By Jill Chafin
Today I left the front door open.
Not just unlocked. Wide open. Luckily the worse case scenario did not happen (coming back to a barren house or finding a murderer hiding in the bathroom), but I still kicked myself for being so neglectful.
So what happened?
We weren't following our regular routine. It was a Thursday, the one day my son goes to preschool. My husband usually stays home with our daughter while I drive my son in. But this particular morning was different. My husband had a doctor's appointment and left before the kids got up. I tackled the morning routine solo: breakfast, cleaning up, potty time, getting both kids dressed with socks (albeit mismatched), shoes, jackets. There were tears along the way.
Trying to get a baby and a toddler out the door on time feels like training blind kittens how to synchronize swim. We usually have my daughter's infant carseat in the house, which helps with the load-in process. But we'd left it in the car. I resorted to scooping up a squirming child under each arm, my purse flung over my shoulder, my keys in my mouth, and headed for the door. I left it wide open with the intention of closing it after I loaded up the kids. It came down to simple logistics: I didn't have an arm free to swing the door shut. And I couldn't put my toddler down because his fascination with rocks meant we'd never leave.
I struggled with the cold carseat straps, made sure everyone was secure, and then my brain went on autopilot. Just like any other car trip, I closed their car doors, got in the driver's seat and drove off. With our front door wide open.
I was shocked when I came home. “Hello?” I called out, my mind racing through all the possible scenarios. Did my husband's car break down and he walk home? Did someone bust in? Should I call the cops? My heart raced as I tentatively stepped inside, holding my daughter on my hip. Then the memory came flooding back, face palming me in the forehead. Duh, you're such an idiot. I turned around and around, taking stock of all our valuables. Everything was still there. Thankfully, we'd dodged a bullet.
This incident got me thinking about the little mistakes we make from time to time. The things we forget to do. The things we always do, day after day, until the one time we don't.
Once my mom loaded my son into his carseat but she asked me to buckle his straps. I agreed, but finished getting my daughter in first. My mom went to sit in the passenger seat. I got into the driver's seat and off we went. I was paralyzed when I opened the back door at our destination, only to see my almost 2-year-old sitting there, a goofy grin on his face, unstrapped in his carseat. How could I have forgotten to buckle him in? My mind raced to all of the what ifs; the worse case scenarios that infiltrate the daily news. One accident and our lives would've been changed forever, because I forgot one simple thing.
We hear stories about babies left in backseats of cars. We tell ourselves that would never happen to us; we're too responsible, too vigilant, to aware to be that forgetful. And yet many of these incidents do occur, usually when a routine is broken. Like the baby who was always taken to daycare by her dad, until he was out of town one day. The baby was rear-facing and fell asleep during the car ride. Just like there are times we automatically take our home exit when we actually meant to go to the grocery store, this mom drove straight to her office. She went on auto-pilot, and she forgot. As crazy as stories like this sound, that mother was not alone. Dr. David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida, says there is now a name for this phenomenon: The Forgotten Baby Syndrome.
Diamond explains how our semantic memory is responsible for the “autopilot” part of our brain – such as driving home without needing to think about every turn. Autopilot isn't a bad thing, except when there's a crucial detail we need to be aware of, like dropping a child off at daycare. Our tendency to enter autopilot when we're doing familiar activities, along with general exhaustion, can lead to some crazy mistakes, such as a surgeon stitching up a patient with a tool left inside.
As an attempt to prevent the Forgotten Baby Syndrome, I set up back seat mirrors in our car, each pointed at my kids' carseats. It gives me peace of mind to glance at them quickly in my rearview mirror (and to make sure my son isn't throwing hard objects at my daughter). Even when I drive by myself, I obsessively check those mirrors. Where is each child? Did I forget anything important?
So even though leaving the front door open may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, it's a poignant reminder that we're all flawed humans, often with our brains on overload. Today it was just an open door, with valuables that could be replaced, but if I made the mistake of forgetting a baby in the backseat? Then a mistake quickly becomes the next tragic news story.
What to do differently?
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist & dancer, food enthusiast, and mama. She was runner-up in the 2012 America's Next Author Competition and holds a BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's currently working on several novels.
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