Two summers ago, during our annual family beach trip, I was in charge of naps. Each afternoon, my husband would take our no-longer-napping daughter for an Adventure with Daddy, and I would crash with my 3-year-old son. It was perfect for everyone, especially me, because I was so exhausted in my new job that I actually needed a two-hour nap every day.
And then one day, my son didn’t nap. And I did.
After I feel asleep, he somehow unlocked the door to the bedroom (which was locked because, well, this), went downstairs and, not finding the rest of the family, decided they must have gone to the pool, unlocked the door to the outside world, and left to search for his daddy and his sister.
I’m sure there is a way to turn this story into a charming, magical masterpiece of children’s literature. An adventurous little boy sets off, pacifier in mouth, dressed only in superhero underpants and a T-shirt, with his floppy chocolate brown bunny under his arm.
In real life, this is every parent’s worst nightmare. In my imagination, it’s even worse. The minute he leaves my sight, I assume he will be swept away in the trunk of the car of a psychotic pedophile, never to be seen again. You can say it’s not common, but you can’t tell me it doesn’t happen. We all know it does.
I woke up when he ran back into the bedroom absolutely terrified. I never actually felt him gone, but for the time it took for him to say “downstairs,” “stranger,” “couldn’t find you,” between sobbing tears, I had no idea what had happened to him. I’m sure horrible thoughts flew through my primate brain about home invasions and rape and murder, but it was almost like I couldn’t hear, holding him, trying to get dressed and flying down the stairs, piecing together what had happened.
What happened was, essentially, nothing. He wasn’t found by a psychotic pedophile.
He was discovered by a lovely mother of two little boys who also tried to venture out on their own. When we found her in the pool, she was happily splashing in the sunshine with her husband and kids, like a person who hadn’t just saved my son’s life—and mine, frankly.
I owe her in that deep kind of way, that even trying to repay would diminish.
Moments earlier, she had seen my son, alone but for his brown bunny, standing outside the gate to the pool and crying—having realized his sister and daddy weren’t swimming, and he didn’t know how to find his mommy—me, sleeping stupidly in a nearby rented condo bedroom.
So she helped him. She took his hand and walked him around the little condo community, door to door, asking him if anything looked familiar. And when he found his rain boots inside our (probably still open) door, she stood and waited until she heard him find me. Then she left.
She didn’t judge. She didn’t follow him up to my room and tell me I was a horrible parent. She didn’t worry that I was an unfit mother—she heard me comfort him and then I heard the door close gently.
She was the embodiment of grace—an easy-going, happy to help, happens-all-the-time, could-have-been-anyone kind of mom. I spent the rest of the day describing her as “the perfect person” to find my lost child. And she was. But she was more than that.
She was the safety net we don’t believe exists anymore.
By chance, the friends who were visiting us at the beach that day are among the most relaxed parents we know. (Their kids are older than ours by just enough to make them seem like infallible sages.) When I told them the story, I called the mom who fond my son “the perfect person” to have found him. The wife, while not disagreeing, said, “Ninety-nine percent of people who could have found him would be ‘the perfect person.’”
Most people—almost everyone—would help a lost child find his mother. Very few would have other ideas.
A few months after my son went missing at the beach, a friend—a teacher and a mother—told a story about driving to work and seeing a little boy walking alone on a busy street in a neighborhood that would make many mothers uneasy. He had a backpack and was clearly walking to school alone because his parents couldn’t make the walk with him, for whatever reason.
This friend happens to be someone who believes strongly that children don’t have enough opportunities these days to develop their confidence through independent adventure. That is, she is someone who believes that a child walking himself to school is a good thing. But somehow this boy was just a little too young, a little too uneasy, a little too something.
As she watched him walk along, knowing she would need to turn soon and would not be able to see him, she was torn about what to do. Just as she was about to turn, where it was the last moment to decide to intervene or not intervene, she kept driving. She watched him until she could no longer see him, and then, she decided, it would have to be someone else’s turn.
The next mom–or whoever–to see him would be responsible for keeping him safe for as long as they could see him. And then he would belong to someone else’s watchful gaze, all the way to school. Imagine a relay team of people following him by seeing him, protecting him as he walked alone that day. A whole community, each one “the perfect person” to keep him safe until he arrived.
Is this the safety net we don’t believe exists anymore?
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