Several years ago, right after my second child was born, I sat in a doctor's office waiting for a brief well-child-checkup. As I sat there with my tiny infant in my arms and the doctor taking longer than expected, I started reading the posters on the walls. You know, those educational posters about hygiene and child development and vaccinations that doctor's hang over bland, white walls. I normally don't read them, but I was starting to get antsy and bored when one poster in particular caught my attention. It was about how to not forget your baby in the car, including ideas on how to trigger your memory so he doesn't get left behind.
"Leave a stuffed animal on the dashboard," it said, "Do this every time your baby is in the car with you to remind you to not leave him." Or, "Play a special song on the CD player that you only play when your baby is with you." Another idea,"Talk to your baby the entire time you're driving to remind you that he is there."
I literally laughed out loud as I was reading this poster. My first thought was that the doctor must have a terrible sense of humor to hang this poster! I mean, what sort of joke is this? Nobody actually leaves their baby in a car!
My second thought, however, was more humble in that maybe this poster was meant for people that were differently-abled in some way, needing extra special help in child care. That made sense to me. Some people need help eating, walking, using the bathroom, or caring for their children. Perhaps these ideas were for those folks who were given the wonderful gift of parenthood, but still needed reminders in caring for themselves and their offspring in many ways. I settled on this thought, feeling sorry for those moms.
When the doctor finally came in, I immediately asked him what was up with the poster. He smiled and explained to me that normal people, just like me, forget their babies are in the car all the time. "This is a reminder for everyone," he explained. "Every year babies get left behind in cars, by well meaning, albeit busy and distracted parents, who forget they are there. Many babies get sick and dehydrated before they are found, but some babies even die as they are left there defenseless, waiting for someone to remember them."
Shock and confusion filled my mind. I squeezed my baby a little tighter as my heart felt the horror of this news. How come I'd never heard of this before? People leave their babies in cars!!? Turns out this was not a weird joke or PSA for "other folks", this message was for ME and all the moms and dads out there.
After I left the doctor's office, and buckled my baby in his car seat, I checked again that he was still there. Then after I started the car I checked again that he was there. And just to solidify my paranoia, I checked 50 more times on the 20 minute drive home, to make sure he was still there.
I went home that day feeling a bit traumatized, but also determined that I would never, ever, a million times never absentmindedly leave my baby in his car seat in the car, ever.
In fact, the news of this possibility shook me so profoundly that I became the world's most paranoid mother whenever I drove the car anywhere for the next several months. I always made sure to "wear" my baby, instead of carry him around in a car seat. I talked and sang to my baby, and did a head count before I started the ignition. I also made sure I could reach back and touch my baby's face in the rear-facing car seat, just to physically reassure myself that he was still there, even after I buckled him in, said his name, did the head count, and sang him a song. Check, check, check, AND check!
Sometimes I wonder if I was supposed to see that poster that day as a preventative measure. Perhaps maybe it saved my baby's life, or prevented me from a very horrible situation involving air-flights, emergency rooms, and law enforcement. As the months went by after I saw that poster, however, my paranoia finally stopped and I resumed life as a normal mother who never considered before that it was possible to leave my baby in the car.
In fact, most childhood accidents happen in the home when we least expect it. Babies drown in bathtubs, buckets, fall down stairs, drop off counter tops, and get into chemicals and glass more than parents leave them behind. We've had three different near-drowning incidents with Odin. (That kid was not safe around water til he was 6 years old and finally learned to swim!) Then there was the time that 2 year old Zadok fell off the bridge at a playground while I was standing right next to him, and I thought he had a concussion. And the time I drove all the way across town with baby Malachi in his car seat, not realizing the car seat wasn't buckled into the car. (I cried heavy tears over that one!) Then there was the time that Odin was 2 and fell off the kitchen table and blacked out for a second. (I took him to the ER but he was fine.) I guess my point is that accidents can happen all the time and as parents we have to be super mindful and careful all the time!
There's been times where I've been so exhausted that I just wanted to close my eyes for just a few minutes while my baby played quietly in the same room. I've had to literally slap my eyes back open and make myself get up because babies should never be left alone. (Like that time my 6 month old Malachi went in the kitchen, broke a baby-food jar and then started sucking on it, slicing his lips in several places)
But is leaving a child behind an accident? Like all the accidents I've experienced as a mom these past 9 years? Or just plain negligence? It's definitely an argument I don't care to get into. In fact,I am writing this post because this concept of leaving a child behind or forgetting he's there blows.my.freakin.mind. It's not something I've ever considered possible, yet it seems to happen all the time, hence the informational poster hanging in my doctor's office.
There's two stories in particular that blew my mind this past year about leaving babies behind. The first one really shook me up because it happened right after my fourth baby Malachi was born, and just an hour south of where we live.
What happened was a mother left her 11 month old baby in the car on a hot summer day. Read news story here. Her normal routine was to drop her two older children at the daycare, then drop her baby off at the neighbors house, so she could have the afternoon free to do people's nails from her home. After she dropped the two older children off, however, she came straight home to put the baby down for a nap because the neighbor wasn't available to watch the baby that day afterall. There was also construction on the road that day (not normal)and she had to use the bathroom real bad (not normal), so she parked her car farther away than normal, hurried home to the bathroom, then resumed her day like normal, doing nails for her clients. In her head she had thought she had brought the baby in and put her down for a nap. In her head everything was fine and dandy and her baby was where she needed to be. But, instead her baby was roasting to death in the back of her car. It was several hours later when she went to go get her baby up from her nap, when she realized her mistake. She, of course, was devastated, heartbroken, and torn apart that such a horrific accident could happen to a her, a mother who loves and adores her child so much. I ache for her every time I think of the pain she has to endure the rest of her life over this tragedy.
When I heard this story on the news my baby was just a few weeks old, but once again, I was shocked and confused about how something like this could happen. It triggered up my old paranoia again, as I then struggled to get from place to place without feeling like I was missing someone or something. I started counting and re-counting my four children over and over again every time I left the house. Every time we got in the hot car that summer I thought about that baby, I ached for that mama, and prayed hard that I would never, ever leave my baby in the car like that. It took several months, but I finally got over the trauma of hearing that news story, especially with it being so close to home. It gets really hot here in Southern Utah, and leaving kids and pets in cars can easily end in tragedy.
The other story happened last month. where a mom in Arizona left her baby behind at the store. Read news story here. After she got her two older children buckled in the car, she simply drove off without her 2 month old baby, who was still in his car seat on the back of the shopping cart. Luckily, some people found the baby right away and took him inside. After she pulled away from the store she did a drive-through at a fast food restaurant, dropped something off at her nephew's school, then drove home. It wasn't until she pulled into her driveway that she realized she didn't have her baby, forty minutes later. He was still strapped into his car seat in the shopping cart back at the store! Of course she was horrified and heartbroken, and torn apart that something like this could happen to her, a loving mother who cares for and adores her baby!.
And once again, I was shocked and confused that something like this could happen to anyone!
Over the next few days I could feel the old paranoia starting to kick in....Buckle up, head count, sing a song, talk to baby, feel his face, say his name, check, check, check and check.
The one thing that stands out to me about these two stories is that each of these moms said a similar thing about why these incidents happened: Their routines were broken.
They both got out of their normal routines, which put their minds in a different place, which turned the course of events in a different direction. The first mom's routine was broken when her neighbor said she couldn't watch the baby and the mom ended up having to take baby back home with her. The second mom's routine was broken when she said that she usually buckles her baby in first, but she had her one year old that day, which she normally doesn't, so she had to buckle the one year old in first. So because her routine was broken, she accidentally left her baby in his car seat in the shopping cart.
Like I said, I'm not going to cast the first stone here because I've had my own parenting mishaps, but wow--a routine is broken and a child is left behind! I've lost keys and phones and wallets because I didn't put them where I normally do, but I just don't see children that way. Sometimes I wonder if as a culture we are becoming too disconnected from our babies that they become more of a routine, rather than a living-breathing part of our day??
I think it's unfortunate that we live in an age where babies are schlepped around from place to place in car seats rather than being carried in arms like they used to be. A baby can be clicked into it's car seat, then clicked into a car, then clicked into a stroller, then set down on the floor, then clicked into a shopping cart, then clicked back into the car, having never touched another human being for hours. Furthermore, if the mother is not breastfeeding, then she could even choose to prop a bottle in the car seat while she sits there checking her phone to make sure she's still following her routine. As long as baby isn't crying and is a "good" baby, then mom doesn't have to worry about it.
We also live in an age where babies are put on schedules and routines before they know what night and day is! (Dangerous) books like Babywise that teach a mother to ignore her motherly instincts, and ignore her baby's cries for love, security, and attention, teach parents that if they follow a perfect routine, then they don't have to worry about it: they can just put their baby down to sleep at a certain time, shut the door, ignore the crying, and the routine will take care of itself.
I'm not saying these two moms are disconnected or negligent. I don't know them personally, but, I do know that we live in a backwards culture where parenting decisions are often based on black and white principles, not feelings, instincts, and emotions. I hear parents say things all the time like,"I don't parent after 9pm." or "I don't get up at night because babies can go eight hours without eating." or "I can't breastfeed." (without even trying) or "I'm not the type of mom that plays with my kids." or "We let our baby cry it out because he should learn to sleep better."
This type of routine thinking doesn't ebb and flow with the changing tides of children and the way they need us to help them grow. Children aren't rigid and orderly and something to be scheduled. They are organic, fluid, and change daily in their wants and needs, just like adults. Babies need to be held, wrapped in the warmth and security of their mothers or fathers and allowed the flexibility to have different wants and needs at different times. Babies need to be reassured that their needs are important, that they can trust and rely on the adults in their lives. Leaving a child to cry for hours for training purposes, sends the message that "My baby is a thing to be managed. A routine to be scheduled. A problem to be solved."
Current research shows that the chemistry of the brain changes for babies who are not frequently held or touched, and left to cry it out. They become distressed, their neurons are depleted, and they're normal brain development becomes stunted, as they can't possibly reach their major developmental milestones while they are too busy worrying if someone is going to pick them up or not. The same goes with their emotional development. Babies who are ignored have a rough time developing trusting relationships, feel less self-confident and secure with themselves, and become scared and uncertain of the world around them.
Not the best start in life, if you ask me.
So perhaps our culture is becoming too focused on checking off the to-do-lists and sticking with the schedules, that we forget to slow down and remember that our babies don't give a *hoot.
We only have these little ones for such a short period of time! Perhaps slowing down and remembering that we are parents first, is really possible?
I really hope so.