We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
In the moments before the police and county prosecutors and child protective services took over her life, Monique was thinking about dinner. Specifically, she wanted a baked chicken. She had just left a birthday party and was driving home with her two daughters. By the time she pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store near their house, her younger daughter, then 4 years old, was taking a much needed nap.
Monique hesitated. She didn’t want to wake her daughter to bring her into the store, where she was liable to be as cranky and difficult as anyone else who’d been prematurely awakened. On the other hand, Monique was hungry.
“I’ll watch her,” said her older daughter. She was 8. She had an iPad she could text her mother from. It was January in Maryland. Mild, 45 degrees.
A few minutes later, standing in the checkout line of the grocery store, Monique heard her name being paged, asking her to return to her car. When she got there she found three police officers surrounding it, asking if she was the mother of the children in the vehicle, shouting at her, “Do you know how dangerous this is?” The two male officers went about the lengthy business of finding an appropriate charge, while the female officer continued to berate Monique, who stood, stunned, next to the car, while her daughters cried.
An hour later they were still there, waiting to be released, when one of the officers asked where Monique’s husband was. She told him they were separated.
“Well,” he said, “you need to have him come pick up the kids so we can arrest you.”
For Dawn, a young mother in New England, it was the same: a moment of convenience followed by one of shock. She had just picked up her daughter from daycare when she remembered she was out of toilet paper. Her daughter, worn out after the day, was strapped into her car seat and busily enjoying what was her first ever Happy Meal to boot. Dawn pulled up in front of a Rite Aid, locked the doors, and sprinted inside. By the time she returned to the vehicle, three minutes later, a woman was standing by the window, beside Dawn’s daughter, who was still waiting comfortably.
“You’re disgusting,” the stranger said. “What a horrible mother. I’ve called the police on you. I have your license plate number. I’m waiting here to make sure they arrest you.”
For Courtney, the decision to stop wasn’t spontaneous; for days she’d been meaning to get a gate to put in front of her fireplace, to keep away her 3-year-old daughter who’d been growing increasingly curious about it. She was driving home to New York after a weekend visiting her mother-in-law and knew she would be passing a store where she could get just that. Five minutes before she reached the place, her daughter fell asleep.
“She had a little cold,” Courtney told me. “I just wanted to let her rest. It was 70 degrees, but I knew I’d only be a couple minutes.” She opened the windows and parked in the shade.
She spent no more than 10 minutes in the store. She was on the way back to her car when she noticed something odd. A woman, a stranger, standing near the hood of her car, a store employee on either side of her, all of them staring and watching Courtney as she approached. She experienced a moment of dread. Had something happened to her daughter … but no, her daughter was fine. She was in the car seat, stirring a little, but fine. Courtney opened the back door, adjusted her little girl’s blanket. There was a shopping cart near her car and she pushed it a few feet into the stall. She unlocked the door, got in, checked her text messages. And all the while, the woman and employees stood watching her, saying nothing.
“It was so odd,” Courtney later said. “I kept feeling like they were going to say something to me, but they never did.”
That night, after she’d put her daughter to bed, she mentioned the incident to her husband. She asked him, “Is it not OK to let a kid wait in a car for a few minutes with the windows open while you run an errand?” He had no idea. It hardly seemed worth worrying about. Certainly no more worrisome than their daughter’s cold. A few days later, going down to the lobby of their building, Courtney’s husband was stopped by a New York police officer. The officer asked his name, if he was Courtney’s husband. He said yes. The officer said his wife needed to call the police about an incident in a parking lot.
Courtney was baffled but did as instructed. “I just thought I needed to explain it,” she told me. “I thought that it was all a misunderstanding.”
She and the officer spoke for about 30 minutes. The officer asked her to describe what had happened. She recounted to him the events of the afternoon, explained that she’d opened the windows, parked in the shade, explained that it had been raining and was overcast, that she’d only gone in to look for one item, had hurried back after just a few minutes. She could hear the officer typing as she spoke. He asked her to hold on a moment. Then he said, without emotion, “At this point, based on what you’ve told me, I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance you’re going to be arrested.”
The cases against all three women remain open (names and some identifying details have been changed). The details, as they have been described to me, are harrowing and strange. Strange enough that three years ago, I might not have believed them. Back then, I was aware that children died after being forgotten or becoming trapped in hot cars, but these were rare and tragic instances that seemed more a matter of horrible forgetfulness than anything criminal. The idea that strangers might be watching for any suggestion of what they deemed to be neglect, and prepared to involve the authorities and provide stern, hurtful commentary on top of it, seemed absurd, an over-the-top parody mashup of modern parenting techniques and the East German Stasi.
Then it happened to me.
At the end of a trip home to see my parents, I let my then-4-year-old son wait by himself in a car while I ran into a store. He needed headphones to watch a video on our flight home. Someone filmed me leaving him, going into the store, coming out, and driving off, and promptly called the police. Ultimately I was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor – a charge most people associate with buying beer for underage teenagers – and, with the aid of lawyers I was only able to afford through family generosity, arranged to perform 100 hours of community service and take parenting lessons. In return, the county prosecutor decided not to pursue the matter any further.
After I wrote a story about what happened, Monique, Dawn and Courtney all reached out to me individually through social media, looking for guidance as they navigated the particulars of their cases. The legal aspects. The social services. The staggering personal distress that comes from having a reasonable and informed decision turned into a condemnation of you as a parent by an utter stranger.
These cases fly in the face of logic and statistics on actual dangers: A child is far more likely to be killed or injured in a moving vehicle than in a stationary one; if a child is going to be abducted, far more often the culprit is a family member, not a stranger. Yet parents continue to be harassed and arrested for allowing children to play in a park unsupervised, walk alone to a friend’s house, or wait in a car for a few minutes. The boogeyman of “stranger danger” that my generation grew up haunted by and that continues to loom darkly over the parenting landscape – “Unsolved Mysteries” mutates into “To Catch a Predator” – was never much of a threat to begin with. A news cycle overrun with statistically unlikely horror stories is bad enough for an exhausted mother or father, frayed nerves and all. What makes this current situation worse is the climate of judgment that seems to have permeated the national consciousness. There is a moral vigilantism about parenting that, as with all forms of vigilantism, veers far into paranoia.
In the months that followed my ordeal, I struggled to see myself as that stranger had seen me—not a mother running an errand, making a judgment call, juggling demands, but a criminal, a threat to my own child’s safety, a social problem to be dealt with as quickly and as anonymously as possible. This distance between how I saw myself (an anxious, generally overprotective parent) and how this stranger had seen me (a threat to my child) was the most surreal aspect of the experience. I couldn’t bridge the gap, and even after my essay was published, I was still straddling it. A friend emailed me a mock congratulations after the essay began to spread. “Oh, Kim,” he wrote. “Do you realize how much you’ve done for kid-in-car stock photography?” I laughed when I read it, but it was an agonized laugh. He was right. We experience each other in thumbnails, in status updates and sound bites. In cases of genuine emotional distress, the actual pain – rather than the controversial facts – almost always goes unnoticed. I became very curious about this stranger: Who was this person who had meant to prevent pain but had only caused it?
Last summer, I was interviewed by a television newsmagazine about my experience. (I was on right after the bit about getting hit by lightning inside your house). As a lead-in to my segment, the show produced a short feature where a baby doll was left alone in a car seat on a hot day. I think it made crying noises or made some other signal of distress. Passersby, on hidden camera, were filmed confronting the “mother,” telling her how wrong she was to leave her baby, how she couldn’t do that, how the police were being called, while the “mother” herself dismissed their concerns as a violation of her personal rights.
Lately, I’ve become as interested in these people who call the police on women like myself as I am in the victims of this new type of harassment. And when I think about them, it’s not indignation I feel but sadness and regret at how little any of us know about each other’s lives. I see these good samaritans slowing down in a parking lot, resisting the anonymity of modern life, wanting to help but unsure of what to do, of how to reach out or engage. I see them grappling with this uncertainty for the briefest moment, then reaching for the phone. We’re raising our kids in a moment when it’s easier to call 911 than to have a conversation.
Courtney was one of the first to reach out to me, through a Facebook message in late August. “I found much needed comfort in your article,” she wrote, “as I’m going through a very similar matter. It is an unbelievable process. I willingly turned myself in yesterday (the first time I was asked to, three weeks after the incident) only to find out I must have the soonest possible court date. It's been a nightmare.”
A few days after the officer interviewed her by phone, her lawyer informed her that she was being charged with felony child endangerment and that she would need to return to New Jersey to self-report. In a small room she was electronically fingerprinted and photographed by a police officer. Then she was issued a court date only a few days later, on Labor Day. She knew her lawyer would be unavailable then, told the officer as much and asked why the date was so soon.
That was when Courtney learned she’d been classified as a violent family offender.
All of this was eerily familiar to me. My experience had also progressed in the manner of bad dreams, without logic, without the clear relationship of cause and effect we expect in waking life.
Courtney’s new court date was set on her daughter’s first day of preschool. “That was one of the hardest parts,” she said. “Missing her first day of school to go to court and prove I wasn’t a neglectful mother.”
She hired a baby sitter, asked a close friend to go with her, and went back across state lines to appear before a judge. The case wasn’t heard that day, or the next time she appeared. It dragged on for several months. Ultimately, Courtney was given one year of probation with supervision, a year during which she’d need to drive a hundred miles each month to meet with an officer. She expected these meetings to be fairly routine, with questions about her daughter, her home life, maybe a drug test. She was surprised at the first meeting when the female officer seemed very eager to dig deep into her case.
“She asked me what I did for a living,” Courtney said, “and seemed put off when I told her I was a stay-at-home mom. That was when she got nasty. She asked me how my husband felt about all this, if he was OK with me abandoning our infant in a hot car while he worked to support me.” Courtney explained to her that this wasn’t what happened, that her daughter was not an infant but 3 years old, that she had not been abandoned but left for a few minutes with the windows open.
The officer shook her head, tightened her lips, looked Courtney firmly in the eye. “I would never do that,” she said. “Ever.”
Courtney left the building shaking, feeling as though she’d endured a second trial. “She’d made up her mind about the sort of person who lets a kid wait in car,” she told me. “There was nothing I could say to change it.”
I wish I could say this rush to judgment surprised me. Parents have always seen their children as a form of self-expression, but lately the parent-child branding has become louder and more incessant. What we let our children do or eat or where they learn or what they watch is, often purposefully, a comment about what we think of ourselves as much as it is about our children. Or rather, what we want others to think of us.
A friend recently told me about a Facebook acquaintance who posted a picture of her kids reading chapter books on a road trip. “Eight hours of screen-free time together!” the caption read. “Except for mom,” someone posted in the comments. The post was deleted a few minutes later.
This is not to say that there is not an abiding sense of love and protection in today’s parenting. But the near ceaseless public scrutiny we put ourselves in creates this kind of message-scroll existence. Whether they mean to or not, parents today are always shilling to sell you on the superiority of what used to be private, individual choices. And with shilling, comes backlash. There are conflicting viewpoints and ideological scrums. Debates on breast-feeding and junk food can unleash fist-fighting levels of hostility. And there are some people who just don’t like you, and armed with the same tools of attention, are all too eager to make that known.
But where does that leave us when we see a kind of parenting behavior that strikes us as wrong-headed? Is there a middle ground between scorn and denial?
On vacation this past winter I watched a deeply tanned man with close-cropped hair grab hold of his son, no older than 8, and say, “No more of your stupid talk.” He had his hand around his son’s arm and the boy winced, tried pulling away, while a young girl padded around at their feet, shaking water from her ears.
I would have liked to do something at this moment, to intervene, tell him that I’d seen what he’d just done and found it deeply upsetting, tell him that a child should never be pinched or spoken to like that, humiliated in public. But how does one say such a thing to a stranger? How does one enter into what is essentially a private relationship between parent and child in a helpful or constructive way? How would he respond if I did? Surely he’d be offended, offer some insult in return, tell me to mind my own business. Perhaps he’d feel humiliated and take out his anger on the child. Was I going to find out his name, the state or country he came from, contact the authorities there? Of course I wasn’t. I didn’t know him or his children. We were nothing to each other. I turned my attention back to my own daughter, because I made a split-second decision that the cost of doing anything would be too high. The solitude of raising kids outside of strong communities can be crushing; and left to ourselves, we all become worse parents than we hoped to be.
The last time I spoke with Courtney, she’d been released from the supervision component of her probation, had succeeded in having her daughter’s case closed with CPS, and seemed to have made peace with both herself and the woman who called the police on her. Still, she feels like she’s a more nervous mother than before. Her daughter will refuse to wear her gloves on a cold day, and she feels like people are watching and judging her for it. And recently, she grew nervous when her family went to visit a friend for the weekend and they set up an air mattress for her daughter in the corridor between the bedroom and the walk-in closet. Her daughter loved this and yelled with delight, “I get to sleep in the closet!” Courtney felt her whole body tense when she heard her, and warned her not to say that at school. “I guess I worry more about what people will think,” she told me. And also, she, like me, worries about raising her daughter in a world so often lacking in human decency.
She described to me how, just the other day, she took her daughter to a restaurant for lunch. She tries not to give her too much restaurant food and had brought a peanut butter sandwich and some cut-up vegetables. Her daughter was happily eating when a woman at a nearby table approached, pointed at the sandwich. “You know this is a peanut-free restaurant,” she said.
Courtney apologized, asked if the woman was allergic, said she’d move to another table. “I’m not allergic,” the woman answered. “I just thought you should know.” A moment later, a waiter was sent to throw the offending sandwich in the garbage as the girl began to weep.
Courtney told me all this and I couldn’t tell if she was crying or laughing, which is the place I find myself most days. “I mean, what’s wrong with people?” she asked. “Has everyone in the world gone insane?”
Probably, I thought. And yet, there are these rare moments where I feel hopeful, where it seems we haven’t entirely forgotten how to interact with other human beings, or talk to strangers from a place of openness and curiosity, rather than fear.
Not long after I first wrote about my experience, I took my daughter back to a different branch of the store where my own mess began.
When I’d finished shopping, we made our way toward the registers. We’d been waiting a few minutes when I noticed a woman at the front of the next line struggling with her children. She had three of them. She was wearing an infant in a baby sling and pushing the other two in her big red cart when the baby began to cry and the twins began to bicker. Prepare for triple meltdown, I thought, and remembered what a friend had told me recently, that in the middle of her daughter’s grocery store tantrum, a stranger had taken out a phone and begun recording it—apparently this was its own genre of entertainment on You Tube: other people’s kids crying.
The screaming grew louder. The line grew longer. Confronted with the spectacle, I did what everyone else in line was doing; I pretended not to see them, scanned the other aisles for a shorter line, silently wished I’d just ordered the items I needed on Amazon, and obsessively checked the time on my phone. I was about to move into another line when another woman, shopping by herself, stepped up to the mother’s cart. I (and probably everyone within earshot) expected the worst: the recording phone, the nasty comment or piece of unsolicited parenting advice. It was as uncomfortable as it was inevitable. We are, after all, all wandering judges. But instead the woman without children smiled and asked, quite casually, if she could help, then without waiting for an answer, began unloading the woman’s cart, playing peek-a-boo with the toddler. The mother began to thank her, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“Really, it’s nothing,” she said, and smiled. “You’ve got your hands full.”