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Why No Parent Can Prevent Every Tragedy


Motherhood is a constant balance. You can’t hover too much or you’re a helicopter parent. You’re supposed to simultaneously allow your kids to be kids and have freedom, yet keep them in arm’s reach in case anything should happen. Because if you look away for a second and something happens, you’re the worst parent known to man. Never mind that nothing has ever happened on your watch before — that split second — that, I can’t even call it a lapse in judgment — that split second of distraction is what your entire worth as a mother, a parent, is based on.

Maybe I overthink parenting, but I feel a constant struggle, and I feel like I’m always deciding which side of the line to come down on. Are my kids being brats with their messes and attitudes or are they just being normal messy kids who are testing their boundaries and learning to be decent humans? I feed one lunch he doesn’t eat, and then complains about being starving all afternoon — when his lunch is still there. Do I feed the skinny kid something else or just let him be hungry because it’s his own damn fault? Upon entering the store, I ask one kid if she has to go to the bathroom and not 90 seconds later, when we’re in the shoe section of Target, she’s deciding that yes, she has to go. And all the way back to the front of the store we go. I’m always trying to figure out how to be firm and consistent without being too hard on them and overbearing. If I’m too nice I feel like I’m being a pushover; if I’m too hard on them, am I being a mean parent? Sometimes it’s hard to know that line. How do you know when you’re just letting them deal with the consequences of their actions and when you’re being a jerk?

By now the furor over the Cincinnati zoo gorilla tragedy has died down a little bit. When I read the story and watched the minute of the video I could stomach, my first thought, admittedly was, “Where was the mom?” As I was telling my husband what had happened, I broke down crying — here was this scared kid, this terrified mom, and this beautiful, confused gorilla who didn’t make it out of the situation alive. The whole scenario just devastated me. Of course the zoo made the right decision. Of course. But that doesn’t make it less sad. But also sad is how so many people have attacked this poor mother for this terrible accident.

Yes, her child was her responsibility at the zoo that day. Of course. But her looking away from her child for a moment shouldn’t condemn her to the ridicule of the world. We shouldn’t be calling child services or investigating her or her husband’s background. (Questioning of “Where was the dad?” was noticeably absent, even by me.) It was a terrible accident, one with a tragic conclusion, but one that could happen to a really wonderful parent.

Let me take a moment to consider my close calls:

Scenario 1: We were at the airport. My husband was across the lobby getting a rental car, and I had my two kids with me. I was standing in a lounge area with about four cushy chairs and a big round table in the middle, talking to another mom about how excited we were about Disney. My kids were playing around all the chairs, talking to the two other kids and I was literally spinning in circles to keep my eye on them. All of a sudden I turn around and my daughter is gone. My mind considered the impossibility: I had just seen her. She couldn’t have gone anywhere. But where was she? The airport wasn’t busy, I would have noticed had someone grabbed her — not to mention the other mom would have too. There was nowhere for her to go save for a column that was too far for her to have gotten to that quickly. I looked toward my husband in the car rental line and yelled his name — and the second he heard my panic, I looked down to my luggage and see my 3-year-old crouched down, hiding between the suitcase and the chair. The 5? 3? seconds that this took had any number of nightmare scenarios flashing through my head.

Scenario 2: Same vacation. We were staying in a condo, and I was making dinner for the kids while my husband ran out to meet his dad and sister for dinner. We said goodbye and in the strongest instance of my mother’s intuition I’ve ever felt, knew I had to find Owen, who was just under 2 at the time. The kitchen was set up in such a way that I could see my daughter playing in the living room and I thought my son had walked behind the wall that separated the kitchen from the hallway as he said goodbye to Daddy. When I discovered he wasn’t in the hall, I panicked. I headed toward the bedrooms and only checked one because I knew. I went straight to the front door and there he stood on the welcome mat, crying. He had followed my husband as he’d left and gotten out the front door. It was probably 10 seconds that he was unaccounted for, but I still get shaky thinking about how terrifying it was. My husband felt terrible that he hadn’t made sure the door had fully closed before he’d walked off. I felt terrible for the same reason. But how can you really prepare for that scenario?

That’s just two incidents. There was also the accident when my youngest gashed her head on an end table. I had my hands on her body and yet she still managed to lunge away from me and hit her head. When I was pregnant with my third, I had to take off in a painful sprint twice because Owen decided to make a run for the hills. Or when he fell off a chair and hit his head and got a visit to the ER. Then there was the time when my oldest was standing on a swimming pool step with three adults within arm’s reach — and she stepped off the step and dunked herself. We scooped her up immediately but it was a valuable lesson for all about pool safety. Or just yesterday when I was at the Target shoe section (after our inconvenient bathroom visit) helping one child try on shoes. I look up and my youngest is standing up in the cart seat. She’d managed to stand up even though she was strapped in. It was the first time such a thing had ever happened with her — but had she fallen and gotten injured? Bad Mom Badge.

No matter how diligent we are as parents, we can’t prevent all the things from happening. We usually just get lucky and nothing bad happens. A kid who is determined to do something will wait for the opportunity to strike. Don’t forget, there were other adults there too, and no one managed to grab the boy. Sure, they might not be the “responsible party” but had anyone else been able to get to him before he fell I’m sure they would have. I know I sure as hell would have tried if I saw that happening at the zoo. You can’t underestimate how quick, how wily and how determined kids can be.

Our job is to keep them safe. But they are also their own people with their own sometimes (often) misguided agendas. The simple act of living in the world has a risk to it, and we can’t mitigate every one of those risks. We protect them as best as we can while also letting them gain their independence. It’s a tough balance. Just think of what a different conversation this would be had the boy fallen into the giraffe exhibit.

As a mom, I would have never forgiven myself had something happened to my kids in any of the above scenarios. I would never forgive myself if my child got out of my reach and something tragic happened. I would never forgive myself — even if something wasn’t my fault. I’m sure this mother is replaying this nightmare scenario over and over again. And even with the terrible things that are being said about her, I’m sure she’s the one being hardest on herself. That’s all the “punishment” she needs. As any mom knows, it’s a very harsh one. —Erin

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