Pitchforks and wings
8 am. He loads the baby into the car, thinking of his wife and hoping she gets some sleep. She’s been up all night with the baby so he’s offered to do the daycare run this morning to give her a few more minutes’ rest. 5 minutes later he hits traffic, slows to a crawl and turns up the radio to stay awake. He finally pulls into the office carpark and gets out. The car beeps as he locks it, walking away.
11 am. She hustles her kids over to the penguin enclosure, it’s feeding time! There’s a crowd around the enclosure and her boy complains he can’t see. She picks him up to hold him over the heads in front and with her free hand reaches out to her girl, but instead touches only the adults crowding in. She looks around but her daughter’s brown hair is nowhere to be seen.
4 pm. His phone vibrates in his pocket and he checks the number. He has to get this — it’s his brother-in-law, likely with news about his brand new niece or nephew. He tells his daughter he’s going to the bench, and sits where he can still see her on the climbing structure. It’s noisy at the playground and he can’t quite hear the breathlessly given details, what’s her name again? He turns away, blocks an ear and finally understands. He turns to find his daughter to tell her but she’s gone. He notices her scooter is no longer by the gate where she left it. The gate that should always be closed, but is standing open.
9 pm. The baby won’t stop screaming. She’s tried everything she can and nothing helps and she’s exhausted. She sits down on the rocker, opens her top and holds her baby to her breast. Again. Eventually he roots around and latches on and there’s quiet. She exhales and realises she’s been holding her breath for the last 3 hours. In the sudden silence, she stares at her baby and desperately tries to stay awake. She hasn’t had 2 hours uninterrupted sleep since he was born a month ago. As his eyes finally, slowly and peacefully drift close she feels sleep enveloping her and try as she might, she gently succumbs.
We’ve all heard the news reports. And no sooner than the ink dries and the “Share” button is clicked, the pitchforks come out and comments start. From the perfect parents, the ones who would NEVER do that, who would NEVER make that mistake. The disbelieving souls who wonder aloud how anyone could do such a thing?! The comments decrying why people even have children these days if you’re not going to bother looking after them? The comments throwing around neglect, abuse — because a news article in the wake of a tragedy is all you need in order to know everything about this family. The comments throwing blame on the parents whose world has collapsed, who have paid the ultimate price and are probably at this moment punishing themselves more than anyone else ever could, poring over every detail of that day, every What If, every If Only.
And then the comments* that make my blood run cold and boil, all at once:
“I don’t believe it, no-one makes that mistake. It’s not possible.”
“There is no excuse. Lock up the parents. For LIFE!”
“I’m starting to think these parents are running insurance scams”
“MURDER. Plain and simple”
I can only assume that these keyboard warriors, these perfect parents truly do not believe that on a different day, with different stars aligning, with a different wind blowing, these comments could be about them.
I am a far from perfect mother. In just one day recently Mookasaurus (age 16 months) let himself out of the house while I finished breakfast, then climbed and fell off a highchair while I showered, then Dudeasaurus vanished at a children’s theme park. I was lucky enough that Mookasaurus sat on the front steps until I realised the door was open, he somehow avoided concussion and a mother saw Dudeasaurus and took him to the office.
My mother is much closer to perfect than I will ever be, and even she left a 3-day old me behind at the neighbour’s house. It was her first trip out of the house and she just wasn’t used to 3 children. The neighbour watched me until I was collected. Our stories, like those that every parent has — I repeat, every parent has — had happy endings. A few stressful moments or minutes, relief and a laugh and on with the day, pretending there’s no nagging feeling that it could have been much, much worse.
Every time these stories come out, every tragic accident that occurs and the villagers come with their pitchforks, my first thought is for the parents.
I cannot imagine how it feels to not only lose your child, but also blame yourself. And at the same time have your mistake, your family, your grief opened up to all the dark corners of the internet, to the judgement of those whose children are safely tucked up, whose children never stray or wander, whose perfect hypothetical children are the result of their perfect hypothetical parenting.
My second thought is, where was the village?
The village it takes to raise a child, to raise a family. The village that could have meant social policies to allow one parent to stay at home with the baby — to avoid outside childcare, to avoid financial stress, to get some sleep and to adjust to this new life. The village where every one looks out for everyone else. Where people care about each other, where people support each other in times of hardship.
In my view these stories mostly have a common thread, of parents being expected to do everything alone: Work and keep house and function on little to no sleep. Entertain and educate a child every moment while also having a life and not spoiling the child. Watch a child’s every move while also find snacks in a backpack, bandage another child’s scrape, resolve a dispute between two more children and politely refuse to take part in a phone survey. It is not possible to be all things, to all people, all at once. Yet parents are expected to somehow be just that.
Something’s got to give.
And when it does, there is no sympathy, no support, no compassion. There is no one to spot the falls. There is no angel waiting to catch us, to grab the child about to run into the street, to watch the baby on the changing table while Mum cleans up big brother’s messy pants.
The villagers have only pitchforks.
8:34 am. “Hey! Hey, you!” He hears the shout across the car park. He turns and sees a man running towards him, gesturing wildly. He taps his pocket to check his wallet and phone are still there. Why else… His heart stops as he realises. He sprints back to the car, fumbling the keys in his panic. The beep, the thunk as the doors unlock. He opens the door and his baby’s scream erupts from the soundproofed car. He rips him from the seat, holds him close and his legs give way. He’s ok, he’s ok. He’s ok, he mumbles through his tears as he sinks to the ground and breathes in his warm baby smell, his softness, his aliveness.
11:02 am. She looks again, sure she must be just not looking right. But no, her daughter’s really not there. She stands on her tiptoes, straining to see over the crowd. She turns around, toward the alligator enclosure and sees a flash of green and pink near the railing— her daughter dressed herself this morning — and her heart pounds. She begins to push back through the crowd, carrying her son and calling out her daughter’s name but no sound comes out. Everything is in slow motion. She sees hands reach out and grab her daughter and gently lift her down. A voice, “You shouldn’t be climbing that”. Normal speed returns as she reaches the railing and embraces her daughter. Tears darken the green shirt as all the possibilities flash past her eyes.
4:10 pm. He looks again, scanning every inch of the playground for her. He pushes the panic down, she must there somewhere. She can’t have gone far. He stands, walks purposefully towards the gate, still trying to see around corners. “She’s over there” The mother he’d seen playing on her phone earlier pointed to the corner of the playground, where two scooters stood beside two small girls, both hunched over inspected the grass. Relief flooded him and he laughed, an awkward laugh that made the mother smile in solidarity. She knows the feeling.
9:06 pm. Her arm started drooping, her baby slowly slipping from her breast. This isn’t right, his tiny brain was telling him. He snuffled, wriggled, and in the same moment he opened his mouth to cry her arm dropped, she jerked awake and caught him with her other arm. Her brain caught up to her body and she realised how close he’d been to tumbling to the floor. In a cold sweat, she picked up her phone and called her own mother. Maybe she does need the help after all.
I guess there was a good wind today. The angels were out. Tomorrow we may not be so lucky, but we can hope and — for those so inclined — pray that whatever tomorrow brings we can come together in compassion, in humanity and in dignity. Then, maybe, the pitchforks will be cast aside and be replaced by wings.
* Comments come from an actual Facebook thread on an actual news article about an actual event. Although largely misquoted and aggregated, the spirit remains true to the original.