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The Existential Agony of Parenting

No matter what you do or don’t do, someone will disagree. So trust yourself.

Pretty much every mom friend I encountered a few weeks ago started our conversation with the same question: “What did you think of that essay about the mom who left her kid in the car?”

That’s a good question. In her essay, “The Day I Left my Son in the Car” Kim Brooks admits she committed a “crime” that most parents are also guilty of committing. For Brooks, a split-second decision led to months of fear that she might go to prison or lose her children, all because she left her five-year old alone in a car for a few minutes on a mild day, and a bystander (who I suspect was not a parent) videoed the incident on his phone and called the police.

Brook’s harrowing tale of a hasty decision with harsh consequences shone a floodlight on a rarely acknowledged problem with modern parenting: distraction. In a more recent example, you might have heard about the father who was arrested because his eight-year old skipped church. Jeffrey K. Williamson admitted he did not see his son get on the church bus—distraction--and that was enough of a parenting faux pas to land him in criminal court on child endangerment charges.

But both Brooks’s son and Williamson’s son are fine, no worse for the wear because of their parents’ momentary lapse in judgment when faced with recalcitrant children. On a more sobering note, as I read Brooks’s essay, I thought, at least she isn’t Eliot Rodger’s or Adam Lanza’s mom.

No parent is perfect. But sometimes even the most minor mistakes can create lifelong consequences. And sometimes, no matter how hard we try, things still don’t turn out right for our kids.

Aside: I’m ambivalent about Brooks’ decision because I personally know a mother who left her baby asleep in his car seat one June afternoon while she ran in the house to grab a diaper bag. The phone rang, she answered it, and twenty minutes later, her three year old discovered the baby, flushed, swollen, and not breathing. He could not be revived.

I don’t think my acquaintance was a bad mother. I think she was a distracted mother—and really, who among us can cast the first stone in that department? She lost all of her children that day nearly 20 years ago, and she lives constantly with crushing guilt.

Reflecting on her own experience with split-second decisions and how it affected her family, Brooks observed that the hardest part of parenting “is not the fatigue or time drain or chaos of family life, but the inability to ensure that nothing terrible will ever happen to my children.”

Nearly all parents live in a state of constant low level anxiety, which is why stories like Brooks’s resonate so strongly with us. But what if you actually lived in fear of unpredictable violence? What if you had to call the police on your own child? And what if the police didn’t do anything to help him, and a few weeks later, he killed six people and himself? What would that feel like?

I’ve called the police on my own son. Like Brooks, I’ve had to take parenting classes as a consequence of that decision. In my state, we use Love and Logic to help parents set appropriate boundaries for their children. This system works well for my three neurotypical kids. But all the Love and Logic in the world cannot stop my son who has bipolar disorder from flying into an unpredictable and uncontrollable rage when he is in an irrational state.

Brooks’s eloquently articulated overwhelming “desire to prevent suffering” in the face of acknowledged helplessness is the paradox of modern parenting. It’s why we have perpetual bags under our eyes. It’s why my new husband, who has no children of his own, collapsed into bed after watching three of my kids at the park for a few hours one afternoon. “It was terrifying,” he told me. “I was worried every minute that something bad might happen.”

We decided that the hardest part of parenting is this self-imposed hyper-vigilance, which we parents see as the only safeguard against distraction, and which is especially hard for parents of children who have a mental illness. Though the FBI reports that violent crime is at its lowest point in decades, social media has fed us a steady diet of outlier events like mass shootings, rare black swans that seem common because we see them everywhere, and we feel powerless to protect our children.

But while tragedies like Sandy Hook or Isla Vista make news, real tragedies are taking place in homes across America. For example, as many as 4,600 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 who cannot get treatment for mental illness take their own lives each year. And mothers with mental illness kill their own children, as Angela Mtambu did. I wonder whether anyone will bring charges of child endangerment against the Pennsylvania mental institution workers who released her while she was still in a psychotic state.

One thing I’ve learned as the mother of a child with mental illness is that no matter what you do, someone will disagree with your decision. So I focus on the positives—that effective treatment can and does prevent tragedy every single day. As for Kim Brooks, I think her story captures another basic truth about parenting: we need to stop judging and start supporting each other.


Kim Brooks

Jeffrey K. Williamson…

Love and Logic

Low violent crime rates…

Angela Mtambu:…


About the Author

Liza Long

Liza Long is a writer, educator, mental health advocate and mother of four children, one of whom has mental illness.