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The Day I Left My Son in the Car

I made a split-second decision to run into the store. I had no idea it would consume the next years of my life.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Alena Ozerova

 
 
 
 

The day it happened was no different from most; I was worried, and I was running late. I was worried because in a few hours’ time I was going to be enduring a two-and-a-half hour flight with my kids, ages 1 and 4. I was running late because, like many parents of small children, I often find there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

We were visiting my family and I was eager to get home to my husband. My 1-year-old daughter had just gone down for a nap when, in the process of packing, I realized that my son’s headphones, the ones he used to watch a movie on the plane, had broken. I called across the house to my mother that I was going to run to the store to replace them.

“Me too,” my son said.

I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to stay home with Grandma. “You hate going to the store,” I reminded him.

“No I don’t!” he said. I should have seen what was going on — my parents had been letting him play with the iPad in the car and he was trying to score the extra screen time. We got in my mother’s minivan and drove a mile up the road, through the sleepy subdivision where I’d grown up, the sort of subdivision where kids ride bikes in cul-de-sacs and plenty of people don’t bother to lock their doors, then we parked in the recently erected, nearly empty strip mall. I had two hours to get the headphones, get home, get my 1-year-old daughter up from her nap and fed and changed, get everyone to the airport, through security, and onto a plane.

“I don’t want to go in,” my son said as I opened the door.

“What do you mean you don’t want to go in? You wanted to come.”

He was tapping animated animals on a screen, dragging them from one side to the other. “I don’t want to go in. I changed my mind.”

I tried to make my voice both calm and firm. “Simon,” I said (not his real name but the name I’ll use here). “If we don’t get your headphones, you won’t be able to watch a movie on the flight. It’s a long flight. If you can’t watch a movie on the flight you’re going to be a very, very, very unhappy boy. It will just take a minute. Now come on. We’re running late.”

He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I’d come to recognize as a sort of pre-tantrum agitation. “No, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to go in,” he repeated, and turned back to his game.

I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.

 
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