Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Fatal Distraction": Could You Forget Your Child in the Car?

As we round the corner on the second week of continuous heat advisories, I've noticed some stories about parents leaving their children in cars. Some are atrocious acts of purposeful neglect: children left so their caregivers could go shopping or eat fast food. But there are also incidents that are much more accidental and much less black and white when it comes to blame and punishment.

About a month ago, I stopped carrying the car seat into daycare and started carrying my daughter in my arms instead. It's less cumbersome and she enjoys getting to look around on our way into the building.

A few days into this new routine, I was walking to the parking garage after work, laden with my usual collection of bags and gear. As I approached the car, I saw the handle of the car seat in the back window. My heart stopped beating. I simultaneously moved as fast as I could and slower than I thought humanly possible. In the one, maybe two, seconds it took to get a full view of the window, my mind was a blank slate of white light. Had I forgotten my daughter? Did I really go to daycare this morning? I'd said hello to the teacher, I was sure. But maybe that was yesterday. Could I have driven right past the daycare and down the few blocks to my work without noticing? What kind of monster was I?

Then I got to the window, saw the empty car seat, and knew everything was fine. But what if it hadn't been?

Time has a recent article on the subject, and one of the comments linked to Gene Weingarten's 2009 Washington Post article (Warning: This is a tough read with some graphic descriptions about children left in cars) "Fatal Distraction."

Maybe it was the memory of those few seconds of panic I had, but I cried as I read this article, parts of which detail the agony and terror of several parents who inadvertently killed their children:

What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
The article goes on to describe the perfect storm of conditions that most often surrounds a forgotten child: stress, distraction, lack of sleep, a deviation from a normal routine. Things, I thought to myself as I read, that working parents face often if not everyday. Things I face constantly.

Blog posts like this one from Mommy Words give tips on how to make sure you avoid this mental lapse--things like leaving your purse and cell phone in the back seat, having your calendar send you reminders asking you if you remembered to drop your child off, and placing a large stuffed animal in the front seat whenever there is a child in the back.

Many news story commenters and judgmental passers-by will scoff at these techniques and dismiss them with a groan: "Who would need all of that? What kind of person forgets a child?" And though I don't want to become obsessive over the what-if's in life, I have to disagree. Busy people have busy brains, and those brains can malfunction. I have driven past my exit on the way home from work because I was busy worrying about something that happened in the office. I have left my cell phone in the car. My husband came home from work half an hour after me the other day and found my keys still dangling in the lock outside. I don't think that I would ever leave my child in the car, and I have taken many steps not to. I always check twice. I keep the diaper bag in the front seat when I'm driving to work, I have a mirror so that I can see into the car seat from the front, etc. But I cannot imagine the horror and guilt these parents face, and though I do think it is negligence--absolutely--I also think it's a complex issue that can't be so easily dismissed as awful parents doing awful things.


  1. Would you mind putting a warning on that link? I really wish I hadn't read that article now. Can't stop thinking about poor dead babies and poor stressed parents.

  2. Sorry! I should have been clearer that it's a tough read. I'll add a warning.