When my older daughter was about three, we went to the park on a hot Spring afternoon. Usually I did not have her in a stroller, but because we were going to a particular park that was about a quarter-hour walk, and because I knew she would be totally exhausted on the trip back, I opted to put her in the little umbrella stroller (lightweight, easily folded, not one of those SUV-type strollers with trays and cupholders… in terms of parenting paraphernalia I was a minimalist). So I strapped her in, hung the bag of playground toys and juice boxes off a handle, and away we went.
We reached 103rd and Riverside, and I started to cross the Avenue. Julie had, unbeknownst to me, learned a new skill: she could unbuckle the safety strap. And she did. About 2/3rds of the way across the street she stuck her foot down to scuff her toe on the asphalt, which created just enough of a bump that she fell out of the stroller. We got her back in in about three seconds and proceeded to the corner, where I had every intention of 1) buckling her in and 2) giving her a quick scolding. We both knew she hated the harness; this was a demonstration of why it was useful.
Except that when we got to the other side of the street an elderly man was waiting to scold me. He was tall, rather patrician looking, in a suit and tie on a Saturday. And wherever he was going, it was apparently more important that he miss the light in order to give me a dressing down. What kind of parent doesn’t understand the basics of safety? Did I know what that kind of neglect could cost me? Cost my child? It seemed like this went on for five minutes–I generally find it easier not to engage someone like this–but it was probably 30 seconds before Julie unbuckled her harness, got out of the stroller, and said “You leave my mama alone. She’s a very good mama! She buckled me in and I UNDID IT MYSELF!”
At which point the gentleman, missing the point of Julie’s riposte, asked me if I was going to let my daughter address a stranger–an adult–that way. And I took strength from my child’s example and told him that she was repaying his treatment of me in kind. And the kid hopped back into the stroller and I buckled her back in and when we got to the park I got us both ice cream, and so there.
Then there’s the time when I picked up daughter #2 at kindergarten. Her classroom was at the rear of the building in a trailer (much nicer than it sounds) behind a fence about 200 feet from the sidewalk. All the families were picking up their kindergarteners, so as usual it was a bit of a scrum. Becca’s teacher wanted a word, so I checked–she was hanging upside down on a fence with a friend–and stayed to chat for two minutes, watching the fence off and on to keep tabs on her. Finished the chat, turned back, and Becca was no longer on the fence. A matter of maybe five seconds.
There’s a full-body panic flush that you get (at least I got) when you can’t find your five year old daughter in a crowd. What had happened? She had, with the egocentrism of a five-year-old, assumed that I would follow her out to the street and we would go home, and had got off the fence and marched out to 97th Street before she realized that I was not with her. I had, with the egocentrism of an older person, thought she was where I’d seen her five seconds before. Fortunately, a moment later a parent showed up, a very unhappy Becca in tow: we hugged, we cried, we each explained what had had happened, and each promised to do better in the future. She’s now 20–it must have worked.
We are–especially in this day of insta-news and the 24-hour news cycle and Our Friend Social Media–awfully quick to judge. Especially parents. Why is that kid crying so much? How could you not remember to buckle your child into her stroller? Why doesn’t that child have mittens? Why isn’t she wearing a hat? How could you be so thoughtless? Don’t you know what could happen?
Of course you do. Parenting–especially parenting more than one child–is a calculated balancing act. If I hold this one’s hand on the way home from the grocer then I can’t hold the groceries and the other child’s hand at the same time, so I gamble that I’ve trained the kid well enough that she won’t launch off across the street into traffic. If I stop to tie your shoe, your brother won’t climb on that fence and impale himself. If I look away for a second, my toddler won’t climb over barriers and fences in order to get up close and personal with a gorilla.
Frankly, if I’m going to blame anything in the tragic events of the Cincinnati Zoo, it’s the Disneyfication of nature that leads people to adopt a wandering bison calf, or attempt to pet the meerkats at the Zoo. (This is apparently the same mindset that leads people to step off high places at Disneyland because they believe that somehow gravity works differently there. Go figure.)
I am not going to blame the zoo for taking action. Enough has been written about why the gorilla at the Zoo was shot–they know their business far better than I do, and a happy ending and the toddler and the gorilla singing Kumbaya was vanishingly unlikely. I’m terribly sad about the gorilla’s death, but I see this as a perfect storm of bad news for all of them.
And the people screaming about the parents–particularly the mother, because it’s always the mother who should be aware–just… don’t. All it takes is a second (see above). And even the second after that, when every molecule in your body is on fire with terror for your child, you don’t know what to do. Try to squeeze through a space you’re going to be trapped in to go after your child? Scream loudly enough to rile up the animals? A toddler is a peculiarly mono-focused person: yelling “Tommy, you come back here right now!” is not necessarily going to stop even the most well-behaved child when he’s on a curiosity quest.
Parenting is hard, and scary, and exhausting enough. Most parents are doing the best they can, and most parents, I truly believe, do a pretty good job. We’re all making it up as we go along, trying to not do the things our parents do wrong, trying to keep our tempers and our sanities while making the world as rich and exciting for our kids as we can. And sometimes things happen, not because we’re bad people, badly intentioned, or even stupid, but because the world is damned random. You do all the things you can. Sometimes life gets away from you. God willing it’s not a tragedy.