A Washington Post reporter named Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer
Prize for feature writing last week for his
story published last March on the most unthinkable,
unimaginable act a parent can commit: accidentally leaving an
infant in the car, where they slowly bake to death. "Death by
hyperthermia," as it's called, happens between 15 and 25 times each
year, Weingarten reports, and peaks in spring and summer.
I was struck by two implications of the story, which was
painstakingly reported and beautifully written.
The first was the timeless truth that applies as aptly to
parenting as to anything else in life: Smart, well-intentioned and
otherwise good people sometimes do very, very stupid things, and
sometimes those things have devastating consequences. The opening
description of the manslaughter trial of Miles Harrison, who left
his son in a hot car for nine hours while he was at work, should
convince anyone that Harrison is not a bad person:
When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant
had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was
virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking
back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment.
He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse
sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the
patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn't want
any sedation, that he didn't deserve a respite from pain, that he
wanted to feel it all, and then to die.
As Weingarten reports, this happens to parents of all
ethnicities and education levels. It happens to doting
parents, to the super-organized, to those whose jobs are dedicated
to the health and safety of children. Among the dozen or so most
recent offenders were a rocket scientist, a principal, a police
officer and a pizza chef. Weingarten talks to several
neuroscientists to try to answer the obvious question -- how could
a loving and otherwise responsible parent simply forget a child? --
and what he finds is disturbing. It happens.
The second thing that struck me was the minute and unforeseeable
ways in which small societal and technological changes can change
the everyday maze parents must navigate. In the six months I've
worked for Chicago Parent, I've reached the conclusion that
parenting is getting, if not harder, than at least more
complicated, and this is another example of that. As Weingarten
notes, two decades ago, this kind of tragedy was relatively
But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that
passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they
recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then,
for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be
pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of
the lessened visibility of the child ... well, who can blame them?
What kind of person forgets a baby?
Then came SUVs, with their high and tinted windows, both of
which make a child left in the backseat harder to see, and cell
phones, which can distract a parent driving in the front seat
(state laws be damned, people talk and drive all the time). A few
small changes that, 99 percent of the time make our easier, safer
and more organized, make parenting harder.
Anyway, read the story. Every parent should. Weingarten
navigates the unbelievable shame and sorrow these parents feel and
always comes back to a haunting truth: It could happen to you.
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