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."
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.