On New Year’s Eve, a six-year-old boy went missing in Colorado. His body was just identified yesterday; he was found in a nearby pond. This is devastating news. “Every parent’s worst nightmare,” the news stories always say when these things happen, because it’s true. There is nothing worse. Apparently he had a fight with siblings and left the house, and had a history of wandering off before. I’m unclear as to the exact circumstances, but of course as soon as he was reported missing, the frenzy began: How did the parents let this happen?
I’ve read that his mom was at work and a grandparent was taking care of him. I’m not sure it it’s true or not. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. When Jessica Ridgeway was abducted in our community four years ago, she was walking to school alone and her mother, who worked night shifts, was sleeping. Can you imagine anything worse than not being there to protect your child from harm? No. Of course you can’t.
I couldn’t help myself from reading the comments on the 9 News Facebook page, claims like “If my child had a history of wandering away from home, I would put a GPS tracker on him.” “Where were the parents?” “I would never . . . ” The list goes on. You can imagine; we’ve all read comments like this. The gorilla incident last year, the alligator at Disney World, really any time something tragic occurs that we want to add to our imaginary, completely ineffective list of “Things That Could Never Happen To Us.”
Because that is what we are consciously or unconsciously saying when we judge, blame, and shame parents when terrible things happen. That could never happen to me. But of course we all know that it can, in some form or another. We have all turned our backs, crossed our fingers while we ran inside the house for a moment, picked up our phone at a park out of boredom. We aren’t perfect. And even if we were? We are also at the mercy of the complexity of the human body, of illness and disease. It’s the worst part of being a parent; I think we can all agree on that.
Years ago, I saw a movie or TV show, (for the life of me I can’t remember what it was) where two people were sitting on a bench on a boardwalk watching a family rollerblading. The kid was bundled within an inch of his life, covered in pads and helmets, and the person watching commented, “Some day that kid is going to get bitten by a tick and die.” It’s really not funny, perhaps inappropriate even, but I think we can all relate to the sentiment. And that sucks, thinking that we can do everything we can to keep our kids safe in a certain way, and yet we can never prepare for everything. Perhaps it’s the unexpected we should fear the most.
When an acquaintance had a second trimester miscarriage, one of my pregnant friends, also out of her first trimester, said, “I thought I was out of the woods at this point.” I wanted to say: We are never out of the woods. We all have so much to lose from the moment we conceive, adopt, or even start planning for our children. It should be the motto of raising kids: Parenthood: We’re never out of the woods.
We can (and should) take sexual abuse prevention courses, teach our kids a safe person password, practice role-playing situations, teach our kids about drugs and alcohol, relationships, sex, practice gun safety, feed our children healthy food, stay active with them, keep soda and caffeine out of their little bodies, keep them away from cigarette smoke, but in our hearts we know that no matter what we do, we can never guarantee their health and safety. And that kills us. But here’s one thing I know for sure that has never helped keep our children safe from harm: judging and shaming other parents.
I’m sure you feel like crap right now reading this; I know I do writing it. My husband (I hope he doesn’t read this) can’t stand it when I marinate in tragedies relating to children dying. A few weeks ago I came downstairs at night, unable to speak because I had been sobbing after accidentally watching a video of a father in Aleppo holding his children, who had died. I didn’t mean to watch it; I didn’t want to. I always walk a fine line between wanting to saturate myself with tragedies (for those of us who were glued to the TV during Sandy Hook) out of some sense of duty or responsibility, an attempt to bear some of the burden of the parents who were suffering, and a desire to protect myself from pain.
But what a luxury, isn’t it, the ability to turn something like that on or off, for those of us who are parents of only living children? I think many parents struggle with this. We want to look away, it’s too painful, we don’t need any more reminders that our children’s lives are more fragile than we want to comprehend, but we also can’t look away.
But here is what we can do: Tap into that despair, that raw part of us that is gutted when we imagine losing our children, and turn it into pure compassion. Compassion for the parents, because we too can imagine what it would be like, in our worst nightmares. (And let’s not say that “we can’t imagine,” because, yes. We can imagine.) We can realize that the judgment, blaming, and shaming is nothing more than a misguided attempt to secure our own safety through moral superiority, and we can let it go. We can find compassion instead.
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I love your words. And I think so many of us are quick to point the finger because if it’s not aimed at US, it’s at someone else, presumably keeping us and ours safe. It’s the cruelest defense mechanism.
Thank you, friend. And yes, it is absolutely a defense mechanism and extremely cruel.
A great column. I do think a psychological reason for both the writer’s tendency to immerse herself in these tragedies and for some people to take a “tsk, tsk” attitude about them is an innate desire for things to “come round right”. It’s the reason humans like crime solving shows.
So poignant and so totally right. Thank you for writing it (so eloquently) and sharing it.
Love this Stephanie! Great reminder and lovely observations. XO
YES! Thank you for this gorgeous, powerful piece, Stephanie!
This is so good! As the parent of a child who died in a freak accident, I will say that love and compassion from others truly does help us bear the burden. Thank you for leaning into these stories when you could lean away. Judgment and shame help no one. Responsible parenting is important, but in many ways, control is an illusion. XOXO
With Barrett’s wandering, I live in constant fear of this. Those poor parents, and shame on those who judge.
This is a fantastic post. I am not a parent, but my brother to whom I am very close has recently become one. So the closest I can get is imagining what it would be like for him to lose his little guy, and yeah. Even a step removed, it is almost too painful to contemplate.
I arrived here because of an interest I have in a particular type of missing persons cases. If you have an interest in tragedies involving children(I am talking about a healthy interest of course, as in wanting to help somehow), then perhaps when you have a few hours to yourself you might fire up the old Google and ask it to open the rabbithole door labeled “Missing 411”, if, you’re not already familiar with it.
Thank you so much for that! We have got way to much shaming of other people and these people don’t know the story, don’t know these people, and quite frankly should be ashamed of them selves because they know just as well as I do that it could happened to any one of us first and for most. Second everyone knows how a toddler is busy bodies and always on the go or a young child such as David especially if they have developmental delays or are on the Autism Spectrum. It is impossible to keep your eye on them every second every day. All though we do our best as parents. My Son who just tuned 4 is a wanderer too my sister was telling me about these bracelets some states have that alarm when they try to leave or they have ones where you can track them up to 5 or 10 miles away. My son has wanderer 3 times one time it was when I still had my house I was on the phone paying a bill or something I could hear him playing and every so often I would call his name just to hear him when I called out and didn’t hear him I called out again and again nothing so I got off the phone went to look for him nothing thought he was hiding for a minute until I saw the back door ajar I opened it he wasn’t out there either I called and called for him. I called the dogs name nothing. Approx. 15-20 mins. or so went by I was frantic I called the police they came by. I told them what had happened they looked around I gave them a description and a picture. We looked around some more and yelled some more. He was missing for a little over two and a half hours before the police officers I was with received a phone call from dispatch saying some lady had called the police and had picked up a little boy walking down the street. They finally brought him home I was so relieved. I don’t wish nothing like that on my worse enemy! They told me he had walked pretty far from the house. I couldn’t stop thinking about what if the person that picked him up wouldn’t of been a nice person. What if he would of gotten ran over all these things go through your mind. So yeah I don’t wish that on my worse enemy. My daughter’s dad told me once that when you have kids you have to spend the rest of your life trying to keep them alive. (were never out of the woods)