Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fatal Distraction

Hot weather is here - time to be more mindful than ever as parents. I know we always strive to be anyway, but when it comes to kids in cars, nothing could be more important. I've seen this story shared elsewhere, and thought it so important that I should pass it on, too.

I'm linking to a blog that links the actual article, both because I like what she has to say about it AND because it gives you one more chance to rethink it if you change your mind about reading it. Because seriously, this is as gut-wrenching as it gets.

THIS article, this heartbreaking destroying story of so many parent’s grief and guilt, this tragic tale of loss and forgetfulness, is worth every single minute it will take you to read it from beginning to end. And do not skip from one point to the next. No, all these stories deserve to be heard and all these cautionary tales need to be told.

It’s coming up on that time of year again. It was in the 80’s here today. It’s so easy to sit here and say, “I would NEVER forget my baby in the car,” but judgement doesn’t make you immune to accidents and temporary lapses in memory.
And that's key. NONE of us is a careless parent, by a long shot, and yet all of us have forgotten our car keys or lost our wallets or left the water running - because that's a human thing to do. And the way our brains organize information, it is possible for even the most loving, present, conscientious parent to have a lapse, as we multi-task our way through life. As the article explains:
"Memory is a machine," he says, "and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.

"The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant," he said. "The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it's supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted -- such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back -- it can entirely disappear."
Be careful, mamas, hell, be paranoid, even, IMO. One friend of mine commenting on the article said she always puts her purse in the back seat, so she can't help but look back there - I think that's a great idea that I'll be implementing immediately - and yet, is even that enough? Look at all the variables that aligned in the final story the author shares, Lyn Balfour. What if that ONE DAY, I decided to run in somewhere without it because my cell is at home and I can just put my keys in my pocket? I know the entire point is that sometimes it happens no matter how many safeguards we put in place - which is why I feel a little cruel in even sharing this with you. But the importance won out.

It's funny, because after seeing Babies recently, I was left with the amused feeling that JEEZ, we Western and highly industrialized parents need to chill the heck out already, after watching the Namibian and Mongolian babies frolick freely with goats and drink out of streams and the like, not to mention the scene where the mother of freshly swaddled Bayar hops on the back of a motorbike, holding him in her arms. No Graco travel system installed by certified technician necessary. I chuckled a little wryly at our dogmatism (though I would never say safety is not something to take very seriously) and was feeling a bit more "free-range". After reading Fatal Distraction, which deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. I feel ready to amp up the parental OCD.

We think it could never happen to us . . . and so did the parents to whom it happened. I wish them whatever peace they can find.


  1. Last year over the 4th of July weekend, my family and I went out of town to visit my mom. Kairi was just 2 months old or so at the time. My mom and I went to Wal-Mart and I started to walk in, for some reason thinking that I had left the baby at the apartment with my husband. My mom, THANKFULLY, reminded me that Kairi was in the backseat.
    30 minutes later while inside shopping, I get a phone call from my husband asking which Wal-Mart we were at. I told him and he replied that in the parking lot at that very moment a woman was being arrested for leaving her infant and 3 year old in the backseat while she went in and shopped. The kids weren't harmed, luckily, but the inside of the car had already reached 113 degrees, so much longer who knows.
    Thank you for raising awareness. I can't imagine the amount of grief of losing a child, let alone how I'd feel if it was because I'd left my daughter in the car.

  2. I try and I try but I still can't wrap my brain around it. I guess my parenting lifestyle revolves too much around my kids to forget them. They are with me 99.99999999% of the time, no one else is their caregiver. I don't think a cellphone and a child are a fair comparison. I can leave my cellphone on my desk and it will sit quietly, blending in with the black painted wood, not moving or making a sound. When I leave it doesn't miss me. But my children are running around, squawking, talking, needing help with shoes put on, needing their water bottles, needing to be ushered out to the car and buckled into their carseats, needing snacks and books to occupy them in the car, and as we drive, they're chattering and singing and screaming at each other and sometimes I'm pulling over to retrieve a flung Matchbox car or offer some raisins from my purse. I just can't picture myself forgetting that my kids are with me. I guess I have a lower-stress, less-distracted lifestyle than some? I don't know. I forget things every day, hell, I forget mroe than I remember. I forget ALL THE TIME. Sometimes I even forget to put shoes on before I leave the house. But my kids? Just doesn't compute.

  3. I have so many ages of kiddos in the car with me all of the time that one of them is bound to be awake and crying/talking at me...and i am usually wearing a sling or wrap which is a good reminder that I have a babe in the car...but Sir Hubby rarely takes the little ones by himself, is always on his bluetooth talking business, is always running into an appointment, stopping at a would be VERY easy for him to be in auto-pilot and just do what he does every other day. I hate to be that mom who says "Don't do this or that bc you have the baby with you!" so i shared this very difficult article with him. Yes, there is danger everywhere and you cannot live your life as if a tragedy is imminent...but that is not the same as BEING CONSCIOUS...BEING PRESENT while you are in your vehicle. We need to stop the insane "multi-tasking-being-ON-24/7" craziness that our culture expects of us now. Funny how being late to work, or an appointment, would just be a big ZERO on the importance scale if you kept this article fresh in your mind.

  4. What about the geniuses who leave their kids in their car, "for just 5 minutes," ON PURPOSE, while they run errands? My mom called me all shaken up the other day because she was in Panera Bread and saw a car with a newborn in the back with the windows cracked, alone. She said she had to walk back and forth 3 times and rub her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things. There happened to be a cop around so she walked over to him to let him know. You know what he did? He walked into Panera and called out that the person who left their baby in the car had to come outside and get it. That's it. No arrest. No consequences. How likely is this mom to do this again? When your freakin' coffee is more important than your baby, what has the world come to? Even parents who legitimately "forget" their kids in the car (and honestly, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that one, too, but maybe that is because I live in Florida where we have a car culture and I spend so much time in my car that I'd never leave ANYTHING in it) aren't prosecuted because they've "suffered enough."

  5. Jill, I understand what you're saying, I think. But it's not about consciousness, but about memory. The molecular physiologist in the article explains how this works in our brains. When we talk about how attached we are to our children, and about how they are the most important thing in the world to us - that is our CONSCIOUS mind working, and assigning value and importance to it. Re-read the description (it's on page 5 of the article). Even with all the precautions and attachment and love in the world - it only takes one time for, as he describes, those tiny little holes on the cheese grater to align. One moment.

    I mean, I just lost my sling last week, which was truly like a part of my mothering as a whole - an extension of my SELF, even. I don't lose stuff a lot - but it does happen, even with important stuff we're supposed to be paying attention to, and we know it. Yes, stuff IS emotionally much, much different than our kids, no matter how much sentimental value we attach to it - but again, it's not about that, unfortunately. I WISH force of love were all it took to prevent accidental deaths.

    I definitely do NOT think it's beyond me, which is why this article shook me so. Lily is my full-time life, we've never spent even a single night not sleeping side by side, we couldn't embody "attached at the hip" MORE (in fact, Ive been criticized for that very attribute). And I know I'm not exempt from the possibility of such an accident.

    Elita, I agree that that's a different situation. There ARE 'those parents' out there. But even that can get into some grey area. Gina posted not long ago about the matter of whether you would leave your kids in the car to pay for gas - there were different choices in the mix, that's for sure.

  6. I wrote about why I was upset by the original article on my blog and I'd be interested in feedback.

    Thanks for talking about this, I think it's a big, big issue (although not for the same reasons the author talked about in his article.)