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If you had told me at the beginning of my motherhood journey that I would ever leave my baby in the car by mistake, I would have laughed. Because though I may not be anyone’s idea of maternal perfection, I am a caring and responsible mom to my 4 kids. Even on my worst days, even when I’m filled with self-doubt, the “bad mom” label just doesn’t fit. Besides, only people who are negligent or careless or downright unfit parents leave their babies in the car — right?
That’s what I would have insisted. Until I learned from experience exactly how devastatingly overconfident I was.
After she retired, my mom had moved out of her home state to be closer to me, my husband, and our kids, and I was ecstatic; we had always had a close relationship, and her visits seemed too short. But now she was here to stay, and since I had been raising my kids with no family nearby, it was nice to finally have a “village.”
To celebrate her first weekend in town, we had a cookout. It was a hot June day, and my husband took over the grill as our kids played on our freshly-mown lawn. As the charcoal smoke rippled through the air, I knew exactly what this barbecue was missing: some sweet corn. After all, we were in Iowa — literally surrounded by cornfields — and it was getting to be that season.
“I’m going to run to the store for some sweet corn,” I said. “Mom, wanna come along?”
The kids were occupied and safe, but I figured as a precaution, I’d better take my 1-year-old son with me. My husband was trying to cook and I wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep an eye on everyone. The baby was all smiles as I loaded him into his (properly secured, rear-facing) car seat and headed out.
The drive to the grocery store was short, and my mom and I laughed practically the entire time, chatting and joking, our mood bolstered by the radio and the thought of the summer meal we’d soon be enjoying. We pulled into the parking lot; I checked the time on my phone, Mom rummaged through her bag for some lip gloss, and on auto-pilot, I pressed the “lock” button on the key fob. We strolled from the sweltering heat into the blissfully air-conditioned store, still chit-chatting.
When it’s summertime in Iowa, corn is a front-and-center staple — so there was a big bin just inside the store’s entrance. However, it was disappointingly empty; everyone else must have been in the mood for sweet corn too.
“Ugh!“ I griped. “I can’t believe they’re all out. Let’s go somewhere else.”
So Mom and I walked out of the store, just as quickly as we had walked in. I unlocked the car; we got in; I started driving. The radio was on, the air conditioner was blasting, and I was thinking primarily of where to go next.
Then, even over the tunes coming from the radio, I heard my mom gasp. And like an electric shock jolting me into the same appalling revelation, hearing her sharp intake of air made me realize the same thing she just had: that we had gone into the store without my baby. Both of us. Not one, but two responsible, seasoned mothers.
Even almost a decade later — my “baby” just celebrated his tenth birthday — reliving that scenario in my head is physically painful. It’s a hard thing to admit that you’ve made such a potentially-devastating mistake, especially when it comes to the safety of the kids you’d do literally anything to protect. But I did. So did my mother. And the scariest part is how easy it was.
My easygoing baby boy was quiet and placid the entire ride, not a single peep from the backseat to remind us of his presence. I wasn’t used to having only one of my kids with me; it was usually either all of them or none of them. My mom and I were preoccupied, and in a situation that was out of the norm. And so we’d left the baby in the car, in the 90-degree heat, with the windows up. Just typing out that sentence makes my chest feel tight, even now.
Our trip to the store couldn’t have taken more than two minutes at most: we walked in, saw the empty bin of corn, and promptly left. But to this day, I can’t help the what-ifs that echo endlessly through my mind. What if the bin had been full of corn, and we had taken our time to pick out the perfect ears? What if we’d decided to get some ice cream or watermelon for dessert? What if the line had been long, or the cash register or card reader had malfunctioned?
According to the National Safety Commission, 38 children per year under the age of 15 die from heatstroke after being left in a hot vehicle. Out of those, over half were forgotten by their caregiver – just like my son. On a 90-degree day, a car’s internal temperature can reach 100 degrees in mere minutes. Within half an hour, it can be up to 125 degrees.
It literally makes me ill to think how easily my baby could have died — and, even worse, that I would have been responsible. His mother, the person who loves him more than anything in this world.
Luckily, there are tons of safety products available on the market these days that will help keep these 100% preventable accidents from happening: everything from an eClip that alerts you via a phone app if you leave your baby, to a “smart cushion” that knows when your baby has been unattended, to a full-on car alarm system . Had I thought I needed them, I would have added these to my list of baby essentials. But, like most parents, I thought I would never be a “bad enough” mom to have any use for them.
I was so, so wrong.
By telling my story, I realize I’m opening myself up to the kind of judgment I (regretfully) used to dole out. But I’m putting it out there as a plea to other parents this time of year: this can happen to anyone. Anyone. It doesn’t matter how improbable or impossible it seems, how you “know” that you’d never ever be negligent enough to forget your baby in the car on a hot day. Trust me, I felt the exact same self-righteousness. I knew I’d never do it, too … until I did. It was a stunning reality check that no one is immune to such an egregious mistake.
Not even you. I promise.