In the nearly 19 years that I’ve been a mom, I’ve had to make some shitty decisions that even I would have judged other mothers for. The lesson? It’s easy to say what we’d never do, but when you’re out of options, you’ll do what you have to and cross your fingers that everyone survives.
Nearly nine years ago, when my sons were 10 and 8 years old, I got a very necessary job at a well-known department store that may or may not host an annual, televised Thanksgiving Day Parade. As an active duty military family stationed in Hawaii, our finances were shuffling between “there’s a dollar left in the bank” and “get food stamps, quick.” I applied at the department store at the tail end of summer and was immediately hired, but had no childcare worked out during the weekdays.
I knew just a handful of people on our military base, but they couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t have watched my sons. With no family on the island, I had to think of something quickly. Since they were too old for daycare and I couldn’t afford a day camp, I was left with two potentially dangerous decisions: leave them at home alone and unsupervised, or bring them to work with me and let them walk around the mall during my shifts.
My husband didn’t like the idea but there was no way he could bring the boys to his job, and because he was training for a deployment, there were no early work days for him, either. Knowing that we would be in the poor house if I didn’t work, we decided our best option was to let them come with me and work out a strict check-in schedule.
I was nervous, especially the first day I brought them along. I had them follow me to our employee lounge and introduced them to a few “aunties” who worked with me. I figured an extra set of trusted eyes watching over them would be better than none. I showed my sons where our bathroom was, gave them a few dollars each, and made them promise to check in with me every hour.
I’m not going to lie; I was in panic-mode every 59 minutes, wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my mothering life. I balanced that paranoia by reminding myself that as a kid, I’d been left alone starting at just 6 years old and I turned out fine (although I did try smoking several times because, hey, no parents).
Day No. 1 went exceptionally smooth, (thank you, Jesus) and the boys had a lot of fun walking around, buying candy, and coming to the women’s department to watch me talk customers into applying for our store credit card. Aside from a minor bra-department fiasco (they were pointing and laughing at the bras) everything went well.
After a week, we fell into a routine. The kids would watch the afternoon movie matinee that only cost $1 a ticket, and then join me for a quick meal while I took my break. Sometimes, if they were tired, they would bring their Game Boys and play while lying on the break room couch. Occasionally, they would bicker, running to me while I was helping a customer (embarrassing), but thankfully, not once, did anything ever happen to them.
I don’t take that lightly, though. I was a toddler when Adam Walsh, son of TV host John Walsh, was abducted from a mall while his mother had her back turned. Two weeks later, his decapitated head was found two and a half hours away, near the Florida Turnpike. His horrifying story isn’t the only case of child abduction in the United States, either.
Approximately 58,000 children per year are abducted by strangers, and an estimated 115 cases are those in which the abductor plans to ransom, keep, or kill the child. Clearly the danger exists and while many of us want to keep our children in a safe, protective bubble, sometimes we just can’t.
Unfortunately, many parents are faced with similar choices as the ones I had to make, and they’re not always as lucky. Remember that working mom in South Carolina who was arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone in the park during her shifts at McDonalds? She was charged with “unlawful conduct towards a child” and I’m betting I could have been brought up on similar charges had I been living in another state and gotten caught. (Hawaii does not have a minimum age law for minors to be home alone or left unattended, but I didn't know that at the time.)
At the end of the day, parents just like me have to make a choice and decide if their children are mature enough to be alone in certain settings, whether it’s at home or walking around the mall. But no matter how mature we think our kids are, it doesn’t mean they’ll be safe.
I made a decision that my sons were capable of the responsibility of being alone, and knew that I had to work. While I know many parents would disagree, and even judge me for that decision, I still think it was the best one for our family.
The moral of my story isn’t to let your kids wander alone while they’re young, nor to be terrified of all the potentially dangerous things that could happen to them. Rather, the lesson is that sometimes parents have to pick the lesser of two evils, the least shitty option in a given situation, and hope that their choice doesn’t end up costing them more than they'd bargained for.
Yes, I used the mall as free daycare—and yes, I'm admitting to it publicly. For all the moms and dads out there who have been between a rock and a hard spot and made a decision they didn't want to make, but had to nonetheless, I get you. You aren't a terrible parent, even when you sometimes have to make terrible decisions.