Kim Brooks’ “The Day I Left My Child in the Car” describes her experience being charged with a crime for leaving her four-year-old in her car for a few minutes on a cool day. She quotes Lenore Skenazy, who was hailed as “the worst mother in the world” after writing a piece about allowing her nine-year-old to go home on the New York subway alone:
“Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day — and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger.
It’s not like this everywhere. In Denmark it’s common to see babies in prams left on the sidewalk while parents are inside a store (partly because the buildings are old and often have steps going up, not exactly stroller-friendly.) A Danish couple found out the hard way that this is not a normal American practice after they were jailed for child endangerment after leaving their baby in a stroller outside the New York restaurant where they were dining.
Americans who spend time in other cultures often comment on how much more communal child-rearing is in some places. In many places, if you bring your child to a family gathering or community event, many adults there (perhaps mostly the women) function as caregivers. A child running around such a gathering can expect to be comforted, fed, and disciplined by any nearby adult and not only by her own parents.
Attachment theory suggests that children who have a secure attachment to a parent or other familiar caregiver will feel safe and confident enough to explore a new environment and interact with strangers. The theory deals only with the child’s feelings and behavior, but I wonder about the ways a culture affects mothers’ feelings of safety.
At a group for new mothers, I heard another woman say she had spent months almost constantly in her baby’s presence. “I didn’t even want to be on a different floor of the house from her to use the bathroom.” I was amazed. While I spend much of the day in close contact with Lily — sleeping beside her, nursing her, carrying her — I didn’t feel a need to personally supervise her every moment. I had been leaving her with her father, aunts, grandparents, family friends, etc. since the first weeks of her life. It seemed the only sensible way to wash my hair, get a nap, or go to a doctor’s appointment. And it was easy for me because I felt part of a tribe of competent adults.
Like a child who feels safe enough to explore rather than clinging to mother, I felt safe enough in my family to lengthen my baby’s tether. When other people are holding her I actually supervise her more than I feel a need to, because I don’t want people to think I’m a bad mother.
I don’t think Americans’ fears are serving us well here. (When I say “Americans” I guess I mean the WASPy culture I grew up in — I’m aware that there are cultures within the US where parenting is more communal.) Parenting is crazy-making enough.