As of this writing, I’ve logged 2,793,578,133 seconds of parenting. (This is the number of seconds my four children have collectively been alive.)
In many of these moments, I’ve made mistakes. And not just little mistakes, but huge, horrible, it’s-a-wonder-my-kids-are-alive-and-well mistakes.
Just thinking about these lapses in attention/judgement/luck makes me nauseous. It’s hard to choose the worst one.
Was it when our daughter was 8 and we lost her in the Paris Metro?
Or when our youngest son was 3 and he vanished – I swear I’d seen him not five seconds before – in the Raleigh/Durham airport?
The time I got so frustrated with my eldest son – I think he was 4 – I put my face right up to his, grabbed his shoulders, and yelled “YOU MUST STOP DOING THIS RIGHT NOW!”?
I could, of course, list hundreds of occasions where my parenting has, at best, been negligent, and at worst, rotten. I’ve fed my children junk food, let them watch mind-numbingly stupid television, snapped at them in public, and inculcated in them a love of creative cursing. I’ve failed to make them write thank you notes, argued with my husband in their presence, and utterly flopped as the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. I’ve read books on the sidelines while they were on the field. I’ve been bitchy, cranky, mean, and flat out wrong.
My children have survived despite my lapses. All four are independent young adults who return my texts. I’m absurdly proud of each of them. If I had to pick five people to be marooned on a desert island with – and yes, I let my children watch “Lost” when the youngest were just 8 – I’d pick my husband and my kids. I think they’d do the same.
That said, I hazard that of my almost 3 billion seconds as a parent, at least 15,000,000, had they been shared on social media, would enrage the public. I can see the headlines now.
“Careless mom loses son at Water Park. Friend says it’s not the first time.”
“High school student scores winning goal. Mom, reading a romance novel, misses the whole thing.”
“Mom takes week to realize daughter has broken wrist. Child says, ‘I told her it hurt.’”
Last month, a 3-year-old boy slipped away from his mother and fell into a gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo. Minutes later, the gorilla was dead, shot by zoo staff who feared anything less than a fatal shot would endanger the child.
Millions of people were outraged the animal’s life was taken and many have directed their anger toward the mother. There is a petition on Change.org with over a half million signatures stating that parental negligence caused Harambe’s death and asking that there be “an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.” My social media feeds roiled with fury at the careless woman who didn’t watch her kid.
I could have been that mom. I have, in different contexts, been that mom.
I am beyond grateful that none of the times I’ve lost track of one or more of my children ever resulted in any real harm to anyone or to any beloved animals. Most parents, at one time or another, have been that mom. My parents were certainly that mom – I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. There is no such thing as a perfect parent.
Yes, almost every parent could be more patient or more mature or more aware or just better, but most are doing their best. Most non-parents are too. We are all trying and while our efforts are not always good enough they rarely justify demonizing.
In the time it’s taken me to write this column, I’ve parented another 160,000 seconds. In that time, I’ve only done two things that could get me pilloried on social media. (One involved helping my child who is sick and away from home and the other I can’t confess to for legal reasons.) Impressively, I haven’t lost my temper at my son for not walking the dog – because we’re talking about today not yesterday. Everyone has survived and now those of us that are home are going to watch “Game of Thrones” which, given that everyone is well over 18, is unlikely to get me derided as a permissive, pernicious prat.
The Cincinnati police decided not to charge the mother of the boy who jumped into the gorilla pit. The Hamilton County Prosecutor said multiple witness described the mom as attentive and the child as a normal 3-year-old who “scampered off quickly.” This sort of thing happens, he said, and it’s not a crime. It’s life.
You can reach Dabney Grinnan at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DabneyGrinnan