Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Judgment call

Something really bad could have happened to my daughter today. I'm not at all sure what it was. Maybe you can tell me.

After a lovely afternoon of swimming with the kids this afternoon, I was driving "the long way" home around the lake. The sunroof and windows were wide open, and the kids took notice of all the sounds they were hearing-the waves, the breeze in the trees, the sounds of people laughing as they walked. Most intriguing of all was the "clink clink" of the ropes and lines on the sailboats moored by the east shore of the lake. Although they were both tired from swimming all afternoon, they wanted to sit by the shore and listen to the boats.

Happy to prolong our picture-perfect afternoon, I parked along the road, and we got out, still in our damp swimsuits. We walked across the road, crossed the grassy "boulevard" between the sidewalk and the road, and planted ourselves on a park bench about, oh, 100 feet from the car. We cuddled up on the bench, hunkered down together, watching the boats and the frothy water, a chilly breeze coming off the lake.

"I'm shivering," L said.

"Let's go to the car and get our clothes on, then we can come back here to this bench."

"Noooo!" she protested, "I want to wait here and watch the water."

I sat there a moment, thinking. The car was so close. I knew they were both tired and would most likely stay right there on the bench. But there was no barrier between the bench and the water, and J is after all, only 2. L, I knew, would stay put. And I could be to the car and back in less than a minute. It was literally just across the road. Then we could all be warm and cozy and stay a while.

"Please go get my clothes, mama!" She implored.

"Can you stay right here? Don't get off this bench for any reason. Stay right here. I'm taking J and we'll be back with sweatshirts to warm us all up."

I scooped up a shivering J and we shuffled towards the car. We'd gone maybe 25 feet when I got to the edge of the grassy boulevard, and I heard this from behind me:

"That's really not a good idea, ma'am."

I turned to see two women, one probably in her 60's, and one who looked to be about 10 years older than me, standing together on the path, shaking their heads, looking at me.

"Excuse me?" I said, surprised.

"That's really not a good idea." One of them, I don't know which, said again.

I was totally flustered. I had no idea what to say. "We'll be fine!" I spat, and practically ran to the bench, yanked L off without a word, and rushed both my kids to the car. I was shaking and kind of frantic, a mixture of anger, shame, and fear rushing through me.

I had the following thoughts, all at the same time:

Who do they think they are, questioning my judgment as a mother? Do they really think I'd put my daughter in harm's way?

What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? What's wrong with me?

My God, what if something happened to her?

When we got home, I watched her little-kid body, her damp, stringy hair, her tanned legs as she hopped to the back door, singing a song about sunshine and boats. My eyes filled with tears. What was I thinking? What if something had happened?

But here's the thing: I try to let my kids have some of the basic freedoms that I enjoyed as a kid. I don't believe in living in fear. I want my kids to feel safe and secure, and not be worried that the boogyman is going to get them, or that nature, or their community is a place to be afraid. I had a highly anxious mother, and spent a lot of my own childhood worrying and being afraid of things I couldn't quite define.

To me, at the time, this decision to run to the car seemed totally reasonable. Middle of the afternoon, me less than 150 feet from her, for maybe a minute, and within eyeshot the whole time. That didn't seem so risky to me.

Now, I'm not so sure. Circling back around the lake on the way home, when I saw the two ladies walking on the path, I considered stopping the car and asking them what they had thought was going to happen. Why, exactly, it was such a bad idea. Were they thinking she'd jump in the lake and drown? Get abducted? Molested?

My mind is reeling. And I feel horribly, horribly guilty for even considering leaving her there for a minute. Ashamed. What if they were right? What if I had left her and one of those things had happened?

Was I (almost) negligent? Where do we, as mothers, draw the line between being OK with a small amount of risk and being stupid? And which of those things was I, today?


  1. I think your judgment call was totally reasonable. Honestly, I don't think people give mothers enough credit for having good instincts and a reasonable amount of good sense. You love your kids more than anyone--what did they think they could tell you that you did not know? You are as capable as anyone off assessing risk as they are and YOU thought it was fine, who are they to say different?

    If they were concerned, for any reason, or actually wanted to HELP, they could have hung out and kept an extra eye on her until you got back. There was no need to make you fearful or question your ability to make good choices.

    Sorry to rant, but I wish people trusted mothers more. :)

  2. Sarah makes good points. I don't think you did anything wrong at all. I've been told my kid needs a hat, mittens, or not to climb so high in a tree or on the playground. In every situation, I politely disagreed because I know my kid. My kid will gladly put his mittens and hat on, but he needs to let them get a bit cold first and decide for himself. My kids are great, capable climbers, which means they do things on the playground some other kids their age couldn't safely attempt. Your daughter is about as likely to be abducted as be hit by lightning, and you know her well enough to know she isn't just going to jump in a lake. I think there's a nasty sort of judgment of mothers out there, a sort of infantilization, like we need to be watched because we can't truly be trusted to raise kids. And we do it to each other--not long ago overheard one mom at the park complaining about another who was catching up on cell phone calls. Like she was cheating somehow, for taking her child to a place he's very happy to be and then using the time to catch up on some calls. It's insane, Patty. Your instincts are good - the world has gone a bit nuts in this department, but you don't have to listen. You didn't do anything wrong.

  3. Hi...I'm a new reader here...it's always horrible to be chided, particularly by strangers. And particularly given you had made a thoughtful assessment of the situation. Smart old ladies would have just kept an eye on your kid discretely, if they were so worried!

  4. I've thought about this a lot since you posted it. This kind of thing really burns me. I think the danger most likely to befall L on that bench was that some overcautious busybody would call CPS and have her removed from your care for her own "safety". If those ladies really wanted L to be even safer than you were making her, they could linger for three minutes and help you watch out for the supposed impending dangers. I wish that every nosy rule-enforcing drive-by comment-maker were instead a real partner in taking care of our kids - trusting what we do, and adding their vigilance to strengthen our work instead of to criticize.