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 rare:
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.