[The Day I Was Called An Unfit Mother]

Yesterday I sobbed big, hot, shamefully embarrassed tears thanks to a really unpleasant experience at the hands of a stranger who, within a 3 minute altercation, made me feel like the worst mother in the world.
I am, however, aware that God sends the most unlikely of people and experiences to teach you important lessons along life’s journey.

Yesterday morning my two year old son and I were heading back from his Saturday swimming lesson. I needed to make a quick stop to grab a superhero costume for a party he’d be going to later.  I didn’t have any cash on me, so decided to stop at an ATM at a fuel station nearby. I parked my car at the entrance to the garage shop and saw there was nobody else queuing at the ATM, which was directly opposite the door. I got out to take my boy out of his seat, but he was dosing off. And that led to a quick decision to dash in and out without getting him out.  I repeat: my car was parked right at the door, and I could see my son from the ATM.  It was a 2 second decision. Just as I knew the act of drawing cash would be a 2 minute action and I’d be back in the car and on our way. 

I’d just punched in my code and was waiting for the cash to come out when a woman appeared behind me. “You left your child in a locked car!” she yelled.  I was stunned.  “I did,” I stuttered. “But I was just running in here for 2 minutes.” “That doesn’t matter. Do you know how quickly the temperature rises in a car?” she yelled back. “Yes, but it was 2 minutes,” I repeated, my voice rising.  It was also a cool, overcast morning. We’d been driving with the windows up because it was chilly, windy and about to rain.
“Everybody in the forecourt is looking at you and they’re disgusted,” she yelled. Sure enough, I walked out, by now really angry, and there were several eyes on me and this shouting woman. I don’t know if they’d seen how quick my entry and exit had been. All they’d seen was a kid in a car seat in a locked car. And a short, disheveled mother emerging, fresh from swimming, hair pulled back and probably looking as if she didn’t have a cooking clue how to raise a little person.
Her parting shot was: “If you don’t know how to look after children,  then don’t have them. You’re unfit to do so.”
I was gobsmacked.  My son is my whole world. The fact that a stranger had passed such vicious judgement on me based on a 2 minute incident was incomprehensible.
I got into my car shaking with a mix of embarrassment and spitting anger.  An elderly lady drove by, rolled down her window and said, while shaking her head at me, “She’s right, you know?”  I heard myself say, “Yes. I do understand that.” I was defeated.

The truth is, I did understand.  Children die in locked vehicles far too often across the world. Just a month ago here in South Africa, 2 children died in Johannesburg when when they were trapped in a locked car for 3 hours in 30+ degree heat. Three children also died in Mahikeng when they were left for just 20 minutes.
The irony is that vehicular death among kids is a topic that captures my Facebook news feed often. I recently shared this old, yet still spine chilling, Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post article on Facebook about children’s deaths in parked vehicles in the US. These weren’t kids who had been left in the car during parents’ errands. They had died because their parents had actually forgotten they were even in the back seat. My comment on the post at the time was that I ached for the parents of these kids, because I recognised my time-strapped, often distracted self in each of them.
I would never do anything to intentionally endanger my son. But of course, I’m certain that all of those parents felt the exact same way. The truth is that all it takes is a build up of these “I’ll be just 2 minutes” occurrences or a day where you are bogged down by the millions of responsibilities running through your head, to start developing bad habits that can eventually lead to something tragic.
I do believe that I had first assessed any danger yesterday.  And I honestly didn’t see any, knowing that I was going to be in and out in a flash. This wasn’t a shopping mall or a supermarket. It was an ATM stop on a cool, sunless day. I wasn’t buying anything from the shop. I was drawing cash.

I realise that in that moment I made a quick decision. But it was a really, really stupid one, too.
I drove home on the freeway racked by big sobs and a heavy, aching heart. It was confusing for my son. I felt like the most inept mother in the world at that moment.
To the woman who yelled at me, I am angry with the way you handled the situation. I am angry that you jumped to all sorts of conclusions about me and my fitness as a mother.
But I am thankful that you taught me a difficult lesson once the anger and tears had subsided. I will never again do what I did, even on 2 minute stops. 
If that stops me from putting my son in a situation that could have devastating consequences, then more power to you.

Some facts about vehicular death among kids:

  • On average, 38 children die in hot cars each year from heat-related deaths (www.kidsandcars.org)
  • There is no safe amount of time to leave children alone in the car
  • Kids are more susceptible and at higher risk for heat-related illness and injury than adults because their bodies make more heat relative to their size and their abilities to cool through sweating are not as developed as adults
  • A 2002 study found the temperature rose significantly in a car within just 10 minutes
  • Even opening the windows is not effective at reducing the temperature or delaying the temperature increase
  • Just a few minutes can be extremely dangerous — even fatal — for a small child
  • The highest number of incidents occur in summer

In short, it is never worth the time saved. Don’t do it. I certainly won’t ever again. Even for 2 minutes.

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6 thoughts on “[The Day I Was Called An Unfit Mother]

  1. Hate that she did that to you 😦 looking young myself I know the “eyes” all to well like when my 1 and a half year old suddenly passed out in the trolley when I was practically done and a lady came by took him out and held him telling me it was not safe to have him in there unsupported like that… but the trolley is full and I'm quite small so holding him and pushing was not an option and I was waiting for his dad to dash back from getting milk… but she didn't care and had no right to act that way the same as your accusers….. from your blog I know your a good mom and we all make mistakes *hugs*

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  2. Jozi when Nicky was a baby and sleeping I used to park literally next to the ATM at the petrol station to draw money. Very quick and I could see him the whole time. I don't have an issue at all. There's a huge difference between that and leaving a kid in a hot car. I was walking on the beach with my mom once and we saw a kid in a car like that on a hot day and my mom actually phoned the police. I think that woman was WAY too judgemental.

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  3. Thanks so much for understanding, Eleanor! And for sharing your experience. I can't believe she even took him out and held him! A total stranger? Anyway, I get those “what a stupid, young mum” eyes all the time. I'm nearly 35, for pete's sake. I'm just really short. People are so quick to judge. But we plod on and do the best we can. Take care.

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