This past weekend, while in the heart of London’s biggest theater and shopping district, I lost my daughter.
For three heart-stoppingly horrific minutes, I could not find her in the throng of people. I have never felt blind panic like I experienced that night. My daughter has just turned 6 — she isn’t a toddler who unwittingly is distracted and wanders away from her mother. She is a very aware, smart little girl who would never choose to be separated from her family — and yet she was.
How did I let this happen? I’m a very cautious mother — I absolutely prioritize my kids and their safety is paramount — and yet she still got lost.
We had been in London to see The Lion King musical as a birthday treat for her, paid for by her godmother, my best friend. She’d had a recent hip operation and couldn’t walk too far without feeling pain – so she wanted to get a cab from the theater to the train station. But when we left the theater, every other Saturday matinee theater-goer was also spilling out onto the dark, wet streets amongst a swarm of shoppers. It was practically safer to walk on the road rather than the sidewalk, it was THAT busy.
I was so consumed with getting a cab — a near impossible task given the weather and the fact this it’s December and holiday shopping is at its peak — that my eyes were scanning the roads, instead of my kids. My long distance eye sight isn’t good, so I tried using my glasses, but they were getting covered in a light rain, misting up with the heat of my face against the cold air.
We stopped at a busy junction and then seeing a cab, I darted back across the road just as someone else jumped in it. I looked wildly around, just as my friend shouted, “Where is Riley?” Then I realized Riley wasn’t with her and she certainly wasn’t with me.
I screamed her name — louder than I have screamed in my life. I sounded insane. I appealed to people to help me — help me find my Riley. People asked what “he” looked like, because she has a boy’s name. People were just swarming past me and not stopping and I started crying because I couldn’t see in the damn rain and all I wanted was to see her little black and white stripy jumper appear. I must have called out at least 10, 15 times.
The police came on the scene just as she did — sobbing and frightened. I ran through traffic and swept her into my arms. I was shaking. She had walked ahead, not stopped as we did on the street corner. My friend had thought she was still with me — it was all so busy — but I had thought she had stopped with her.
In those moments, my heart froze. My legs buckled. It was like a slow-moving nightmare. It was just a matter of minutes, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Here is the thing that shocked me – kids at any age can suddenly just disappear from sight – particularly when it is such a bustling area, when it is dark, when you are momentarily distracted — just as you pay at the coffee cart, or you stop to read ingredients on a jar. Especially at this time of year when everyone is so preoccupied — grocery lists to buy, presents to choose, decorations to invest in.
It takes a split second and BOOM.
I had stupidly assumed that once my kids got past the toddler stage, they’d never wander off. They’d know better. But kids get distracted themselves — by the pretty shop window displays, by choirs on the street, by Santas collecting for charity. You have to be on top of your mom game every second, which is so hard when we have so much on our plates.
Here are some tips to prevent you from going through what I did — tips I am going to be applying every time I am in a public place with my kids from now on.
- Dress your kid in bright colors so they are easily spotted.
- Never assume that someone else is watching your kid. I did and yet my friend wasn’t. In the crowds, she just assumed that my daughter was still with me. It all happened so quickly. Never assume anything.
- Label your kid’s clothes with your cell number. If they’re old enough, get them to learn it by heart so if they ever get lost, they can get someone to call you immediately. Another genius tip is to write it on their arm, and cover with liquid Band-Aid so it doesn’t rub off.
- If you are in a group, make sure each adult knows exactly which kids they are in charge of and split into smaller, more manageable groups.
- Teach your child who they should go to if they get lost — on a beach, the lifeguard; in a store, an assistant; on the street, find a police officer or go into a shop and speak to someone wearing a store badge.
- Tell them it’s better to stop and stand still so they can be found rather than continually wandering around and missing each other.
- Take a photo of them before you go out so you have one of what they are exactly wearing that day.
- Arrange a meeting point if anyone does get lost — the ticket office, the front desk, the entrance – wherever.
- Tell them to call your name rather than “Mommy,” because you are far more likely to hear that or not get mixed up with any other child asking for their own mom.
For some reason, I can’t seem to shake the awful pit of dread in my stomach, the fear that just consumed me the minute I couldn’t see her face. I am so lucky that she turned, walked back, and spotted my best friend’s bobble hat over the sea of faces. I am so grateful that it was only a couple of minutes that she was gone. Please learn from my mistake – and have a safe and peaceful holiday season.