It’s a nightmare no mother believes can happen to her. Only women who don’t truly love their children forget their babies in the car—especially in summer. Only absentminded parents forget to drop their kids off at daycare. Only substance addicts, uneducated, anything-that-doesn’t-describe-me parents do that. Right?
How many times have you driven to work only to not remember actually driving there?
How many times were you convinced you’d turned off the oven only to realize you hadn’t?
How many times have you forgotten your wallet when it isn’t where it’s supposed to be?
While thoughts prioritize, your memory cannot. And if you are capable of doing the things above, you are capable of forgetting your child.
On June 21st, a nurse practitioner forgot her child in her car while she worked for eight hours. She’s been charged with second degree manslaughter and is currently on suicide watch. She is highly educated. By all accounts she was a doting mother. She dedicated her life to healing and saving others.
And she simply forgot her child was in the car instead of safely delivered to daycare.
In the psychology world, it is called the Swiss cheese situation. You see, our brains are high functioning pieces on top of low functioning, earlier evolutionary pieces. When we go on autopilot, it is our lower functioning part of the brain that takes over. This happens mostly when our frontal cortex becomes overloaded. If you’re thinking about your to-do list for your work day; if you’re focused on a family member in crisis; if you’re on your phone; if you are doing anything that requires processing, autopilot takes over to drive the car and get you to your usual destination. Add fatigue to the mix and dropping your child off at daycare that may be out of routine for you, and the different holes in the Swiss cheese line up perfectly—allowing your child to fall through the cracks, which can lead to fatal distraction.
This mortal flaw in our brains does not discriminate. People across all socioeconomic lines have done it. A pediatrician has forgotten his child. A clergyman has done it. A construction worker has done it. A mental health nurse. A rocket scientist. A pizza chef. It has happened to all these people.
Our initial reaction is anger with vitriol. It’s an anger no one can ignore or control. It is a gut reaction so strong we don’t recognize the monster that comes out, and we feel it is justified. Comments on social media call for these parents’ heads. They judge them and wish all manner of evil on them, fully knowing each of these lives are now hell eternal. And we do this for one reason: we can only be empathetic to one person at a time. We can only feel for the dead child or the grieving parent. We cannot do both, so our brains shatter for the child and become murderous toward the parent.
Our second reaction is simple: I would never. How could they?! And there is another simple answer for why. Our psyche is protecting us again. We do not handle our own mortality well, let alone the mortality of our children. We don’t like that a true accident could kill anyone we love, and so we trick ourselves into thinking it is something we can control. But the problem with this thinking is that it can happen to you. It can. It has. It might. And if you think that it is a possibility, then you will make fatal distraction less likely. You will do things to remember your child even through distraction.
When my child was an infant, I used a mirror that attached to the headrest so I could see her rear-facing face any time I looked in my rear-view mirror. There are arguments that in an accident this can become a projectile. I don’t dispute this possibility. But this was a safety step I chose to take so I could see my child for any reason. Now that she’s forward-facing, I thank God for a little fan I have plugged into the cigarette lighter that blows air into the backseat. Because it doesn’t connect to the rest of the car except through the lighter, it doesn’t turn off when the car does. And when the rest of the car is quiet, that little whirring sound is a reminder that my child is in the backseat—even if I have always remembered her. But even though I’ve never forgotten her, it could still happen. And I am doing everything in my power to circumvent my autopilot memory.
Parents forgot their children. It. Can. Happen. To. You. Accept that fact with all the nausea and fear that accompanies it. Take steps to make sure it doesn’t.
- Take off a shoe and leave it by your child if it isn’t in your typical day to have them with you in the car.
- Leave the diaper bag on the front seat.
- Use a mirror.
- Use a fan.
And the next time your heart shatters at the thought of another child dying because his parents forgot him, respond with compassion not empathy. Compassion will allow you to feel for both parties. Compassion will encourage you to do better so it doesn’t happen to you. And compassion is what will save more children from dying.
For more information on hyperthermia deaths please check out Kids and Cars, the country’s largest database of children and car-related deaths.