My worst day as a mom

August that year seemed especially steamy, with temperatures soaring through the 90’s. On the hottest day of all, I took my small son Aarick to run errands with me in town. He was my first baby – now thirteen months old, able to walk around and to experiment with his first words. His hair was brown, his eyes were striking, his grin was quick. I thought he was perfect.

But whew! That heat! We really should have picked a cooler day.

We stopped at the post office to buy stamps, and when we came back out to our car (the white Ford Taurus my husband Ryan had brought to our marriage), we found it wouldn’t start. Not again! We’d had a recurring issue with this several months ago and had found we had to wiggle a particular wire under the car body to get things going again. Ryan had taught me how, but it hadn’t happened for so long that I’d forgotten where to reach.

We headed back into the post office to find a phone. (Yes. I really survived without a cell phone in those days, and so did many of my friends. After all, this was way back in the Dark Ages of 2006.) The workers directed me to the nearest pay phone, a block and a half away by Rite Aid.

I carried my son through two traffic lights and called Ryan at work. He told me how to fix the wires (Call me again if you have trouble, hon!), and back to the car we walked, overwarm now and ready to be on our way.

I didn’t want to strap Aarick in his car seat, in case my wire wiggling skills were inadequate and we had to walk back to the pay phone. The concrete sidewalk was far too hot for his little feet. So I unlocked the passenger’s side door and placed him on the front seat. I gave him my keys to play with – just plain keys, no auto buttons or anything dangerous – they were his favorite toy in the world. Carefully, I pushed the Unlock button to open all the doors, and then, to save him from falling out, I shut the door.

And oh, God help me. I must have pushed the wrong side of the Unlock button, because when I stood up from wiggling those all-important wires, hoping I’d done whatever it was I needed to do, and walked to my door to try the ignition, I found my door was locked. So was the door behind it, and the ones on the other side… and there was my child, playing contentedly with my keys, locked inside a vehicle on the hottest day of summer, and there was I, closer to panicking than I’ve ever been before or since.

I didn’t know what to do. I had friends in town, but few, and they didn’t have keys for me. I didn’t have a phone, other than that wretched pay phone. I was terrified of alerting anyone official. I’d never been fearful of having my parenting scrutinized, but the Car Seat Incident, in which we were reported to Children and Youth Services for a minor infraction, was mere days in our past, and it had rattled me horribly.

(If I’ve never told you that story, you can read it here on The Dock, along with my thoughts on reporting child abuse.)

Desperately, I ran the block and a half back to the pay phone, called Ryan back, told him what I’d done. I could hear him galvanizing into action. I’ll be right there! he said. But I knew he was fifteen minutes away.

I hurried back to Aarick. He could not have been in the vehicle more than five minutes, but already his face was bright red and beads of sweat stood on his nose. The ends of his hair were damp. Oh, God, it is hot. He’ll never be okay.

By now he had dropped the keys on the floor, and he stood up against the passengers-side window. He patted his hands against the window and smiled at me.

Then he reached for the buttons on the door. He touched the window control… Was it possible he could unlock it himself? I tapped my fingers on the window above the lock and unlock button, trying to interest him in reaching farther.

He fiddled. He touched the right button, but pushed only the side nearest to him, the Lock side, and I heard the doors click.

Please, baby, please…

I hardly dared to hope, but I knew how my boy loved gadgets and buttons. I kept tapping above it, keeping him interested.

A man walked by on the sidewalk and turned to look back at me. Is he okay? he asked. And another voice over my shoulder said, Yeah, I was just going to ask you…

Um… I said.

Aarick stretched, his baby fingers reaching toward the Unlock.

My husband is on his way, and…

He pushed the button. All the doors unlocked, the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. Quickly I opened the door and snatched him out, while the heat of the interior hit my face like the draft from an oven. I felt shaky with relief and gratitude. He’s okay now!! I said, and held tight to my son while I told what had happened.

He did a pretty good job, didn’t he? a stranger said. And he was right. I do not know what honors will be in Aarick’s future, but I do not think I can ever be prouder of him than I was at that moment.

That is the day (among many, many other days) when Jesus looked out for me and forgave my sins and comforted me when I was foolish. Aarick would run a low-grade fever that night, but by morning he would be back to normal. Oh thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

I carried my son into the air-conditioned post office to wait. The cool was delicious, and my husband was on his way.

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5 years ago

When I was pregnant with my second son, I left my first (very) fussy one year old in the car while I watered my mother in laws houseplantsat her house. It was an icy winter day and I just knew it would only take a minute, so I foolishly gave him my keys with the remote. I know, I get terrible pregnant brain. I felt absolutely horrible despairing feelings while I waited for my husband and when he arrived we tried everything (he must have dropped the keys promptly after he locked it and he was strapped in so he couldn’t unlock)

Finally, my husband smashed a small window opposite my son and we unlocked it. My poor baby was absolutely FRANTIC til then. It was humiliating and awful and helped me to be much kinder to people that do ignorant things.

5 years ago

I had to cry a little, just reading. The panic that comes at such a moment compares with no other.

I read an essay by Kim Brooks yesterday about reporting child abuse, she left her four year old in a locked van on a 40 degree day for five minutes, and a stranger videoed it and reported her causing all sorts of unnecessary trouble. She also wrote a book that’s just out, Small Animals, parenthood in an age of fear. I haven’t read it yet but want to, based on the essay.

Maybe your car seat episode isn’t about that sort of thing at all, but this story and the one you referred to reminded me of the essay and I thot you might like to read it, if you haven’t.

5 years ago

Shari that is absolutely scary! My worst day as a mom is nothing compared to yours but it was still upsetting. I had just had my first baby twenty- three years ago. My newborn daughter was eight days old and caught a cold. We were living with my in-laws and my mil had been getting over a cold. Anyway, Miranda had congestion in her nose and just felt awful so I called the pediatrician’s office. The nurse I talked to asked in a very stern voice ” Who got her sick?” And told me, she was too young to be getting sick. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I was going through post pregnancy hormone changes and had a terrible case of baby blues. All I could do was choke back tears and tell the nurse that I didn’t know. The nurse gave me instructions on what to do but to this day I still feel guilty that I didn’t protect her enough so she wouldn’t have gotten sick.

Rachel Shenk
5 years ago

Oooh Shari! I feel your pain! This has never happened to me but so close! I did just lock my keys in our new(er) vehicle that I hadnt yet put a spare key in the fuel tank door. It was also a VERY hot day but thankfully I was stranded at a friends house and we were fine until the locksmith came.

5 years ago

We locked our first born (probably about the same age as Aarick) in the van on a steamy summer day. He was all buckled up, so there was no praying he’d unlock it himself. Thankfully we were parked in the driveway of church friends, and the men all got to work with crowbars and hangers to unlock it. Jed was screaming. I was trying to calm him through the window, timing how long he’d been cooking in there, and yelling at Art that we should just smash a window. I’m sure I was just in the way and would’ve been better in the house, but there is no way to remove a mother in that situation. Horrible, horrible, horrible. The worst part is that later I found a spare key in the bottom of my purse.

5 years ago

This happened to me as well. Thankfully, it was an Oregon summer evening which is cooler, and my husband was not far away to come rescue me, still scary and humiliating. There have been many days, I have said, I will never again judge a mother, for anything…you just do not know the whole story most times, and even when you do, life happens….Purposeful neglect is so different than accidental absentmindedness. People today try to link it all together. One of the most heartbreaking things I have read is comments on sights that report an accident that happens to a child when that child dies. They fret and accuse and point fingers, and I think, “Most likely this poor family is probably pointing plenty of fingers at themselves already. Please don’t make things worse.”

Vivian T
5 years ago

If a child is locked in a car, it is fine to call 911. Of course, when this happened with my neighbor’s toddler, the patrol car with the right tools to open a locked vehicle was 20 minutes away…Thankfully it wasn’t hot or any other immediate danger, just mostly distressing to the mother.

Ruth Anna
5 years ago

Wow, Shari, this is well written. I could feel my Anxiety spiking while reading……

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