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I Could've Been the Dad With the Hot Car Seat Death

Photograph by Twenty20

The wife and I recently binge-listened to the second season of "Breakdown", a podcast that followed the trial of Justin Ross Harris, a notorious father who left his child to die in a hot car seat while he sexted with numerous women. It was a case that made national headlines and really hit close to home for us.

The whole tragic affair happened not far from the Atlanta suburb where my wife I moved last year and Cooper, the child who died such an awful and easily preventable death, was only 22 months old, which is how old our son Declan is now. Like a lot of the public, I strongly suspected that the father was criminally guilty even before I listened to the podcast.

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Sure, every parent makes mistakes. Lots of them. That’s a huge part of what being a parent is all about. But I couldn't see how any parent could be so careless as to forget that they left their child in a carseat on a hot day and didn’t realize their error until the child had died.

Recently, however, something happened that gave me a new perspective on the case. The top of a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping pills I was carrying in my pocket came off and I unknowingly spilled some of the pills on the ground where my son could've scooped them up and gobbled them down like the candy they maddeningly resemble.

It’s tough to understand so much about parenting until you experience it yourself.

We found the pills before Declan had a chance to but I was absolutely mortified because while nothing bad happened, it could have. I was deeply ashamed that my carelessness could have resulted in my son needing to go to the hospital. I was disappointed in myself, and in the eyes of my wife and in-laws, I could see that they were disappointed in me as well.

When I was chastising myself for my carelessness, I though about Justin Ross Harris and for the first time, was able to empathize with him on some level. I still think that he’s guilty and there’s obviously an enormous difference between accidentally letting sleeping pills slip onto the floor in a way that leads to no harm and leaving your defenseless child in a hot car for hours until he dies a terrible death.

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But I was now open at least to the possibility that I was wrong and that this troubled man really did make a terrible mistake and let his son die out of carelessness and not malice.

It’s tough to understand so much about parenting until you experience it yourself. I now feel like I can understand how other parents could make similarly stupid mistakes—not because they're evil, but just because life is tricky and difficult and fraught with danger, especially when you’re a parent. And I also know that sometimes those mistakes have terrible and permanent consequences.

My mistake allowed me to empathize with parents who accidentally end up harming their child through obliviousness, but I will do everything in my power to avoid joining their ranks as I cannot imagine a fate as a parent worse than harming your own child.

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