Any mother can look away for a split second and her child can get away from her. Here is my story.
I haven’t commented at all about the recent mom whose child wandered away at the Cincinnati zoo and fell into the gorilla exhibit last weekend.
There are enough commentators who are criticizing this mother and the zoo for allowing her “neglect” (or so they call it) to result in the death of the animal.
I haven’t thought long and hard about this incident because I simply don’t have the margin or mental energy to get up in arms about something that is none of my business.
But one thing I do know is this: What happened with this mom could happen to any of us.
If we say it couldn’t, we are being prideful and fooling ourselves.
Anything can happen in a split second, friends.
I know this because I’ve lived this.
I have lost a child at a public place before.
Back in 2013, my then 2-year-old wandered out of our hotel room at Great Wolf Lodge.
It wasn’t that I had simply looked away either. I had been asleep.
After a fun morning of enjoying the pools and water slides–all compliments of good friends of ours since back then we had no extra money to spare–I put our 2-year-old and infant down for a nap while my husband took our 4-year-old downstairs to the craft table.
Being the exhausted, postpartum, nursing mother that I was, I decided to take a nap myself.
Checking on the 2-year-old all tucked into her bunk in the room beside me, I pulled down the covers, crawled underneath them, and dozed off myself.
A little while later, I woke to the phone ringing. It was my husband.
“Where is your middle child?” he asked.
My heart began to race.
Just why was he asking me this?!
I jumped from the bed to check on our daughter.
She wasn’t in her bed. She wasn’t in the bathroom. She wasn’t in the room at all.
The door to our hotel room was unlocked, and it was cracked open.
This all unfolded in seconds, although it seemed like an eternity.
“She’s not here!” I began to scream. “She’s not here! Where is she?!
It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. (Another would come a few years later, when my third-born nearly choked on a quarter while sitting right beside me.)
“She’s with me,” my husband calmly, although slightly agitated, responded. “She’s with me.”
You see, the lock to our hotel room door was right at her height.
She had so desperately wanted to go make crafts with her daddy and big sister that she had waited until I was asleep to unlock the door and slip out of the room.
I had not heard a thing.
Thankfully, a kind stranger found her wandering the hallway and took her to the front desk.
There, my husband found a hotel worker holding her.
This could have ended badly–very, very badly.
Anyone could have taken her. She could have found her way to the pool area. She could have even made her way out to the parking lot.
All while I lay sleeping in the hotel room.
The ironic thing in all of this was that I am the one who tends to operate on a more helicopter-ish side of parenting when comparing me and my husband.
Especially out in big public areas and in the water, I am the one who hovers. My husband is the one who says: “Let them be kids. Let them explore.”
I was so protective, I thought, that something like this could never happen to me.
Even earlier that day, I had chided my husband for letting the girls get too far away from him in the water.
Yet I was the one who fell asleep and didn’t realize our 2-year-old was escaping from our hotel room, right under my nose.
What can we learn in all this?
Just because I’m right there with my children, it doesn’t mean they won’t slip away from me.
Even the best mothers (which I don’t claim to be!) make mistakes.
And you better believe we now talk to our children more about not wandering off and check the hotel room locks when we stay somewhere! We had no idea they were low enough to the ground that our 2-year-old would be able to reach and unlock the door.
We cannot judge other mothers when things like this happen because we do not know all of the circumstances, nor have we been in their exact situation.
Other moms need our grace, our understanding, our prayers, our compassion, our empathy.
They could be us, dear friends. They could be us.