Once, some years back, our young daughter was wandering around our church campus. Like any church campus, we can have multiple things happening in a day. But on this particular day, a woman who I have never met, who does not attend our church, saw my daughter. And she decided that her mother (me) was slacking on the job. So she hauled my daughter out into the yard and yelled, “WHO IS THIS CHILD’S MOTHER?”

And I said with a sigh, “I am.”

(Jesus, help me.)

And she said, “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? SHE NEEDS YOU!”

And I said, “She’s fine. Her Dad is the pastor here. This is like her house.”

The woman, miffed, walked away. Leaving me standing there ashamed and, weirdly, frustrated with my daughter.

I thought of this time I “abandoned” my child in church story when I read Kim Brooks’ recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Motherhood in the Age of Fear“.

Brooks chronicles her own horrible McMomster story about that one time she left her four year old in the car so that she could run an errand. He was refusing to get out of the car, as children who are almost kindergarteners are wont to do. After going through all of the mental gymnastics about if the weather was cool enough (it was), Brooks reminded herself that she had spent her childhood waiting on her parents to return to the car:

I’d grown up in that same town in the 1980s and had spent hours waiting in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon, windows open, reading or daydreaming, while they ran errands. Had so much really changed since then?

It turns out it has. Brooks quickly found out that a stranger had seen her leave the child in the car and proceeded to call the authorities on her. A warrant went out for her arrest. Eventually she would get off without the prosecutor pressing charges. She ended up only (?) having to do 100 hours of community service.

Brooks interviews other mothers with similar stories. Some of them let their kids play unattended on a playground so they could work or go to a job interview. She noted that the punishments for mothers of color are far worse than for white mothers. And, quite painfully, she pointed out that fathers do not get reprimanded at all.

Brooks noted that there are repercussions for this level of paranoia in the lives of our kids. Children are not playing outside anymore. Gone are the days when they roam the streets of their neighborhoods looking to add to rock collections or for a tad pole in the gutter water to harass. She also makes the frightening point that we are all more worried about abduction than the actual problems our children are facing. Namely, diabetes and depression. See also: Kids don’t play outside anymore.

But what jumped out at me personally was the response to the mothers’ stories. Brooks chronicles the ordeal of one mother who left her napping four year in the car while she did a quick run into the store. When she was arrested, the police officer harangued her:

Stay-at-home mom’s too busy shopping to take care of her kid? Does your husband know how you take care of your child while he’s out earning the big bucks?”

Did he accidentally think this was an episode of CSI? Is he Officer Ice T? Does errand rhyme with murder? I am confused.

It was not enough to be juggling a child and a necessary errand the best way she knew how. It was not enough to be doing the best she could. It was not even enough to be arrested. She had to be told that her story, her life, her motherhood, was a laughable failure.

I suppose the question I keep asking myself is Why. Why are people going after mothers? And perhaps conversely, why are people so fixated with “protecting” random children? Brooks notes that, statistically speaking, “you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger.” But people seem to think it takes about 2 minutes.

Of course, judgment is never just a problem out there. It flourishes in the hearts of mothers. I mean, wasn’t that the first blog? Breastfeeding and Why Formula Sucks? Or was it Free Range Parenting: How to Call the Cops? I have done my fair share of seeing entire families staring into screens at the local Tex-Mex joint and thought, “Why can’t they order margaritas and yell at their children like good parents (me) do?”

We are under such incredible pressure to get it all right, that it only seems natural to look for those fellow mothers in the trenches who are getting some of it wrong. Brooks hauntingly observes:

I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts.

And these days people’s feelings are all over the place. Are we all so worried that the world is going to hell in a hand basket that we insist on yelling at mothers’ as they hold onto said hand baskets? I mean, someone has to be responsible. Why not us?

When my own ability to mother was called into question, I remember being astonished. Because my brief encounter with this your-children-can-never-leave-your-side legalism, is that my story was not good enough.

I stood there totally astonished. I felt accused, guilty, and rip roaring mad. Does my child always have to be physically attached to me for me to be a good mother? Am I not allowed to have conversations with other grownups now? And most of all, DID I MENTION HER DAD IS THE PASTOR OF THE CHURCH AND WE ARE ALWAYS HERE? But none of that was good enough. My story fell short of some idealized picture of motherly perfection.

I wonder if people just want to play the lead role of redemption in every story. After all, it is so much easier to fix what is wrong with other people (bonus points for calling the police on them!) than it is to face the looming sadness of your own failure. There you are, sitting in your car, making your grocery list when you see it: A mother leaving her child in the car. This is your chance. Her story is not good enough. She is not good enough. You get to be the hero. And she can take her rightful place as villain.

When I tuck my kids in bed at night, I ask them two questions. And these questions are meant to point to that fact that I am their mother and I love them and also that I am a person who fails. And these questions are intended to point my children to the true Redeemer of every story who loves them (and me and all of the other mothers) more than we could ever comprehend:

  1. Q: Who loves you more than anything else in the world?
    A: Mama.
  2. Q: Who loves you perfectly?
    A: Jesus.

I take my rest there.