my child was in the car. I mean, if you’re that oblivious, you shouldn’t even be allowed to have kids, amiright? Psssh.
That June was particularly sweltering, with a thick humidity that settled heavily on the Midwest like a prickly, out-of-season sweater. My mom had just moved from out of state to be closer to our family. It was so nice to have her around; she had only been in town for a few days, and it still felt like one of the wonderful, too-short visits we had always enjoyed — only this time, she was here to stay. I was stoked.
To celebrate her first weekend as a local, we had a barbecue. My husband manned the grill as all four of the kids romped through the freshly cut grass. As the first tendrils of charcoal smoke rippled through the air, I had a craving. We needed some sweet corn to go with this feast.
“Mom and I are going to run to the store,” I announced. “We’ll be quick.”
“Please, take the baby,” my husband suggested. “I’m not sure I can keep a good eye on all of them while I’m trying to cook.”
I loaded my mellow, easygoing 1-year-old into his (rear-facing, properly secured) car seat and we headed out. The grocery store wasn’t far, and Mom and I joked and laughed the whole time, our jubilant mood buoyed by the music on the radio and the prospect of the delicious meal we’d soon be enjoying. We pulled up in the parking lot, still laughing together. I checked the time on my phone. Mom rummaged through her purse for some lip balm. I pressed the “lock” button on the key fob.
We headed straight for the produce section right at the front entrance to grab some corn, but apparently everyone else in town had shared the same idea, because the selection was disappointingly picked-over; only a few scraggly looking ears remained.
“This is Iowa,” I griped to my mom. “We’re known for our sweet corn. How can they not have it in stock? Let’s go to another store.”
So we walked out. I unlocked the car. We got in. I started driving. Radio on, air conditioner blasting, next destination firmly in mind.
Then, even over the music, I heard my mother gasp. Hearing that sharp intake of air was like a lightning bolt, jolting me into the same horrifying realization that she’d clearly just had: We had forgotten the baby in the car. Both of us.
It took me a long time to drum up the courage to write those horrible words down. Even now, years later, my chest tightens with panic when I relive the scenario in my head. It’s hard to admit to anyone that I made such a potentially devastating parenting mistake, especially when it comes to the safety of my children — but I did. And so did my mom. And it was frighteningly easy.
We were preoccupied with our conversation, in a situation we weren’t normally in. I wasn’t accustomed to having only one of the kids with me. Typically, it was either all or none. My baby was quiet as a mouse the entire time, not a babble or a coo from the back seat to remind us he was there. And so we left him in the car, in the summertime heat, with the windows up. It was at least 90 degrees outside.
Miracles do happen, and on that day, the miracle was that there was no good corn at the supermarket. We were literally there for two minutes or less, just enough time to spend a few seconds checking out the nearly empty bin of corn and leave. But what if we had decided to get some ice cream? Or watermelon, or napkins, or barbecue sauce, or chips? What if we had waited in an especially long checkout line, stuck behind some extreme penny-saver with a binder full of coupons? What if, what if, what if?
A car can reach a staggering 125 degrees within minutes, even with a cracked window, and a child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s. There are nearly 40 child deaths per year in the United States from being trapped in hot cars, and my baby would have been a part of that heartbreaking statistic. It makes me sick to think that he easily could have died — and that I would have been responsible. Me. His mother. The person who loves him more than anyone else.
I am sharing this with the world, not as a confession that I’m a horrible parent, but as a statement that I’m actually a good mom (you know, besides the ketchup-as-veggie thing) and this still happened. It’s a warning that it can happen to anyone, believe me.
Anyone. Even me. Even you. Even if you feel that it’s absolutely impossible, that you wouldn’t in a million years do such a thing — because trust me, I felt the same way…before I actually did it. If the whole potentially tragic scenario taught me one valuable lesson, it was this: Never, ever say “I would never.” Because you don’t have to be negligent, or incompetent, or drunk, or stoned, or stupid.
Just being human is enough.