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In the Blink of an Eye, Anyone Can Be a 'Bad' Mom

Photograph by Twenty20

It’s been over seven years and some of the details have faded, but what I remember most is how very tired I was. All I could think about was going to the grocery store and getting home, so I could lie down and take a nap.

There are small details I remember clearly like fitting the convertible car seat into the grocery cart. The baby was only about 5 weeks old and I was still awkward with the bulky car seat, but I got him settled and started through the store. Did I have a grocery list? I can’t remember, but probably not.

I bought crackers and cheese—I remember that because I was hungry. When had I last eaten? Maybe the night before. It was early afternoon and all I’d had was a coffee from Starbucks before going to the grocery store. I ran on caffeine in those early months, with my husband deployed to the Middle East and no one to help me. I was a full-time 24/7 new mom and caffeine barely made a dent in my exhaustion.

I was so tired all the time, but we were managing.

I got through the store and felt a little boost of satisfaction at checkout. When you’re a few weeks postpartum recovering from a C-section, your spouse is deployed and you have no other family or help, managing a grocery store trip with a newborn is a major accomplishment.

The baby was asleep when I put the car seat back in my truck and tucked the groceries in the front passenger seat so I wouldn't disturb him. My one thought as I made the short drive home: the baby was asleep and I could sleep soon, too. I don’t remember pulling in the driveway or opening the garage door. I have only the vaguest recollection of carrying the groceries and my purse inside, hitting the lock on the key fob as I went into the kitchen as the dog jumped up on me.

This—coming home with groceries and dealing with pets—was a familiar routine and I did it on autopilot. One foot in front of the other, tucking cans into cabinets, dairy into the refrigerator, replenishing the empty paper towel holder, letting the dog out, all with one thought on my brain: sleep.

The place I usually put the baby when I was in the kitchen, because I could see him and he could see me. Now, the swing sat still and empty.

How long does it take to put away a few bags of groceries? Ten minutes? Less? I don’t know. I was exhausted, so maybe it took me a little longer, tripping over my dog and slicing a piece of cheese off the block I bought just to quiet my rumbling stomach. Surely it was only a few minutes. For that, I am grateful. Just as I was grateful it was January and the temperatures were in the 30s with a little snow still on the ground from earlier in the week.

It was when I went to hang my coat in the hall closet door that I realized my mistake. Sitting in the living room, next to the sofa that beckoned me with blanket and pillows, was the baby swing. The place I usually put the baby when I was in the kitchen, because I could see him and he could see me. Now, the swing sat still and empty.

The baby. I’d left the baby in the car.

I remember the pounding of my heart as I snatched my purse off the counter, spilling the contents before locating my keys. Running out the kitchen door, hitting the button on the garage door opener, unlocking the truck with the key fob, throwing open the back door and seeing the baby, still covered with his blanket and still sound asleep. The inside of the truck was a comfortable temperature, though I could see my breath as I stood outside it unfastening the car seat with shaky hands.

I had forgotten my baby.

It’s been over seven years, but I’ve thought about that day many times. I think about how lucky I was—lucky that it was winter and the temperature inside the truck was comfortable.

Lucky that I had gone home where I was surrounded by reminders of the baby and not to a job or an appointment where my brain might not have processed his absence so quickly.

Lucky that the swing was downstairs in the living room and that I saw it before I laid down for a nap.

Luck.

It seems like there should be more between us and tragedy than something as simple as happenstance, but that was my situation. Pure luck that I had the best possible circumstances in my exhausted absent-mindedness.

I know not every parent is so lucky.

Before I had kids, I had read articles about the often tragic results of parents forgetting babies in cars. I’d also heard and read comments from parents who swore that it could never happen to them—they could never forget their children like that. As a first-time mom I had worried about just that thing happening and half-jokingly asked my husband before he deployed, “What if I forget about the baby?” He’d assured me I wouldn’t—the simple act of worrying about something makes it less likely to happen, right?

If only.

The truth is this: in the blink of an eye, any of us can make a life-changing mistake. Whether you’re convinced it can never happen to you or are paranoid that you’ll be the next one to forget your baby—it does and can happen all too often. I’m not saying that because it happened to me or as a way of absolving myself of guilt. You never really stop feeling guilty after an incident like that, even if all ended well. You never stop turning it over and over in your mind, thinking “What if” and scaring yourself with what might have happened if you hadn’t been so lucky.

Love is powerful, but it is not perfect and love can’t save us from mistakes.

Even now that my children are older, I know the potential for mistakes is always there. I love my boys fiercely and if love could make me a better mother, I’d be damned near perfect by now. Love is what propels me to work harder to be a better parent, to do the right things to the best of my ability, to never—ever—forget to put them first, but love isn’t a shield against disaster.

I have so much empathy for parents who find themselves mourning a mistake they have made. I find it hard to judge the parents in the articles that keep the 24/7 news cycle humming—the mom who looked away for a moment and her child fell into the street, the parents who were distracted by their conversation and didn’t see their toddler wander away, the dad who thought another family member had brought the baby home when he left the party.

Love is powerful, but it is not perfect and love can’t save us from mistakes.

I never forgot either of my children after that one heart-stopping incident. I started leaving my purse in the back seat after that day and by the time my second son was born, I was so used to having a baby around that getting them in and out of the car had become second nature. It helped that I was never again as tired as I had been in those early months when I was overwhelmed and exhausted and alone.

But I’ve never forgotten the feeling of seeing that empty baby swing and realizing the mistake I had made. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on any parent. My empathy is all that much stronger because I’ve lived through a terrible mistake and know in my heart that it can happen to anyone.

Even me.

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