The kid in the car

You're a new mum. You're almost certainly exhausted, and reeling from the physical, emotional and hormonal barrage that the past few weeks have hit you with.

Like most new mothers in New Zealand, you've been left at home, alone, with a squalling, demanding bundle. You're in desperate need of maternity pads, or nappies, or something to appease the gnawing beast of newly-breastfeeding hunger in your belly. (Do not deny the power of the beast.)

The thought of leaving your den is a bit intimidating, but it has to be done. You'd go to the local dairy, but their supplies of maternity pads are a bit lacking. You don't have family and friends around you to support you as you recover and learn to handle this foreign responsibility.

Your new darling falls asleep in the car just as you pull into the supermarket car park. It's the first time that he's fallen asleep without an hour of feeding and rocking.

You don't know what to do. It's not a situation you've ever been in before. If you take him out of the car seat, he might wake up. Then you'll either have to traipse a screaming baby through the supermarket, facing the glares of doom that loom large in a new mother's mind, or just go home to cry into your milkless cup of tea.  

Maybe you should take the car seat out. But it's raining. Maybe you're not quite recovered from a C-section; maybe you're stitched from stem to stern; maybe you're still suffering the pain of sciatica or SPD from loosened ligaments. Maybe it all just seems too hard to your exhausted body and mind. You only need one thing, after all... 

I'm not saying that I think it's okay to leave a newborn asleep in a supermarket car park, but I can understand why someone might do it. New motherhood is hard, endlessly, relentlessly hard. If leaving your baby to sleep in a dry car for a few minutes prevents an hour of screaming, I can understand why someone might make that decision.

I do think that it's really unfortunate that we live in a society where someone has to make that choice. It'd be great if everyone had friends, neighbours or family to call on at such a vulnerable and stressful time, but life isn't like that anymore. They're all at work, and such is the culture of being successful and independent that it's really difficult, or even shameful, to ask for help.

Life can be a lonely, lonely place as a new mother. You're struggling to redefine yourself, and acutely conscious of your change in status. Criticism stings doubly; you're told how important it is to get everything right, yet simultaneously given conflicting information on what "right" actually is.

You can't ever hope to be perfect. A huge part of parenting is risk assessment: working out what is best for you and your kids in a given circumstance. Parents do it a hundred times a day without realising that's what they're doing.

Do we get it wrong sometimes? Of course we do. There are so many variables, so many risks, that no parent can avoid them all. Yes, a newborn in a parked car is at a slight risk of being kidnapped or crashed into, but a newborn in a supermarket is at a slight risk of having their trolley crashed into or being cooed over by someone with pertussis. All you can do is balance the risks, the severity and the likelihood, and make your best guess.

If you see a parent making a decision that you think is too risky, it's okay to do something. In a good world, you'd talk to the parents, and offer to help. It might even be appropriate to contact the police, but taking a photo and putting it on Facebook so the parents can be called names and threatened is never an appropriate response.

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