This past June, an Arizona mom left her 5-month-old daughter in her car while, oblivious, she and her sister shopped in Target for nearly an hour. The temperature was roughly 100 degrees.
“I don’t know how I forgot her,” the distraught woman can be heard saying tearfully on police bodycam video.
A few minutes later, the video shows a policeman putting the woman in handcuffs as she silently complies, her face a mask of shock and remorse. The video then cuts to footage in the police station. The woman is sitting across from an interrogator repeatedly saying, “I do not know, for the life of me, how I forgot.” Although this is very distressing to watch, the woman was lucky. Her baby survived.
A New York father of 5 dropped his 4-year-old daughter at daycare and then proceeded to drive straight to work, forgetting to bring his 1-year-old twins to a separate daycare. He didn’t discover his mistake until 4 p.m. when his shift ended. The twins became the 23rd and 24th children to die in a hot car in the U.S. this summer.
The twins’ death was not the first hot car death this year, and it won’t be the last.
Hot car deaths seem like a textbook case for bad or neglectful parenting. It starts happening as soon as the weather gets warmer.
Headlines like, “Baby dies after being left in sweltering car for five hours,” read like a script from a horror story. The parents behind these stories are the target of condemnation as people ask the question, “How could you possibly forget your child?”
And, while cases of neglect or abuse do happen, the majority of hot car deaths involve a phenomenon called Forgotten Baby Syndrome (FBS).
It occurs because our brains go into autopilot, allowing us to do things without thinking about them. Parents are particularly vulnerable to having this happen when there’s a change in routine — for example, if the parent who doesn’t normally drop the child off at daycare takes on this task one morning.
As they make their way to daycare, the parent’s brain may revert back to their standard routine, completely bypassing the task of dropping the baby off and instead rerouting them to their job as it would on a typical day.
Stress and sleep deprivation — two conditions that are particularly prevalent for parents with babies and young children — contribute to this phenomenon as do rear-facing car seats.
In a Pulitzer-prize winning feature published in 2009, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten spoke with 13 parents whose children died this way. This article should be required reading for every parent and for anyone who would condemn or question how this could possibly happen. In his brilliant piece, Weingarten writes:
“What kind of person forgets a baby? The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate.”
It could happen to you. It could’ve happened to me. Thankfully, it didn’t, but I have lost a child. It is the worst loss imaginable.
When stories of hot car deaths begin appearing in the news each spring, outrage quickly follows. If you spend any amount of time reading the comments under one of these pieces, then you know what I mean. Parents are accused of neglect, abuse, psychopathy and worse. They are called murderers, they are condemned. One commenter suggested that both parents be sentenced to the same fate as their child writing, “These people should be left in a hot car to die the same way!!!”
It is so easy to judge, so easy to condemn, and so difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of these parents. Yet this terrible lapse in memory could happen to any one of us. These are broken parents who must live with their fatal mistake forever. Isn’t that enough pain?
Losing a child is a life sentence, but losing a child because of a mistake you made must be its own kind of hell. If you’ve never had to bury your child, then you can’t possibly understand the true devastation of this loss.
But I get it. I live it every day. My 15-year-old daughter died of cancer two years ago. What if people had blamed me for her death? What if I’d had no support? I don’t know if I would’ve been able to go on living.
There a hundred ways a child can die, a thousand, ten thousand — accidents and missteps lurk around seemingly safe corners. For the most part, we wrap our arms around the devastated parents and offer them compassion. But when it comes to this terrible accident — death as a consequence of forgetting — we recoil, turning the bereft parents into monsters.
Try, just for a moment, to imagine yourself in these parents’ shoes. Think about a close call you may have had — a time when you forgot to pick up your child at daycare or left them too long in their crib during naptime, not realizing that three hours had gone by, or forgot to close the gate at the top of the stairs or became distracted at the pool, losing site of your 3-year-old who was sitting beside you at the water’s edge just a few seconds ago.
It could happen to any of us.
Think about this before posting a vicious denunciation online to a grieving parent. Remember, your words have power. Use them to lift people up or don’t say anything at all.
It’s easy to judge, but much harder to try and understand the “why” behind a tragedy like this. Yet, if you spend any amount of time reading about how a parent could forget their baby, you will learn that we are all surprisingly susceptible to this mistake. It’s happened to the most loving, attentive parents — parents just like you and me.