'Somebody has left their baby in the car!'

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Photo: Thanasis Zovoilis

"Somebody has left their baby in the car!" the man bellowed across the school quadrangle with all his might. The afternoon pick-up din at my northern beaches primary school suddenly halted. Unfortunately, I didn't immediately recognise the sarcastic tone for what it was and a sick feeling overcame me as I pondered what horror had befallen my two children, aged 17 months and almost five, sitting in my car less than 10 metres from where I stood waiting for my seven-year-old to walk out of class.

"That's me," I said, and bolted towards my car, parked with the engine running and the airconditioning on, in the staff parking bay right next to my daughter's classroom.

And then the true horror – in the shape of an overgrown hulk of an angry man – reared its ugly, shaven head.

"You're just lazy" he shouted at me. "You just leave your kids in the car because you're too lazy to get them out and you're just standing there talking."

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Lazy. Lazy. That burned like a red hot poker in my chest. It was a miracle I didn't burst into tears, given the week I'd had, a working mother of three children, soldiering on with bronchitis. The tears came later, when I told my husband, and again when a concerned dad, who had caught the tail-end of the bizarre encounter, had called to see if I was OK.

Once I realised my kids were completely fine, and that Big Man Citizen was on a self-righteous mission, I retorted that it had nothing to do with laziness, and certainly nothing at all to do with him.

But that just fuelled his aggression and disgust, and he let loose on a long rant – "Oh, don't blame your children for your own laziness, you know you've done the wrong thing," he shouted in front of a crowd of parents and children, including my own.

My seven-year-old started apologising profusely for taking too long to get out of class and that it was all her fault (was he in charge of the carpark? she later asked). I called him a bully and a few other unpublishable words and he finally stopped.

Later on, it got me thinking about a few things. Firstly, why didn't anybody say anything? Since when is it OK for a mother to be abused on school grounds? Secondly, what was the big deal and why did Big Man Citizen care so much? I recalled a anecdote I had overheard in the office last week about how a colleague's parents would do the rounds of wineries back in the 1970s and leave her as a sleeping young baby in the comfort of the car rather than haul her out at each pit stop. Everyone listening laughed hard.

Then another woman recalled how her parents would leave her and her brother in the back of the car with pillows whenever they went to dinner parties at friends' places. And, no, it wasn't in the garage or driveway, it was out on the street.

The women, all of whom are responsible, hard-working jugglers of young children, chuckled about the crazy (read: simpler) "good old days" of parenting. They then reassured each other that they all indulge in the odd bit of brief child unattendance, each confessing to their own particular indiscretion – grabbing a takeaway coffee while the kids sat in the car parked out front was common – which appeared so minor by comparison to their parents' daring stunts. I'm pretty confident that none of the women, like myself, lead lazy lives but are caught in a domino of frantic days negotiating work and child-rearing and know when it is safe to cut corners.

And then their conversation took a more sombre tone when one mentioned the tragic case of an 11-month-old boy who died in October when he was left in the car all day outside his daycare centre in Perth after his father forgot to take him before going off to the city for work. That poor, overworked man.

In July, Bendigo mother Jayde Pool was charged with manslaughter after the death of her six-month-old daughter, when she allegedly forgot to take the child from the back seat after going out to pick up takeaway with the baby and her older child. The baby was in the car parked in the garage of her home for two and a half hours in 30 degree heat.

My colleagues all pondered if "fatal distraction" – a term coined by the Washington Post a few years back to explain severe memory lapse due to such things as stress and sleep deprivation – could ever happen to them. Not because they think they are bad parents or they think there is anything wrong with leaving the kids within eyesight for a couple of minutes in the car. But because they are just so insanely stretched.

These unbelievably sad cases are very rare. Cases of direct physical child abuse are so much more common. Had I instead smacked my child across the back of the head in the school yard – which is illegal – would Big Man Citizen have attacked me in the same way? Or even at all? Would he have yelled that at me, "that I knew what I was doing was wrong"? I suspect not. Yet, I'm quite sure that leaving my children in an airconditioned car inside a school yard just metres away is not illegal.

The way Big Man Citizen had behaved, you'd have thought I'd parked my kids at the casino, wound up the windows, locked the doors and went off to sit at the pokies for a few hours.

Perhaps he thinks all I do all day is ferry kids to and from school and bake cakes for afternoon tea. After all, it is Liberal party heartland and while Tony Abbott is making promises about generous maternity leave, there is barely any daycare about for under twos once women actually want to (or need to) go back to work.

Something tells me Big Man Citizen has never had to quickly pull in for petrol on the school-work run – I wonder if he would "do the right thing" and haul three kids out of the car to go and pay? I don't. And I reckon most parents in this near crime-free neighbourhood don't either.

 

Clarification: Under the NSW Road Rules (Rule 213), if a driver parks a car on a road and is more than three metres from the vehicle, it is an offence to leave the engine running. If a child under 16 in is the vehicle, it is also an offence to leave the key in the ignition. 

35 comments

  • Nothing worse than a person with a soap box and righteous indignation on their side, there's a huge difference between leaving your kids safely in the car for a quick minute as apposed to the cases where the children died. Personally cannot see anything wrong with what you did, and your poor wee girl getting upset that she was late, some people are so blinded by their own self righteousness that they cannot see the bigger, or in this case smaller picture, shame on him for his bully boy tactics and cruel condemnation. I suspect put in that position, my own reply would also not be publishable.

    Commenter
    Cam
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    October 17, 2013, 12:53PM
    • Natasha,

      BIg Man Citizen may have overdone his citizen concern. He should not have yelled and hurled abuse. However, I can understand where he is coming from.

      Yes, I have left my kids in the car while I go and pay for petrol. But I have never left my kids in the car while I do the school-work run. What Big Man Citizen is sick of and what other people may be sick of are people who will park at staff car park with the engine running and kids inside. Why should you have the privilege of doing that, whilst other mums, dads do the right thing? Remember, you are at a staff car park (not a free for all car park), your engine is running - i.e. keys inside, doors unlocked. Someone could have jumped in the car, driven off, or just put the hand brake down.

      You know deep inside that what you have done is wrong and are trying to justify your actions by writing this article. I agree, you should not have been treated so badly, but your actions are still wrong.

      Commenter
      ack
      Date and time
      October 17, 2013, 1:07PM
      • Oh, shut up.

        Commenter
        Lady Muck
        Date and time
        October 17, 2013, 3:02PM
      • Car running with air-conditioning on, standing less than 10 metres away. That’s not “wrong” in my opinion, nor will it be wrong in any reasonable person’s opinion. The self-righteous are another matter, however…..

        Commenter
        David M.
        Date and time
        October 17, 2013, 3:04PM
      • Sorry but I agree with ack - while Big Man Citizen handled the situation very poorly (hello, just rationally have a conversation) why are you leaving your car unattended while it is running with the keys in the ignition? It doesn't matter if you're 10 feet away or 100 feet away. That's very dangerous.

        I understand people are busy and lives are complicated but in all honesty that -was- a poor decision on your part and if I were there I probably would have said something to you (albeit in a completely different manner).

        I do agree that Big Man Citizen got too big for his boots and handled the situation poorly. He shouldn't have yelled at you in front of your child and other parents. That was bullying and totally unnecessary.

        Commenter
        Adrian
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 17, 2013, 4:09PM
    • Sorry, but you have to take some responsibility here. I agree with you that it was not necessary for the fellow to cause a scene, but I applaud him for calling out the fact that children had been left in the car. He was not to know you were 10 metres away. I have done it (left the kids in the car for a few minutes) - suspect we have all probably done it, but that does not make it right or defensible (bronchitis or not -> quite a weird excuse, that!).

      Commenter
      Get a Grip...
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 17, 2013, 1:24PM
      • But when he discovered she was actually 10 metres away, the appropriate thing to do would be to apologise! "Sorry, my bad - didn't realise you were right there." Instead, he went on an aggressive, bullying rant to try to shame her in public, in front of her own child and many others. It's pretty easy to see who is in the wrong here, and it's not the author.

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        October 17, 2013, 4:35PM
    • And this is why I don't have children. They are a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

      What is that day of all days was the day your almost 5 year old decided to reach over and play with the gear stick?

      All the what ifs.

      As yourself this- do you could live with yourself if a tragedy occured that you could have prevented by simply not taking the easy / lazy route.

      And "the old days" of leaving kids in cars, of all sorts of behaviours (think no seatbelts, smoking around kids, what we know about sleep poisitioning due to SIDS) meant that there WERE fatalities. Our more vigalent / improved approaches SAVE KIDS LIVES.

      But hey, it's your kids. :/

      Commenter
      They aren't adults
      Location
      They require supervision
      Date and time
      October 17, 2013, 1:26PM
      • Why are you making this about gender?

        If it was a woman abusing you then your whole argument in your article barely not apply.

        I appears you actually know nothing about this man, yet you criticise and question his motives like he has never looked after children. You don't really have a clue what his experience is, or his motives are.

        Perhaps you could shift your blame a little more inward and reflect. We all know sometimes busy parents appropriately leave kids in the car for the 1 minute bread/milk pick up etc, but we also all know that its an EXTREMELY sensitive area publicly, especially given that children have died from it, and that the public all feel they have a right to comment for the indefensible baby.

        So you should hardly be surprised at least one person said something, While men get questioned by security guards in DJs just for shopping for their daughters knickers, or told they have to change seats on a plane because they're probably a pedophile, we shouldn't be surprised if the public have a rant at kids left in cars. It might just save a baby's life.

        Commenter
        Dubious
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 17, 2013, 1:27PM
        • When I was a child, in the late70s-early 80s my mum would often leave my sister and I in the car when she ran errands she knew would bore us, like the bank etc.... We would be in the car alone for up to 40 minutes. I'm glad we don't do that anymore, but times have changed, there are more dangers for young children alone than there were back then.
          I now have 2 children, aged 7 and 5 and they often ask to stay in the car if I'm just popping into the chemist or bakery for a few minutes. Because of a few extremes we are made to feel guilty about doing what is perfectly safe and reasonable. But the fact that some people might get hysterical and abusive about leaving a baby in an airconditioned car within the parent's sight, is insane.

          Commenter
          Imste2
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          October 17, 2013, 1:32PM

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