I was barely a teenager when my parents left my sister in the car on a hot summer day.
My dad, who is a Type 1 diabetic, had stayed back in the car to check his sugar while the rest of us piled into church for morning mass, late as usual. After he pricked his finger, he slipped into the back of the church, not wanting to disturb the rest of the parishioners. He assumed my mom had brought my sister in with her.
Except she hadn’t.
Like these things go, my mom had assumed that my dad would bring my sister into church with him. I still don’t know exactly how they figured it out, but somehow they realized their grave mistake and rushed out to the car. My sister was bawling her head off, still strapped in her car seat. She was traumatized and soaked with sweat, but alive.
We know these things happen and when we hear about them, we may shake our heads and mutter a “how terrible,” or a “I don’t understand how anyone forgets their baby.”
And of course we don’t understand — until it happens to us.
Like it did most recently to 27-year-old Cherish Peterson, a mother of four who left her two-month-old baby in a grocery store shopping cart. She unloaded the cart, drove home, and didn’t notice she didn’t have her baby until her three-year-old asked her where he was 40 minutes later. Peterson’s story, of course, has garnered a lot of attention. Much of the response has been negative, but there has also been a surprising show of support from parents who know deep down that this awful mistake? It’s one we’re all capable of making. For parents like Peterson, they not only have to face the extreme guilt, but the very real risk of being charged with a crime.
Reading the description of Miles Harrison in The Washington Post, a 49-year-old father charged with manslaughter after he fatally left his 9-month-old son in the backseat of his car, I felt like the scene was what any parent would feel:
“When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept … He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all and then to die.”
Although Harrison was charged with manslaughter, it seems almost like an unnecessary slap in the face. Do you think that any punishment the legal system can dish out is anything compared to the pain he will feel every day for the rest of his life? This sort of horrific tragedy could happen to anyone, regardless of our best intentions.
Yes, I said it — it could happen to any of us.
It’s happened, we know, to every kind of parent you could think of: to a nurse, to a pediatrician, to a rocket scientist, to a military veteran who was responsible for handling $47 million dollar projects without so much as losing a penny. I don’t care who you are or how good of a parent you think you are. In fact, I think if you’re sitting here right now shaking your head, saying “that would never happen to me,” you are even more at risk.
It might have something to do with the fact that I happen to be a journalist and read so many of these stories, but I pretty much have a panic attack each and every time we get in or out of the car; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt my stomach drop and dreaded turning around in my seat, so afraid I wouldn’t see the chubby little feet sticking out of the car seat behind me.
The truth is, we are distracted by a million different things all day long; we are forgetful and tired and impatient and just want to freaking get home from the grocery store. Cherish has four young kids, just like me, and I know that feeling. I felt it today, in fact, after I braved the store with a toddler who had missed his nap and I was so frazzled I stopped for a coffee afterwards just to make it to dinnertime. Cherish’s baby is only two months old, which means she practically just gave birth yesterday in postpartum years. Your brain literally does not work right at that stage. We may be at fault for forgetting, we may be texting or making a phone call, or we may have no good excuse at all except that we’re human and we make mistakes.
I’m not excusing anything or saying we should wave off leaving a baby in a shopping cart as a simple mistake. Some parents really are guilty of child abuse and some really don’t know any better and think it’s perfectly fine to leave their kid strapped in the car while they go shopping.
But I have to hope that all of the parents who have lost children this way, in the biggest mistake of their lives, the ones who are left to live out a life carrying such wrenching pain, guilt, and in some instances criminal charges, aren’t bearing an impossible burden for nothing.
I have to hope that their stories will make a difference.
That we will realize we are all the Miles Harrisons, the Cherish Petersons, the Mikey Terrys, the Andrew Culpeppers.
That we are all good, loving parents capable of accidentally harming our children.
That’s a horrifying thought, but I want us to be horrified. I want us to hear these awful stories and take a moment to physically gag while writing about a baby who pulled out all of her own hair before she died in her father’s car and to feel that heavy, heavy weight of sadness for everyone involved.
And I want us to change.
To demand for more car seats with monitors, to set our phone alarms to ring after daycare drop off, to check and double check and put the diaper bag in our laps or always leave a window down. To do something — anything — so our stories can end like Cherish’s did.
With a baby who ultimately went home safe and sound with their mother and a vow that we will never, ever again think that it couldn’t happen to us.
#IStandWithCherish. Because #WeAreAllCherish.More On