Friday, June 4, 2010

A Difficult Topic

I wanted to write about something that I read about today, and it's a very difficult topic. I read a Pulitzer Prize winning article about parents who have killed their baby by accidentally leaving the child in the car. It's called "Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?" and it's by Washington Post staff writer Gene Weingarten. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing with this article, and after reading it I frankly think it's a horrible piece of journalism.

Of course, the nature of the piece is horrifying and heartbreaking, but that's not why I think it's a poor article. I read the whole thing, and as hard as it was to read the details of these awful accidents, what was worse was how sadly the author avoided the real issue at stake and instead drew conclusions to fit his personal assumptions. This in no way can be called journalism! And the fact that he won a journalistic award for this article is ludicrous.

I'll explain. I originally read this article because I've heard reports on the news every summer for the last several years about babies dying when a parent forgets them in the steamy back seat of their car. It's unbelievably sad, and I've always asked myself, "Could that happen to me? Could I actually forget my baby in the car?" I have come to the conclusion that no, probably not; but if you read this article you'll see that the author thinks yes, without a doubt, it could be you.

He asks the question, "what kind of person forgets a baby?" and answers it by saying,

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Do you get the idea? There is no common factor here. It's no more likely to happen to one parent than to another. So why does this happen, according to the author? He talks about
the "Swiss Cheese Model" which explain[s] through analogy why catastrophic failures can occur in organizations despite multiple layers of defense. [British psychologist James Reason, who coined the term,] likens the layers to slices of Swiss cheese, piled upon each other, five or six deep. The holes represent small, potentially insignificant weaknesses. Things will totally collapse only rarely, he says, but when they do, it is by coincidence -- when all the holes happen to align so that there is a breach through the entire system.
You go on to see that all of the parents the author has interviewed are loving, conscientious parents who simply have a day where all the "holes" line up - stress, lack of sleep, a change in routine, distraction... and then the unthinkable happens. The quality of their prior parenting is irrelevant. It could and does happen to anyone: it could happen to you.
There is no consistent character profile of the parent who does this to his or her child. The 13 who were interviewed for this story include the introverted and extroverted; the sweet, the sullen, the stoic and the terribly fragile.
But when we look a little closer, it seems there is a consistent profile to these parents. They are all working parents. They all either forget to drop their child off at daycare or forget that they picked their child up, and leave the baby in the car while they work all day or go home and sleep. Several even drove back to their daycare center at the end of the day to pick up their child, not even aware of the corpse in the back seat. None of the stories I read about or have heard about involve a parent who is at home full-time with his or her children.

So this kind of tragedy is a newer phenomenon, hardly known 20 years ago. But what changed, according to the author? Airbags in cars. Babies moved to the back seat and pivoted to face the rear. Parents can no longer see their baby, so of course they're going to forget about them from time to time.

No mention is ever made of the increase in families with two working parents and the number of children in daycare.

I'm not saying this to vilify families where both parents work or where the children are in daycare. I myself was a single working mother for 5 years and Grace was in daycare on and off for that time. I know sometimes there's no other option.
BUT, what I think this article makes crystal clear is the need for us as a nation to examine our lifestyles and our attitudes towards children and family.

Do we really need two incomes? Do we need two cars, huge houses, expensive vacations? Is daycare really good for children? Are our lives too hectic, stressful, and focused on a million other things besides our children? Is it okay to just fit kids into our already busy lives or should we focus our lives on our children while they're young?

My point is this: although the bereaved parents in this article all loved their children very much, they were all so used to NOT being with their babies that they left them to cook in the back seat of the car for hours and hours while they focused on their jobs. Their jobs were the main focus of their day and their week, not their child. And I could have been one of those parents when Grace was young because for a while this was true of me: I was more used to being without her than with her.

Of course something like this could happen to a parent who's home full-time with their children, of course. But it's terribly unlikely, as I've seen for myself. On the handful of times I've gone out without a single child, if I'm distracted or tired or just not thinking, I'll usually go open the back door of the car to get the baby out. I'm so used to my little one being
with me that I forget when he or she is not. It just feels weird the whole time I'm out without a child with me.

With this glaring omission on the part of the author, I thought about writing to him and asking about his failure to make this obvious connection. But then I came across the transcript of a Q&A session the author did about his article. One person wrote in and asked this:

I noticed when reading your article that all the families discussed had both parents in the workforce, and they all seemed to revolve around day care or child care pick-ups of some kind. That I think is at the heart of the problem. We as a society now delegate the care of our children out to others and in the mornings as we rush out of the house, the children are not the focus of our day, but one of a myriad of "small" details we check-off in our rush to the most "important" focus of our day," our jobs. What is really sad about the Balfour case is that the babysitter, not a parent, was the first one to realize the child was missing. The fact is the babysitter had more involvement in the baby's weekday life than the mother had, so it makes sense the babysitter would notice the baby's absence. Forty years ago, parents were not perfect, but at least, they didn't delegate the care of their children in such large numbers to non-family members, and the child's life wasn't filled with so much stress and hurrying. I often read criticism of the past, such as "this is not your grandmother's PTA" or "this is not your father's automobile," in praising ourselves; however, in this instance, it is unfortunate that we don't follow more our grandparents' method of child-care, "hands-on" care in the home. Why didn't Mr. Weingarten mention more about how this problem often results from having both parents in the workplace?

Exactly what I was thinking! Mr Weingarten's response is very revealing:

Because Mr. Weingarten is prejudiced.

I don't mean to sound cavalier or dismissive. Yours is a reasonable question, but I believe it is based on an erroneous presumption: For many or most of us, daycare is not an option but a necessity. I am, in fact, prejudiced in favor of daycare -- the way it socializes children, they way it helps support and encourage economic equality in two-career households, and the way it can work splendidly to let loving parents provide loving homes.

I never intended this story to a condemnation of daycare; I think that argument is as spurious as saying the problem here, obviously, is cars. If there were no cars, no children would die this way. It's true, but beside the point.

Is it about simplifying our lives, and reducing stress? Probably. I just wouldn't make daycare the scapegoat.

You know what it might be about? It might be about making sure that daycare centers ALWAYS call the parent if the child doesn't arrive one day. I'd like to hear from a daycare provider if he/she thinks this creates an excessive burden, because I don't see how it would.

I'm not even going to address the major logical fallacies in Mr. Weingarten's reply. The bottom line is that the author believes having two working parents and children in daycare is a good thing, and despite his research and talking to heartbroken parents whose stories are evidence of just the opposite, he refused to make that connection in his article. Is this journalism?! Because I've always thought true journalism is presenting the evidence and facts no matter what your own personal opinions might be. Not only does the author fail to point out that all these tragedies happened to working parents, but he seems to actually disguise that fact by talking about how there are no common factors, it happens to all sorts of parents, etc. (I noticed in his list of parental jobs he never says, "it happened to a stay-at-home mom.")
Here is a clear case of a journalist presenting a biased piece because of his own presuppositions.

Again, I don't want to come across as demonizing these bereaved parents (or working parents in general!). They deserve our pity because not only do they have to live with the pain of losing a child, they have to live with the guilt of knowing it was their fault. I can't imagine anything worse as a parent. I hope and pray that these people would turn to God and find in Him the mercy and hope He gives to all who are deeply wounded.

The point of Mr. Weingarten's article, it seems, it to show that these parents are loving, responsible parents like you and me who should not be prosecuted for these terrible accidents. I agree with him that these aren't crimes. But instead of focusing on how these poor parents are not criminals, he instead could have made this article a call to all Americans to wake up.

Wake up and start examining our lifestyle! Examine our priorities, what we think we need, what it looks like to be "successful."
Most of all, examine our views about family and children. This growing epidemic of stressed out, working parents who forget their children long enough for them to bake inside a car should make us ask, "where are we investing ourselves? Where is the focus of our lives?" Our children are literally taking a back seat and some of them are paying the ultimate price.


With Out My Punkin said...

wow... thank you for sharing your opinion, I wonder how this can happen to children. Its sad that he is making an excuse for how and why its happening!

I came across your blog...I'm not sure how, but am now a follower. I noticed that you have lots of resources and thought I would share this link w/you. She has compiled many resources for BLM too...

e&e said...

I think YOUR article is prize-worthy. I so enjoy your writing.

I really do like your point and will be pondering it all evening. A thought that I had while reading it was that even if I did forget a child in the car, say, Sophia who is still rear-facing and unable to get herself out, I'd have two other little ones piping up to get her out. Another thing is even when I do go somewhere that I could potentially leave a child in the car, like to go shopping, I would not be gone all day.

I have worried about accidentally leaving a child at home in my haste to get out the door, but of course I would notice when I got to my destination that I was missing someone. And my other (loud) passengers would notice before I left the driveway.

And, in a similar way to what you mentioned, I have panicked when I went to get a child out of the car and they weren't there, only to realize that I had gone somewhere alone, on purpose, and that the kids were home with Eric. Then I laugh because while I didn't bring a child, I usually brought the diaper bag.

One more thing...this reminded me to be grateful to the Lord that He provided me with a husband that is willing, able, and even pretty much demanded that his wife stay home with the children. It wasn't my natural bent in the beginning of our marriage, but it was Eric's, and I'm so glad.

Let's remember to be praying for these parents and families; I can't imagine losing a child, especially in this way.


Leah Miller said...

This is probably besides the point, but I once left Ike in the car. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was planning on going grocery shopping by myself while Eric stayed at home with the boys. Ike woke up from his nap right before I left, so I brought only him. He was quiet the whole way to the store and I realized half-way through my shopping trip he was in the car. I gasped and shouted outloud, "I forgot my baby!!!" I ran back to the car to find he was just hanging out. Thank God it was only 70 degrees outside and not 90 (like the day before). God was incredibly gracious to me and I actually spent an entire therapy session talking about this! I'm so embarrassed about it but want to share it anyway. I feel like it kinda CAN happen to anyone. But like Elisa pointed out, there wouldn't be a chance that he could be out there all day. But it only takes a few minutes in hot weather for a tragedy to happen. :(

melissa said...

Leah, I appreciate you sharing. I'm sure it's hard to share (like when I didn't buckle Moses' car seat into the shopping cart at Target, walked away and he tipped out onto the floor at like 11 months old!!) I have had dreams about forgetting a child at home or in the car ever since I became a mother of more than one child. And I think the point is, most of us are capable of forgetting a child given the right circumstances unfortunately. But as Elisa pointed out (and your story illustrates!) most mothers who don't work away from their child all day wouldn't forget about their child all day.

You're right, though, it doesn't take all day in the car for a tragedy to happen. None of us are immune from doing something like this.

himalayan sojourners... said...

good stuff Melissa... he completely missed the reason and you got it. true mistakes happen to all of us, even those who are use to having their kids with them all the time, but i do think the chance decreases by a TON than those who are not use to having their kids with them for most of the day.

tiffany said...

i read this WHOLE post out loud to steve last night. :) i don't have anything to add, just wanted to say i appreciate your thoughts on this. excellently written!