I Was Sure That Parents Who Forgot Their Kids In The Car Were Neglectful — Until It Happened To Me

by Annie Reneau

I had heard the horrible stories. A parent, in a moment of forgetfulness or distraction, accidentally leaves their child in a car on a hot day, resulting in the unthinkable. And I had the same reaction as many people. How could that possibly happen?

When I had my first baby, I immediately understood the intensity of parental love, as well as the immense responsibility that goes along with it. Parenting is a full-time job, and the No. 1 priority of that job is to keep our kids alive and safe. If a parent is paying attention, if they are fully engaged, if they truly care about their kids, how could they possibly “forget” them? How could they allow such a senseless tragedy to occur under their watch?

I always knew where my daughter was when she was in my care. I was sure that there was no way I’d ever forget that any child of mine was with me, much less leave them alone in a car.

I was thoroughly convinced of this. Right up until it happened to me.

My second daughter was a newborn, maybe 5 or 6 weeks old. My oldest was 4. Anyone who’s had toddlers and preschoolers know how much talking and noise-making that stage entails. And past the baby stage, my daughter didn’t sleep in the car, ever. For a good three years, any time I had a kid in the car, there was sound — and lots of it.

So one day, our family was out running errands, and it was getting past dinnertime. I had one more store to hit and our house was along the way, so I dropped off my husband and our 4-year-old to get some food ready. I decided to take the baby with me in case she woke up and needed to nurse.

The 15-minute drive to the store was silent. I hadn’t been in a silent car with a child for years. I was conditioned to the fact that a silent trip to the store meant a solo trip to the store, and by the time I arrived, that’s the habit mode my brain was in.

I got out, locked the door, and walked across the parking lot. I grabbed a cart and headed toward the back of the store where the item I needed was located. I took the item off the shelf and pushed opened the child seat in the cart to set it down.

That was the moment I realized what I’d done.

Time came screeching to a halt for a split second. I abandoned the cart and ran, but I felt like I was running through molasses. The sounds of the store were drowned out by the deafening heartbeat in my ears.

I got to the car, fumbled with my keys, and opened the car door. And there was my angelic newborn babe, sleeping peacefully in her car seat. The sun was setting and it was a mild summer evening, so it wasn’t hot at all in the car. And she’d been in there a total of maybe five minutes, tops.

But I learned a valuable lesson that day.

I am not invincible. I was and am an engaged, attentive, involved parent. My kids are my world. But a perfect storm of circumstances and sleep deprivation (that six-week mark is brutal) can result in a moment of habitual action that you don’t see coming.

I’ve read enough comments on these kinds of stories to anticipate what some people will say to this: “Nope. Sorry. There’s NO WAY that I would ever allow something like that to happen.” “I don’t buy it. If your children are the priority that they should be, you are ALWAYS aware of where they are at all times.” Or my personal favorite, “If you’re so absentminded that you forget your own baby, maybe you shouldn’t be having children!”

Honestly, the people who are 100% sure that it could never happen to them scare me more than anyone else because those are the people most likely to be blindsided by circumstances they can’t foresee. Those who think it’s “ridiculous” that a parent would need a physical reminder to check the backseat. Those who scorn parents who have endured one of the most tragic and horrifying accidents imaginable, who beat down those who already have to live with that tragedy. Those who keep on insisting no matter how many stories like this they read and no matter how many studies are done showing how and why it happens to normal, loving parents that it would never happen on their watch.

There’s a reason “never say never” is a popular saying. My incident happened 13 years ago, and let me tell you, it’s not the only time in my 17 years of parenting that I’ve had to swallow a “never.” This is something that can happen even when you are an attentive, engaged parent. It’s actually much more common than you’d think, but we don’t hear every story because parents are too afraid of the judgment that comes along with sharing them.

I’m not afraid of judgment. I know my mothering heart. And I know the terrifying truth that under different circumstances, we could have had a tragic outcome. I can’t imagine the lifelong pain and suffering of a parent who’s lost a child in that way.

But I know firsthand that the potential for leaving a child in a car is there for all of us, whether we admit it or not. After having had the experience myself, I will never pass judgment on a parent who finds themselves on that side of the car door.