I lost my 18 month old daughter in Disney World.
No, this isn’t some urban legend that you read about. She wasn’t kidnapped, drugged, and discovered at the gate with a stranger and newly dyed hair.
She wandered off and we didn’t see.
We were in Disney with my brother and his family and my good friend and her family. All in all we were a group of 13 people. I rented a stroller and since it had a convenient canopy, everyone in the party promptly tossed their backpacks and jackets on top of it.
No big deal. I was used to it. It was one of the perks of having a stroller in the park.
We were walking from Splash Mountain to Pirates of the Caribbean and we stopped for a few moments to watch a passing marching band. In those few seconds – about 10 to be specific – my 18 month old daughter got out of the seatbelt and walked out of the stroller. With everyone’s bags on top of the stroller, I didn’t even feel the weight differential when she stepped out. And so, we continued on.
At Pirates of the Caribbean, I turned the stroller around and was horrified to find it empty.
Keep in mind, we were 13 people. No one saw her get up and run off. No one saw her get out of the stroller. No one realized she was missing until we arrived in Adventureland.
Of course, this has a happy ending. My brother ran back to Splash Mountain, I grabbed a Disney employee, and within minutes she was found, safely wandering through some kiosk, happily oblivious.
It’s a story we retell, laughing and joking about how ridiculous it was. How I used the story to caution others who rent strollers (“Don’t pile everything on top!”). And now that she’s 14, she has heard it over and over again. Especially whenever we go to Disney.
Of course, she didn’t fall into a gorilla compound.
I’ve been thinking of that story these last few days when the internet blasted the mother of the young boy who fell into that compound, accusing her of neglect, demanding prosecution and taking away her other children. Parents posted Facebook updates announcing that they NEVER let their children out of their sight. NEVER would let that happen to them.
I was stunned.
Ironically, at the same time the Internet decried the mother of this poor boy, there were other articles in my newsfeed criticizing helicopter parents, the ones who never let their kids play in dirt (“Germs!”), or walk down the block (“Stanger Danger!”), or lose at a game (“Self Esteem!”).
You can’t have it both ways, people.
The ER is filled with “neglectful” parents whose children have fallen in the playground and need stitches, or have swallowed too much bubble gum flavored Motrin that their kids suddenly discovered they could open. And no matter if it was preventable or not, there is always an element of guilt that plays out. Hell, I beat myself up that my son had a brain tumor, convinced that it was somehow my fault. And for the record, one lovely woman was actually quick to point out that it probably was my fault because, after all, I allowed him to eat M&Ms. The red ones. (Yes, I’m serious.)
Neglectful parenting? Not if you’ve actually been a parent for more than 15 minutes. Good parents know that childhood is fraught with the unexpected bolt from the stroller, the quick grab of the medicine, the split-second of missed footing on the slide. Good parents know these things happen and usually they become the stuff of family legends, retold and embellished at family gatherings and bar mitzvahs.
Rarely do the stories involve the media and a dead gorilla.
As tragic as the story is, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the mother puts every other parent who has ever had to tend to skinned knees in that neglectful parent category as well. And while it’s true, my kid never climbed over the fence in the zoo, I can actually see how something like that can happen in the split-second it takes for a four year old to bolt.
It’s the nature of the beast.