Monday 21st of December 2015 was a perfect 25 degree Melbourne day. I spent it running around like a lunatic trying to do last minute Christmas shopping for my kids and my fella, negotiating the logistics of installing a custom-made bird feeder at my parents’ place without them noticing, and generally packing and sorting and preparing for two weeks down on the Mornington Peninsula. The children tagged along, in and out of the car, up escalators, in and out of supermarkets, destroying the house while I attempted phone calls and the usual chaos. For the most part they were fairly obliging but as they became more and more aware that their gratification must be delayed until Christmas day, their eagerness to tow the line and behave amenably, dissipated and everybody’s patience began to fray. At 5.10pm I rang the optometrist to see if my new prescription glasses had arrived. Finally, after years and years I had bothered to get my eyes tested and some reading glasses were in order. I was advised that the store would close at 5.30pm but if I came in straight away they would wait for me. So again, I bundled my very reluctant children into the car with promises of dinner out at the local pizza/pasta restaurant Etto which they have become very fond of, followed by a frozen yoghurt treat. I pulled up into a car park directly opposite the optometrist on a very busy Glenferrie Road at 5.20pm. I told the kids that before we could go for dinner we had to run in and grab my new glasses. The kids were stroppy and adamant that they didn’t want to come in. There were tears and in order to avoid all out tantrums I legged it into the optometrist, leaving them in the car. I could see the car from the window of Specsavers and as we all do as parents, I weighed up the possible risks and decided that this was the optimal way to do business.
The Specsavers staff were busy finishing up with a couple of clients so a few minutes went by, at which point I hurried things along and said that I had already paid and just needed to collect two sets of glasses. I signed the paperwork and dashed out of the store to see my car surrounded by two police officers. I rushed across the street carrying only my wallet, car keys and two pairs of glasses yelling “they’re mine!”…meaning my children. Five minutes had passed since I left my kids in the car. Enough time it seems for me to come face to face with the law. I unlocked the car and Maple was crying. She had been tearful before I left her in the car too because she had not wanted to come into the shop with me, then her brother had wacked her over the head with a super hero (I discovered this later), and then she had two strangers in uniforms knocking on her window yelling at her. I opened the door and got my son out, who leapt on to the pavement brandishing a plastic Superman, grinning from ear to ear. My daughter got out and grabbed onto me. The male police officer said to his female equivalent, “Look, she’s sweating and overheating. Look how upset she is.” I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t say everything that I really wanted to. All I could summons was “She’s a really hot kid. Always has been.” It’s true, but it sounded pathetic. I suspect that she has hyperhidrosis but it has not as yet been formally diagnosed. I went on… “I’ve brought them out for dinner but they threw a wobbly about coming into the optometrist so I just ran in and grabbed my glasses.” The female officer, who was actually rather pleasant compared with her bad cop male counterpart who gave me the dark stare over the top of his ludicrous mirrored shades, gave the impression of understanding and said “Look so many people do it. They run in to buy milk and they leave their kids in the car. But on a day like today, if you leave your kids in the car, the temperature in the car will hit 40 before you know it…” In my head I was thinking, “It’s 5.25pm and it can only be 22 odd degrees right now, and I was gone for five minutes, am I a shitty mother?” I’m also aware of chef Matt Moran’s demonstration where he overcooked a lamb loin in a car in just over 1.5 hours. I understand that cars can become sweat boxes and I understand that children have died in them. But, but, but…Good Cop went on, “I have kids myself, and I know how much easier it would be to just leave the kids in the car to run errands but you can’t vouch for your kids’ safety, kids get taken from cars, they overheat, they die…” I was dying inside…both children clinging to me, stroking me, the pre-Christmas rush of people walking past, judging the bad mother being remonstrated with by the police. I found myself saying “Oh god, this makes me sound like such a negligent mother, but I was literally gone for a few minutes and I could see the car from the store…” Bad Cop glared, “You know that this is an offence and we could take you to court?” Ummmm what? What the phuque? “No, I didn’t.” I really didn’t. I mean obviously I’m aware that leaving your kids in the car to go grocery shopping, or to play the pokies, or to drink coffee with friends, or to try on some clothes, or any number of things, is not good form. But I weighed up this particular situation, assessed the potential risks, as we all do, and considered that leaving my kids in the car for a moment, to avoid meltdowns, was a wise decision. Good Cop then told me that someone had phoned it in. The fact that my children were in my car, without me. They had stopped, looked and decided to phone the cops. I was astonished. I wouldn’t dream of doing that unless the situation was clearly a desperate one. And this was not a desperate situation. I am not oblivious to danger or risk. I won’t let my little boy climb to the top of the climbing frame unless I’m waiting underneath ready to catch him. My children are not allowed out of the front gate without one of us with them, and they never cross the road unless they are holding my hand. They wear helmets for scooting and cycling. The doors and windows at home are always securely locked before we go to bed at night. Our babysitters always come by recommendation. In a previous post I discussed the fact that I am plagued by “daymares” where I tend to imagine the worst case scenario involving the safety of my children. I am certain that my mind does this in order to ensure that those situations will never eventuate. I am a vigilant mum, determined not to become neurotic about my children.
Good Cop took my drivers licence and wrote down my details. “Oh god, they’re going to rinse me for this.” I felt the weight of unfairness and injustice weighing down on me already and I was sick to the stomach. But I was too nervous to ask if they actually were going to take action. Bad Cop stared me down as I whisked my kids away to take them for dinner as promised. I was a bad mother during the meal. What should have been a relaxed, jovial nosh up, was instead me leaving my kids to it while I desperately googled the law in Victoria with respect to leaving children in cars. I became genuinely nauseous because it appeared that fairly recently the law had really clamped down to make an example of parents who had behaved blatantly negligently. This was a result of some absolutely tragic incidents where babies had died after being left in stifling vehicles while parents went off to do their own thing. Yes that is negligent and appalling and devastating and inexcusable and, well, criminal. And I read that the penalties included huge fines and in some instances, prison time. So my mind leapt to all the possible outcomes and my sensible side concluded that there was no way in hell I would do time for this…but I was convinced that any day I would receive an horrendous fine for my failings. Merry Christmas mamma!
I couldn’t speak about it over Christmas. I told my fella but I didn’t share it with family. I didn’t want to stress anyone out and I probably didn’t want to be judged either. But around New Year’s Eve with some close friends I shared the story and my girlfriend was hugely supportive. In fact she was incensed that a mother in this situation should not have the right to judge what was safe, appropriate, and most advantageous for her own children. After the incident I had come across an American mother’s extremely eloquent blog post, “The day I left my son in the car”. She had been through the courts for a situation not unlike mine and had had to do 100 days community service, social services had threatened to take away her children and she had been subjected to untold shame and judgment. So I had lost confidence in my conviction that what I had done should be considered reasonable in the circumstances. My girlfriend assured me that I had not behaved abhorrently.
It is now Thursday 4th February 2016. I have not received any letters from the Victorian Police summonsing me to court and no fines for leaving my kids in the car for five minutes. I feel I can safely write about this without fear of reprisals and grief. My children continue to request that they stay in the car rather than accompany me to run errands but I remind them of the police incident and they are suitably distressed by the thought of me going to prison. So I will disregard my fairly reliable maternal instincts and I will not be leaving my children in the car again to run even the quickest of errands (though I draw the line at filling the car with petrol) lest some busy-body should phone the police, assuming that they know what is best for my children and that I do not.