Every summer, it happens. A child, somewhere, is left in a hot car. The world explodes with anger and recrimination.
Sometimes, it’s warranted. In the Hudson Valley this month, a mother was accused of leaving her toddler in the car on an 80-plus degree day with the windows cracked while she went shopping. If the allegations are true, justice should be swift … and merciless.
But what of the other times? The incidents when children are forgotten in cars by good parents, by parents who weren’t making bad choices so much as not making the choice at all?
There’s a habit among some of us — nay, all of us, if we’re really honest with ourselves — to judge others harshest on the issues that scare us the most.
Few things scare a mother more than the notion that one day she could be the one who leaves her child in a hot car.
It scares us because it could happen.
It could happen because we live in a nation of parents who are struggling to achieve the so-called work/life balance but never quite making it. We live in a nation with the worst maternity coverage in the industrialized world, in a nation where childcare remains one of the highest chunks of the average family’s budget with the cost of childcare nearly double what it was a quarter of a century ago.
But good parents prioritize their children, you might say? Then they don’t leave them in cars?
Certainly, good parents do prioritize their children. Often that means going to work after a too-short maternity leave because while the Family Medical Leave Act affords us 12 weeks off after baby comes, those weeks do not come paid. Often it means going to work when we’re sick, exhausted after staying up all night with a crying baby because they have to save their sick days for their kids. After all, some 42 percent of parents end up missing work every year to care for a sick child, and 33 percent report that taking time off work from their job to care for sick kids means they lose pay and often put their jobs at risk.
Parents are stressed.
Parents are exhausted.
But wait, they need to stop blaming the system, man up and take ownership for their own mistakes?
Certainly, one should make every effort to take control of their own destiny.
But controlling one’s brain is a tricky thing. When you’re tired, when you’re stressed, your brain goes on auto-pilot.
As a working mom, I confess it’s happened to me. When I recall the day when I got my then toddler daughter out of the backseat of my car on a hot day in the summer, and closed the door, only to realize I’d just locked my keys in the car, a cold chill works its way down my spine. Those keys could have been my daughter.
When I remember the day when I drove 15 minutes in the wrong direction on a newspaper assignment, only to have trouble figuring out how I got there, a lump forms in my throat. How could I allow my brain to shut off, to not direct myself?
Answer? Exhaustion. Stress. Being a working mother trying to burn the candles at both end in order to be a good employee and a good mother both. We’d all like to think we can tell our brains what to do because, after all, it’s a part of our bodies.
But anyone who has ever fallen asleep behind the wheel of a car will tell you there’s a point when the brain just stops listening. Anyone in their right mind would choose staying awake and driving safely, but another part of the mind kicks in, decides sleep is the best option.
And so it is with children left in hot cars — the accidental ones, anyway.
These parents aren’t failing to care or failing to prioritize. If anything, they’re likely doing everything they can to do both.
But accidents happen to good people.
As good people, we fear they can happen to us.
And the truth is, they can.
The most dangerous thing that can happen is to believe you could never make that kind of mistake. Because as long as you’re thinking that, you’re not doing anything to prevent it.
And an accident can happen to a good person because there, but for the grace of God, go us all.
For more on preventing hot car deaths, Kids and Cars has plenty of important tips for parents.
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