“Be really careful here,” I said, for the 875thousandth time since my daughter began walking seven years ago. We were crossing a bustling street in Brooklyn with a longtime friend of mine and her two toddlers, headed to her house. As the five of us prepared to step off the corner where the curb is a little higher than it should be, my friend told me about how someone was playing with her kids on the sidewalk there, and it terrified her to watch. “What if one of them ran out into the road?,” she asked. “I know,” I said. “They can all die at any moment. Parenting is really just looking at your kids and thinking, ‘Please don’t die.’” I fear for the foolish people without children who don’t understand what we parents do; that life is really just a series of moments where we avoid death, strung together with some parties in-between. (And, I don’t want you to dwell on this or anything, but sometimes we actually avoid death at parties. I know. Life is crazy.)
I mention the fact that life is really just avoiding death because I read this blog post this weekend written by Jenn Meer, a mom who felt sickened with herself after she left her daughter in the bathtub for two minutes and walked back in the bathroom to find her daughter there sleeping. Of course this poor mother was terrified that something terrible could have happened (death!), and she felt guilty because she was responding to an email on her iPad while out of the room (a mistake, but she’s not alone) and she wrote a lengthy blog post about it to process her feelings (understandable) and to solidify the lesson for herself and others (which is, btw: NEVER LEAVE YOUR KIDS ALONE IN THE BATHTUB). As many other mothers have admitted in response to Meer’s post, I did the same thing once. I had to check something on the computer for one second while my daughter was in the bath, and when I stepped back in the bathroom, I realized, “Oh man, I just left my daughter alone in the tub.” She was perfectly fine, just sitting there happy and playing. But the shock of what might have happened still stang my heart, and I felt as horribly torn up about it as Meer did. It is important for us to share these types of stories so that others might think twice before doing the same thing, but the truth of the matter is, we’re all just trying to save our children’s lives all the time. Even when we’re right in front of them or next to them, fully engaged and holding their hands.
It doesn’t matter if you live in the city or the country, if you take trains and buses or drive your own car. If you have childcare or watch your kids yourself. City kids can be (and are) hit by distracted or drunk or perfectly responsible drivers faced with a blind spot. Rural kids can be killed by farm equipment. Babies in the outback are eaten by dingoes. (Yes, really.) Small town kids can drown in pools. Homes go up in flames because of a single candle. People forget their kids in hot cars. (Even clergymen and rocket scientists.) Babies do drown in bathtubs. It’s awful. All of it. Not to mention all the (sometimes-hilarious-in-hindsight) ways our kids almost die. My daughter had a febrile seizure when she was two. She was with her father and I was at work, and he described her passing out in his arms and feeling helpless while she was possibly dying. She was fine; febrile seizures are common. I can still recall the thud that happened each of the two times she fell out of our bed onto the floor. She was fine. She bonked her head falling off a wall once. She was fine. But even when you know your kids won’t die from these kinds of accidents, you still are racked with the fear that they could die. At any moment, really. Because they are so ridiculously tiny. After years of reading and writing about it, I finally understand what it must be like to raise a child with a nut allergy (my God). All the close calls. And sometimes our children do die. Of accidents. Of diseases. In gruesome ways. It’s unthinkable. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s life.
What strikes me most when thinking about how vulnerable our kids are is that we are all responsible for keeping each other safe. God forbid Meer’s daughter did die in the bathtub, she would never be able to forgive herself, and yet, it wouldn’t really have been her fault. I mean, of course she stepped out of the bathroom for a minute, but there isn’t a single parent alive that hasn’t done something so innocent at least once. As Meer notes in her post, she was tired, her husband was away for work. Could a friend have come over to help Meer get her kids ready for bed? A relative? A neighbor? It has been said so many times it hardly bears repeating, except for the fact that none of us seem to really be hearing ourselves saying it: the digital era has us “more connected” than ever, and yet it’s pushing us further and further apart. What if instead of sending each other emails so that our iPads ping while our kids are taking baths, we actually went to see each other? What if instead of looking at each other’s photos on Facebook we actually spent time together face-to-face? What if instead of trying to appear like we have everything together all the time and don’t need help, we asked our friends and loved ones for a hand? What if our friends and loved ones offered to help without even being asked?
When was the last time someone called you or asked you in person if you needed anything? Really. Think about it. “Do you need anything?” I don’t think people even say it anymore. Not unless someone has just died. Isn’t that awful? What we need more than help with death is help with life.
As my friend and I crossed that bustling Brooklyn street with our children yesterday, everyone holding hands, a car made a left turn in front of us instead of waiting for us to cross first. Not just any car — a minivan. The driver was likely a fellow parent who decided it was more important that he or she turn than it was for two women and three children to feel looked out for when crossing the street. We weren’t crossing at the tail end of the light — it had just turned green. And even if the driver were trying to catch a light, is any light worth a life? A few days ago, I watched a man (again, in a minivan) run a red light while texting with his head down. These types of incidents are an everyday occurrence in cities and towns across the country at this point. Should any one of us have been hit crossing the street, it would have been the driver’s fault, but being able to place blame when accidents happen is no consolation. While nothing can entirely prevent tragic accidents from happening, we need to examine the culture of isolation that makes us all more susceptible to them. As the old wisdom goes, there’s safety in numbers. There were five of us crossing the street yesterday; we were helping each other stay safe. The driver that turned in front of us was alone. In his or her own world. And yet, it was as much the driver’s responsibility to keep our children safe as it was ours. (And legally, more so the driver’s responsibility.) But it is everyone’s responsibility to keep children safe. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep everyone safe. We’re all in this together. There isn’t one action that happens in isolation. Everything everyone does affects the whole. We like to think of ourselves as wholly separate entities, when we are really individuals, yes, but inextricably connected. In the presence of each other’s flesh, we’re more aware of our connectedness and our universal vulnerability. But when we put cars around us like armor, we drive them like tanks. When we interact through screens, there are (Facebook) walls between us. We stop understanding how human we are, and how much we need each other.
Meer’s point about how digital living distracts us in ways that are dangerous is well-taken, but it’s not just distraction that is destroying our ability to pay attention in the moment, it’s isolation, too. When the gaggle of us babies and mommies got back to my friend’s apartment yesterday, my friend and I sat there for hours talking while our children played. When we first started talking, I felt disconnected. I don’t get to talk much during my writing week, and while I perform, I’m essentially in a one-sided conversation. As we kept talking, I started to come out of myself. To get out of a fuzzy head space and into my heart. For three hours we never had to search for anything to talk about. When dinnertime rolled around and I thought we should go, she said, “No, stay and make some pasta.” After that she asked us to stay and watch a movie. We stayed a little longer, and when we finally had to leave, none of us wanted to say goodbye. It was so nice, the five of us huddled up in one house, the chaos of children under foot, enough of us present to easily make sure everyone averted accidental death. Before we left, I taught my friend’s youngest a few new words. I got her to echo “tree” and “candle” and “pumpkin.” Maybe that’s why, as we walked out the door, when I said, “I love you,” she mirrored, “I love you.” It was beautiful. My daughter and I headed home, walking down the street, feeling very alive, very human, very connected. Several pairs of young women passed us on the street, smiling and commenting on my daughter’s Halloween costume. We were together, all of us, and there was safety in numbers. So we live for another day.