Editor’s Note: Olga Mecking is a writer, journalist and translator living in the Netherlands. She has written for The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and elsewhere. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In 2011, writer and editor Kim Brooks had the police called on her – and ended up pleading guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor (to avoid the risk of losing custody of her child) – because she left her then-4-year-old son in the car for few minutes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against doing this for any length of time and Brooks in no way diminishes the horror of children who die in overheated cars, but as she notes in an essay published in the New York Times, it was a cool day out and she was nearby. And judging from the fierce and immediate response to the essay by moms on social media, many, many parents out there could imagine being in her shoes.
This terrifying experience became the basis for her book, “Small Animals. Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” which was published this week. There, Brooks not only shares her own story but also tries to analyze the role of fear in parenting and how raising children has become a stressful, anxiety-ridden and, most of all, shame-inducing undertaking. She makes particular note of how this shaming, in practical terms, results in criminalizing low-income mothers who may have no choice to but leave their kids in the car to do things like interview for jobs (her essay cites one such case).
“I felt like a terrible mother. I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels when someone attacks her mothering: ashamed,” says Brooks in the introduction to her book.
The epidemic of parental shaming – of which calling the police on a mother is only the most extreme symptom – makes it clear that somewhere along the way, we have changed the way we view our fellow parents. Instead of seeing them as reasonable adults who can be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves and their children, we assume that they are idiots who need constant surveillance.
I know exactly how this feels because that same year, I too had the police called on me. Not for leaving my kids in the car, but because my explosive eldest daughter, then full in the throes of the Terrible Two’s, had one of her epic temper tantrums as I was picking her up from daycare. A woman saw me trying to get her into the stroller. My highly energetic girl insisted on walking but that was out of the question because the daycare was too far away from our home and we had to cross many streets and canals on our way there. So, I kept trying to get her into the stroller (and hoping that my 6-week-old baby wouldn’t wake up), and she kept beating and kicking her way out of it. From a distance, it must have looked like I was hitting her. I was not, but the woman thought otherwise. She ran down to me and said, “You are abusing your child. I’m calling the police.”
Luckily, the police, once summoned, listened to both sides of the story, then decided that I wasn’t, in fact, abusing my child and let me go. This is after all the Netherlands, a country which is famous for its live-and-let-live attitude towards other people, including parents. But I read similar stories from the US all the time. The parent-shaming affects not just numerous “mortal” moms but even celebrity parents such as Charlize Theron, who also had the police called on her because of her son’s tantrum.
The reasons for shaming parents, and moms in particular, for “not taking adequate care of their children” are becoming increasingly ridiculous: letting a child play alone in the backyard or leaving a baby in a stroller outside a restaurant. But at the same time, statistics tell us that our children have never been safer – not only are they much less likely to die than in the past but there also have been fewer cases of child abduction.
I’d like to believe that all people who might intervene in a situation between a parent and a child have good intentions; indeed, very many do. But too often, people think the choice is either do nothing or call in the authorities. That binary presents a false choice, where calling the police is always the right thing because “God forbid, what if we didn’t and something awful happened.”
But calling the police isn’t your only alternative to doing nothing at all; sometimes it’s as simple as thinking, what can I do to help in this situation? For instance, a teacher in Chicago recently sat with her former student’s infant child so that student could attend a job fair. That student now has a job and plans to attend college. It’s worth noting that one of the mothers in Brooks’ essay who left her child in a car alone was doing so because she had a job interview and couldn’t secure affordable or workable child care.
And in my case, instead of threatening me, those bystanders could have said hello, or expressed their concerns to the daycare staff who could have vouched for me, or tried to distract my fractious toddler with a friendly word so I could settle her into the stroller - before escalating to the point where police were called.
And it’s important to remember that children’s caregivers, just like the children they care for, can have their mental wellbeing shaken to the core by being threatened with the loss of a child. An experience like this will change you forever. Never will you just be able to go out in public with your children. When you leave the house, you’ll be continuously praying that your kids will behave. When they do have a tantrum as children sometimes do, you do things that are counterproductive just to keep them quiet. Most of all, you’re afraid it will happen again – but his time, with the result that they’ll take your children away from you.
For days, I thought about the incident and concluded that I was the worst mother in the world. I started thinking that maybe this woman was right – that my children would be better off being cared for by someone else. I still think about it sometimes. I probably always will.
Unlike Kim Brooks, I was lucky, and not just because of geographical location. The daycare staff stood by me, waited for the police to arrive and testified in my favor. My husband left work early to voice his support of me and my mothering skills. With time, I’ve managed to build an online and offline community around me that offered constant and steady encouragement instead of judgment.
To change the paradigm of parenting, the first thing we need to do is to stop treating other parents like enemies and start seeing them for what they usually are: friends, supporters, and just fellow parents in arms. So instead of “I’m calling the police,” let’s start saying, “How can I help?”