It happened again this February. For the second time, after leaving my oldest son sleeping in the car while I ran a quick errand, I came back to my car to find someone waiting to shame me for being a terrible mother.
The first time it happened was nearly four years ago, when my son was nine months old. I was visiting my parents in Maryland and I volunteered to pick up dinner at a local restaurant. My son, who had not napped all day long and had slept fitfully the night before, fell asleep on the ride to the restaurant. His car seat was strapped directly into the back seat of my mother’s car, without the base I used at home, so carrying him in without waking him was not an option.
It was a lovely and mild June day. My mother had already called ahead and paid for the meals, which were waiting for me behind the counter. My son badly needed to sleep, far more than I needed the unnecessary reassurance of having him by my side. I made the decision to lock the doors, roll down the windows, and leave my baby sleeping.
Despite the fact that I knew that it was insanely unlikely that anything could or would happen to him, I was a nervous wreck for the entire ten minutes I waited in line in the restaurant.
I came back to the car to find a very angry man with a cell phone standing at the driver’s side door, threatening to call the police on me. I mumbled something about only being gone for a few minutes and high-tailed it out of there. My son slept through the whole thing.
I have left both this child and his younger brother alone in the car several times since that first incident. Every time I have left one of my kids unattended in the car, there is a reason why I decide to do so—a reason that I believe is both compelling and sufficient, and I feel perfectly confident making these decisions as my children’s mother.
But if you listen to the 24-news cycle, you will learn that many people believe that I am in the wrong by making this judgment call. I was confronted with that lesson again this winter, when my older son, who is now four years old, fell asleep in the car on the way to pick up his one-year-old brother from the YMCA daycare.
The parking lot for our Y is large and busy, and even under ideal conditions, I feel nervous about ferrying both of my boys across it by myself. Add in my cranky and sleepy 35-pound preschooler who would demand to be carried (or otherwise lie down on the ground and wail), my 20-pound one-year-old who must be carried, the baby’s lunch box and other accouterments, and the fact that I could get in and out of the Y much faster by myself, I decided to leave my son sleeping peacefully for the ten minutes it would take me to run in and run out.
Apparently, a Samaritan saw me and complained to the front desk, because on my way back out to the car, baby in tow, I was stopped by two staff members. They informed me that it was the YMCA’s policy that children cannot be left unattended in cars.
I realized after the fact that I overheard the Samaritan point me out to the staff. I must have been followed into the building.
Despite the recent attention that the Free Range parenting philosophy has gotten in the news because of cases like the Meitiv family in Montgomery County, Maryland who were found responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect and then had their children picked up and detained again for walking home alone, and Debra Harrell who was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised at a park, many people think that what I am doing amounts to child abuse.
Don’t you know there are predators out there? is how the thinking goes. Won’t somebody think of the CHILDREN!?
As a matter of fact, there really aren’t predators out there. Our children are enjoying the safest possible time to be alive. Crime rates are down. Mass shootings are down. Sexual abuse of children is down. You only need to look at the statistics to understand that leaving a child alone in a car while running a short errand is much safer than driving the child to the errand in the first place.
But irrational fear for our children is prevalent, and it seeps into every interaction a modern parent has.
And the thing is, fear for our children is really beside the point. Because the motivation that led to two different unpleasant altercations with strangers is not fear, but shame.
The Samaritan who was so very concerned about my son’s safety that he or she followed me into the building in order to point me out to the closest authority…left my child unattended. If a belief that my child was in actual danger had prompted the busybody’s actions, then I would have come back to the car to find him or her keeping a watchful eye for the evil man lurking in the bushes.
What both of these Samaritans have really felt was not fear for my precious boy, but righteous indignation at the evidence of my terrible motherhood.
Instead of simply watching over my sleeping 9-month-old and assuming that I must have my hands full to leave him there while I run an errand, the angry man who accosted me in Maryland wanted to make sure I knew he was watching and judging me.
And at least he stayed by my child. At the YMCA, my anonymous Samaritan made sure to tell others what I had done, rather than actually be charitable and talk to me. His or her actions were all about making sure I fall into line. The Samaritan and the staff members wanted me to feel ashamed of myself for choosing my convenience over the presumed safety of my children.
Never mind the fact that as their mother, I knew that my boys would both be much safer if I did not have to juggle two tired kids across a busy parking lot by myself.
The cliché is that it takes a village to raise a child, but I’m certainly not feeling like the member of any village. No one seems willing to lend a helping hand. They would rather call the police.
I have decided that it’s time to compel the village to step up. If my son falls asleep on the way to the YMCA again, I’m going to call the front desk and request that a staff member come out to watch my child so I do not violate their policy. If I find myself staring down an impossible parenting Catch-22, I’ll ask a bystander to be my eyes for a few minutes.
And I will also do my part. If I see a parent struggling because all her available choices are wrong, I’ll offer to watch her sleeping child or accompany her daughter to the restroom or hold her groceries or entertain her toddler. Because that’s what a village does.
My hope is that sometime in my lifetime, Americans will remember that all of society is responsible for our children, not just parents and the authorities.