EDITED for length! Read the whole thing here: http://www.salon.com/2014/06/03/the_day_i_left_my_son_in_the_car/
The day it happened was no different from most; I was worried, and I was running late. I was worried because in a few hours’ time I was going to be enduring a two-and-a-half hour flight with my kids, ages 1 and 4. I was running late because, like many parents of small children, I often find there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
We were visiting my family and I was eager to get home to my husband. My 1-year-old daughter had just gone down for a nap when, in the process of packing, I realized that my son’s headphones, the ones he used to watch a movie on the plane, had broken. I called across the house to my mother that I was going to run to the store to replace them.
“Me too,” my son said.
I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to stay home with Grandma. “You hate going to the store,” I reminded him.
“No I don’t!” he said. I should have seen what was going on — my parents had been letting him play with the iPad in the car and he was trying to score the extra screen time. We got in my mother’s minivan and drove a mile up the road, through the sleepy subdivision where I’d grown up, the sort of subdivision where kids ride bikes in cul-de-sacs and plenty of people don’t bother to lock their doors, then we parked in the recently erected, nearly empty strip mall. I had two hours to get the headphones, get home, get my 1-year-old daughter up from her nap and fed and changed, get everyone to the airport, through security, and onto a plane.
“I don’t want to go in,” my son said as I opened the door.
“What do you mean you don’t want to go in? You wanted to come.”
He was tapping animated animals on a screen, dragging them from one side to the other. “I don’t want to go in. I changed my mind.”
I tried to make my voice both calm and firm. “Simon,” I said (not his real name but the name I’ll use here). “If we don’t get your headphones, you won’t be able to watch a movie on the flight. It’s a long flight. If you can’t watch a movie on the flight you’re going to be a very, very, very unhappy boy. It will just take a minute. Now come on. We’re running late.”
He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I’d come to recognize as a sort of pre-tantrum agitation. “No, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to go in,” he repeated, and turned back to his game.
I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.
He didn’t die. He wasn’t kidnapped or assaulted or forgotten or dragged across state lines by a carjacker. When I returned to the car, he was still playing his game, smiling, or more likely smirking at having gotten what he wanted from his spineless mama. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition.
Over the past two years, I’ve replayed this moment in my mind again and again, approaching the car, getting in, looking in the rearview mirror, pulling away. I replay it, trying to uncover something in the recollection I hadn’t noticed at the time. A voice. A face. Sometimes I feel like I can hear something. A woman? A man? “Bye now.” Something. But I can’t be sure.
We flew home. My husband was waiting for us beside the baggage claim with this terrible look on his face. “Call your mom,” he said.
I called her, and she was crying. When she’d arrived home from driving us to the airport, there was a police car in her driveway.
* * *
Every year, 30 to 40 children, usually under the age of 6, die after being left alone in cars. Their deaths (usually by suffocation), are slow, torturous, unspeakably tragic. In some instances, they are the result of clear-cut neglect, but more often, they occur because of a change in routine — usually the father drops off at daycare but today it’s the mom and she is tired or harried and forgets the kid is with her and leaves him there for hours. I was aware of these tragedies long before the day I left my son, because, like most anxious, at times over-protective mothers, I spend a not insignificant portion of my time reading about and thinking about and worrying about all the terrible things that can happen to the two little people I’ve devoted my life to protecting.
I know that on a 75-degree day, a closed car can become an oven. I know that a home with an unfenced swimming pool is as dangerous as one with a loaded gun. I know how important it is to install car seats correctly, to adjust and fasten the straps regularly. When my kids were babies I always put them to sleep on their backs, though they hated it. I treated small, chokeable objects like arsenic, put up gates on all our stairways (not the tension-rod kind that can be pushed over, but the kind you bolt into the wall). I immunized them against everything immunizable, sliced their hotdogs lengthwise and removed the casing, made sure their plates and cups were BPA free, limited their screen time, slathered them in sunscreen on sunny days. When my more carefree friends say things like, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I usually have an answer. Sometimes I fantasized about moving with my family to a sun-drenched island in the Mediterranean where my children could spend their days frolicking freely on the beach without worry of speeding cars or communicable diseases, but I never confuse this fantasy with the reality we live in, the reality of risk and danger, the reality that terrible things happen to good, well-meaning people every second of every day.
And so, it came as more than a shock to me when, on the way home from the airport, I listened to a voice mail from an officer at my family’s local police department explaining that a bystander had noticed me leaving my son in the car, had recorded the incident using a phone’s camera, and had then contacted the police. By the time the police arrived, I had already left the scene, and by the time they looked up the license plate number of the minivan and traced it to my parents, I was flying home.
I’d never been charged with a crime before, so the weeks that followed were pure improvisation. I hired a lawyer to talk to the police on my behalf. I sought advice and support from those I loved and trusted. I tried to stay calm. My lawyer told me he’d had a productive conversation with the officer involved, that he’d explained I was a loving and responsible mother who’d had a “lapse in judgment,” and that it seemed quite possible charges would not be pressed. For a while, it looked like he was right. But nine months later, a few minutes after dropping my kids off at school, I was walking to a coffee shop when my cellphone rang. Another officer asked if I was Kim Brooks and if I was aware there was a warrant out for my arrest.
* * *
Who am I to judge was, to my surprise and relief, the most common response when I told people what had happened, though there were one or two exceptions. When I asked one very close, very dear friend if she thought I’d done something so terribly bad, she answered somberly,“Well, I think you made a bad decision.” That was one extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, a friend who writes and blogs about parenting issues asserted that the whole thing was ridiculous. “Who in the world hasn’t left their kid in the car for a minute while they run a quick errand. I’ve done it!” She grew quiet for a moment, and I thought maybe she was reconsidering this pronouncement. But when she spoke again it was to say, “You know who you need to talk to about this? You need to talk to Lenore Skenazy.”
* * *
I reached out to Skenazy early this year through a Facebook message, and she got back to me right away, saying she was happy to talk.
A former columnist for the New York Daily News and New York Sun, she was launched into the national spotlight in 2008 when she wrote a column about her decision to let her 9-year-old son take the subway by himself. The column resulted in a flood of both outrage and admiration, and spurred Skenazy to found the Free Range Kids movement, a movement dedicated to, in Skenazy’s words, “fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger.”
As a mother who has often felt as though my kids are in constant danger, I wasn’t sure what to expect of her, if I was going to end up talking to a fringe “expert” who would tell me to forgo seat belts and bike helmets and vaccines to help my kids toughen up. Instead, Skenazy comes across as calm, direct and adamant in her ideas.
I asked if I could start by telling her a little about my story, but I’d hardly finished the sentence when she interrupted. “Don’t bother,” she said. “Instead, let me tell you your story.” Apparently, she knew it by heart. “Just let me close the office door first because my husband’s heard this spiel a million times. OK, so, you were running errands with your kid when you decided to leave her in the car for a couple minutes while you ran into a store. The surrounding conditions were perfectly safe, mild weather and such, but when you came out, you found yourself blocked in by a cop car, being yelled at by a nosy, angry onlooker, being accused of child neglect or endangering your chid. Is that about right?” Skenazy’s heard it all before. But her demeanor suggested the outrage such charges elicited in her hadn’t dissipated much over the years since, in response to her son’s subway ride, news outlets dubbed her “the worst mom in America.”
We talked for about an hour, and what stuck with me and surprised me most was not her sympathy, but her certainty, her utter lack of equivocation or doubt. “Listen,” she said at one point. “Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day — and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger. “So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car,” she argues. It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is,” she goes on, “there’s some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you’ll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he’ll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?”
Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”