The Day My Kid Can’t Forget, & Neither Can I
I looked up, and in a heart-stopping instant she was gone.
There are so many moments of motherhood I’ll remember years from now, when my house is too quiet and my countertops are finally clean. Lots of them are funny, or beautiful. But I know that decades from now, when my four kids are out changing the world, I’ll still be able to vividly recall the panic I felt when I lost my 3-year-old daughter in a bustling crowd — one of the absolute scariest experiences of my entire life. And neither of us are over it.
As a mom with what is considered “a lot of kids” these days, it’s honestly a wonder I haven’t lost them more often. There have been a few tense moments where I couldn’t spot one at a crowded zoo exhibit or jam-packed pumpkin patch, but they’ve always ended up back on my radar in seconds. When my older three were all in diapers at once (a period I refer to as “my lost years”), I was strategic about containing my ducklings. We chose playgrounds with fences, museums on weekdays only, and I even dressed them all in the same color for the zoo so my eyes could find them quickly.
By the time my youngest came along, my anxiety about losing someone had waned. Sure, I had a toddler, but I had a crew of kids in elementary school who loved to carry her around, hold her hand, and even push the stroller. With a different personality than my older kids, she also tends to stick near me and be more cautious in general. I call her my Velcro child.
The night we lost her was a familiar event to us, a holiday festival to light the Christmas tree, sing carols, and decorate sugar cookies on our little main street. As we bundled up the kids and walked down to join the festivities we opted to leave the stroller behind. She was 3 years old, it was two blocks from home, and there were five of us available to keep an eye on her.
And yet I know what they say about the best laid plans. We arrived and things descended into the regular chaos. Our big kids wanted to run off with school friends. They needed a dollar. They needed gloves. They wanted a light-up necklace. Crowds swelled between us as our cold hands fumbled in pockets.
All of a sudden I realized my hand was empty. I looked back to my husband, about five feet away, helping our oldest. She was not with him. Where was our daughter?
I began rushing through the crowd shouting her name. Every single scenario flashed through my mind — including strangers randomly grabbing children off the street. The truth is, most kids are taken by someone in their close circle of family and friends. I knew she had to be nearby rather than in a fictional white van speeding away. But where was she?
Friends who knew us began looking around as well. All of a sudden, I heard my name and saw a neighbor holding her up above the throng. I didn’t know the neighbor well — though I do now — but she recognized my child from social media and went looking for me, because she knew I’d be in a panic.
In reality, my daughter was never more than a few yards from us and the entire scene lasted maybe ten minutes, tops. But it felt like hours. We managed to cobble together a decent night, but my anxiety lingered. I hid it from my children but was not surprised to find it lingered for my youngest, too. Over a year later and now preparing for kindergarten, she still becomes panicked in a crowd.
She cites that night as the reason. It feels like a knife, every time. “What if you lose me like at Light-Up Night?” Not only am I wrestling with my own guilt, I am trying to build back up her sense of security.
She asks to rehearse our street name and house number — something that all kids should learn, but her zeal belies the true reason she wants to drill these facts. We carry her or wear her in a toddler Tula, and recently got a Jeep wagon with roll-down sides both to corral our summer gear and give her a place to hide that feels more secure than her umbrella stroller. She asks how we’ll find her if we lose her again. I remind her how a mommy helped her. I tell her if she is ever lost, find a family with kids and tell them her name. Tell them where she lives. As a last-ditch effort, I explained to her how AirTags work and asked her if she wants a “tracker bracelet.” This is something I’ve rolled my eyes at for others in the past, but now see as a salve for her fear. She immediately exclaimed, “Yes! I need one!”
She’s still the bubbly, gregarious kid she’s always been, except when we are surrounded by crowds of other families.
We will slowly, slowly rebuild her trust in public, even while I’d bet money she will talk about that night in therapy some day. We remind her constantly that we’ll never leave her on purpose and review the tools she has in her own anxiety toolkit. Working on my own guilt has been harder, though. Forgiving myself is harder. It’s always harder to forgive ourselves than others, isn’t it?
On a recent errand, I stood browsing a rack of discount tank tops I did not need. All of a sudden an alarm sounded and the doors of the store whooshed shut. My brain immediately assumed a mass shooter, because we live in America. Then I saw a mother rushing around, frantically shoving clothes aside.
I knew instantly what was wrong, because I’ve had that look in my eyes. I felt her fear viscerally.
I said, “What is your kid wearing?” She told me, and we began to look. Other moms joined in. Within five minutes, someone found her toddler as she tearfully grasped them. That day had a positive outcome for them, but I often wonder if she wrestles with the same guilt and panic I still feel regularly.
I can’t go back in time and not lose my kid. I can plan, rehearse, track her, corral her. I can try to control every variable, but I cannot actually promise her we won’t ever be separated again. Instead, I try to reassure her that everything is okay — that she’s okay — while hoping my own heart absorbs some of that reassurance as well.
Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed. is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.