We’re all way too familiar with the recent headline: “Baby left in car, dies.” It’s a punch to the gut, in that space just below the belly button.
“What kind of parent leaves their child in a car?” we ask ourselves while our eyes glisten with outrage.
Let me tell you: Any parent can. And THIS parent almost did.
I was a new mom for the second time, with two under two: My daughter was just barely a year and a half, and my son was 10 days old.
Maybe you remember, or maybe you’re in it right now, but the first month of new babyhood is like going down the rabbit hole where midnight becomes the new morning, and all bets are off.
“Don’t try to take it day by day,” a friend told me “Take it minute by minute.”
My son refused to sleep, unless he was in my arms, and unless I was standing and bouncing him around while I sang a vaguely sanitized version of “Nothing but a G Thang.”
And my daughter who had been an only child up until ten days before had decided that now would be the most awesome time in the whole entire universe to discover the Terrible Two’s, so in between my son’s cat naps, she was up and ready to party.
And I was running on adrenaline, hormones and espresso, with a fog of fatigue settling over my mind.
So this is what happened the day I almost did what I never in a million years thought I could never do:
We were just getting home from our morning trip to Coffee Bean, I had to pee, my daughter was whining about not getting enough blueberry muffin, my cell phone was ringing, Howard Stern was bleeping his way through a monologue on the radio, and I forgot my son.
It was so easy not to remember the sleeping baby tucked in his rear-facing car seat. It was so easy not to remember that there wasn’t just a wriggling, toddler in the car crying for her muffin. If it weren’t for my breasts, heavy with milk, and prickling with the fire-ant march of the letdown reflex, I don’t know if I would have remembered the baby I had met only ten days before.
“There but for the Grace of God go I,” I said out loud when I remembered. “There but for the Grace of God go I,” I said out loud when I lifted my sleeping son in my arms. “There but for the Grace of God go I,” I said out loud when he stirred against my shoulder, his downy head nuzzled into my neck.
Look: I am not a perfect mother, but I love my kids and I do my best. And from the moment I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn, I have understood that motherhood should never be taken for granted. It’s a blessing.
And for the poor parents who forgot their babies for too long, and lost their babies, and who will never ever in a million years ever forgive themselves for what happened, they almost certainly tried their best, too.
But how easy it is to forget: All it takes is a sleepless night, or a change in the routine like Winter vacation or Summer break to throw everything off. All it takes is a ringing phone, and a family member in crisis, or a mandatory work meeting, or a last minute pick-up. All it takes is autopilot taking over, when you drive through that brain fog from point A to point B and aren’t quite sure how you got there.
How many of us have done that?
We all have.
So how do we make sure this doesn’t happen?
After almost doing the unthinkable, I came up with a list of things that would help me remember what I should never forget:
1. Put your purse or wallet and phone in the backseat: Because we always check for our phones when we finish driving. We always put our keys in our purse. We always make sure we have our wallets. And even though our children are infinitely more important than these things, when our routine is off, we are less likely to forget the items we have trained ourselves to take for work, or to the supermarket.
2. Talk to your kid: Even if he’s only 10 days old and sound asleep, when you keep up a patter with the little person in the backseat, you’ll remember he is there.
3. Check yourself: Schedule a daily email message, or set an alarm on your phone to go off every day at the same time.
4. Safety in numbers: Set up a system where you and a family member check in to confirm that all kids are present and accounted for at daycare, school, camp, wherever. Or ask that the staff at these places call you if you haven’t dropped off your child.
5. Leave a toy: Leave a stuffed animal or your diaper bag, or a bottle or something baby-related in the front seat next to you.
6. Strip: If it’s winter, leave your jacket in the back. If it’s summer, leave a shoe. You won’t get far in the middle of December without your coat, and chances are you’ll take about step and a half with one shoe missing before you realize what you’ve done.
7. Child Safety 2.0: Given the uptick in this tragic forgetfulness, companies have designed various gadgets with alarms and sensors to help parents remember.
Please. Do something to remind yourself to never forget your children. We all think we’re not “that kind of parent.” We all think that it could never happen to us. We all think we don’t need to remember not to forget our children in the back seat, because who would do that?
But I’ll bet you everything I own that the parents who did forget their children probably thought the same thing.