I’ll preface this by saying that I found my son safe and physically unscathed. Or rather he was returned to me. While we were extremely fortunate, our family was left very much shaken by the experience and the endless what ifs.
I had set up a play date at an indoor bounce house facility. I usually didn’t handle excursions out of our area and comfort zone without my husband. My boys are 13 months apart, which made the logistics complicated and exhausting when they were little. But I was a stay-at-home mom in the middle of a harsh Midwest winter, eager to get out of the house and enjoy some adult company. I loaded up my almost 2- and 1-year-old sons and set out for some much needed fun.
The building was in a large business complex with busy roads through the lots. I found a parking spot right up front and carried my younger son inside while encouraging my oldest to follow. I reiterated for the thousandth time that morning that we were going to listen or we were going to leave.
It was a few minutes before an employee greeted us, apologizing for the wait and explaining that she was the only one there. With the kids excitedly running around like animals, we quickly paid and herded the kids through the doors and into a big warehouse. With no mention of waivers, rules or policies, the employee disappeared.
The area was split into two sections, divided by a wall with doors and packed with enormous two-story inflatables. The kids were having a blast and the moms were enjoying light conversation when the lone employee announced it was time to switch rooms. My transition-hating toddler was characteristically defiant and I was mildly annoyed to be on an unexpected itinerary. I lugged the baby around trying to catch my oldest so we could join the group, but my son just would not cooperate. I ran through the doors to hand the baby to my friend and when I turned back around, my oldest was gone. He had been no more than 15 feet behind me.
I hurriedly walked from bounce house to bounce house calling his name. It was so loud from the blowers I thought maybe he couldn’t hear me. But as time went on with no sign of him, I began to panic. I pictured him trapped and suffocating somewhere and the longer it took to find him, the more danger he was in and I was completely alone in this enormous room starting to feel really anxious.
I was eventually aware there were others rushing around with me, so I ran back out to the front office. Not there. Back to the warehouse, still missing. With my head now spinning and my feet still running and my mouth now screaming his name, every horrifying thought crashing through my mind like waves, I fought to keep my head from exploding.
Resisting the urge to let hysteria completely overtake me, I took a deep breath and turned just as a woman guided my son through the front door. As I dropped to my knees to hold him, the woman shittily proclaimed that I really ought to watch my kid. I honestly couldn’t blame her.
She had found him several buildings away, across a busy street and two parking lots. He must not have seen me take the baby to my friend and assumed that since “he wasn’t listening, we were leaving.” He thought I left. He went outside searching for me while I was inside searching for him.
I’ll never forget how stricken with fear I was for that brief period of time and how relieved I felt to see him in one piece. That vividly intense feeling stuck with me for weeks. I avoided taking both kids in large, crowded, or unfamiliar places by myself for years because I wasn’t confident I could keep track of both, especially once they were both walking. It stuck with my son as well, thankfully. To this day, he doesn’t wander far in public.
When I did take both kids, I researched the venues. I read the reviews. I made sure they had strict policies and more than one employee, especially one staked out by the exit. Bonus points for businesses that put wrist bands on the kids with our names.
I always had a healthy fear of water, but losing a kid on dry land put things into a whole new perspective. I couldn’t take them to beaches, pools or parks with water without my husband. There was just no way I could safely manage two toddlers. I was afraid if I went with friends, I’d either be distracted by conversation or completely ignoring everyone as I chased my runner or hovered around my daredevil. My kids required one parent per child. So we declined a lot of invitations over the next few years.
I also became careful about who we ventured out with. Parents with similar expectations and parenting styles make me feel like I’m minimizing the risk of losing one of my kids in a crowded place. If all the adults are on the same page, it’s easier to maintain a group of very excited kids in big unfamiliar surroundings.
I don’t believe what happened to us was anyone’s fault, not even my own, really. Anyone with little kids knows how quickly bad things can happen. All the preparation in the world can’t keep our kids 100% safe. So I learned to never completely let my guard down.
This is especially important for my family because while my older son learned a valuable lesson, my younger son doesn’t remember the experience at all. And he, like many second born children, fears nothing. We’re the parents who have considered a leash.
Both my oldest son and I learned a valuable lesson that morning. I’ve not taken for granted what could have happened. The fear of not knowing where my son was almost paled in comparison to what I felt when I realized where he’d been. When I walked out of that building and watched cars race through the parking lots my 2-year-old had just been wandering through alone, time stood still. I was overcome not only by the reality of the potential outcomes, but also by the miracle that he was safe in my car instead.