This week, in Northern Virginia, we heard what likely will not be the summer’s only tragic report of someone leaving a child unattended in a closed car in 90-degree heat, resulting in the child’s death. At first I thought an adult left the child to run a quick errand, believing they would return before any harm could come. Then I heard a more detailed report: A mother forgot that she had her 8-month old in the car when she drove to work, parked her car, and went inside. She says she didn’t realize the baby had been left behind until she collected her toddler, six hours later.
If this mother’s story is true, it seems that she was so preoccupied with her job that she simply forgot about her infant. I ask myself—I ask you—how is this possible? She dropped the two-year-old at the babysitter that morning. How could she forget the baby was there? I could never get out of my car without noticing that my baby was strapped in a car seat in back. That’s like those women in the slasher movies that drive away in a car without noticing the knife-wielding freak huddled in the back seat.
When I heard that story, another story immediately came to mind. Nearly 25 years ago my sister-in-law’s car was hit about a half-block from her job. The car was totaled; thankfully and miraculously, she did not suffer major injury. I was alarmed when my brother told me about it, but his observation was “it was her fault.” She was turning across an intersection and risked life, limb and vehicle, he said, because her job had a strict attendance policy and she might have lost her job if she arrived late.
I have seen mothers, many times, pulling toddlers and young children out of the house, balancing diaper bags, backpacks, computer bags, lunch bags and babies, as they hurry to pack it all into a car or onto a bus or train. I’ve done it myself. Nothing throws you off schedule like a diarrhea-diaper moment between the house and the car.
But I was fortunate. I didn’t have to punch a time clock. I didn’t have to work two jobs to make ends meet. I didn’t wake up every morning tired and worried, because those two jobs still didn’t cover my family’s expenses. I did feel like I was always under scrutiny, held to higher standard, and expected to fail—fail at everything except being a mother. When things fall apart, motherhood is never supposed to falter.
However, women—mothers—face often insurmountable challenges today. My fundamentalist friends would blame this on women’s liberation and declare that if women had just stayed with God’s plan—stayed home to care for their husbands and children—these types of things would not happen. The problem is, even when women want to stay home with their children, this economy requires both parents to work. The median income for American families is around $51,000; however, 49.5 percent of families earn less than $50,000 and 25 percent earn less than $25,000. The median income for single women with children is $23,000. If you pay rent and utilities, and buy groceries and gasoline, you know how far that amount of income doesn’t go. If you were listening to the news last week, you heard that Congress refused to approve funding for food stamps, which are received by a surprising 49 percent of the population. Working often can’t offset the cost of safe and suitable child care—when you can find it. In Fairfax County, where this crime occurred, 2012 weekly infant care costs range from $195 to $319; for toddlers, it’s $185 to $305. Mothers, married or single, too often find themselves in untenable positions. The pressure to sustain a household often results in people taking it out on those closest to them. It may lead to domestic abuse or child abuse or neglect.
I’m not saying that this mother is not culpable—or even that she did not intentionally leave her child in the car out of anger or despair. I am saying that the very nature of America’s economic system places the most vulnerable among us in the most precarious, even deadly situations. Compared to the other developed nations, the United States is woefully lacking in policies that promote or provide healthy work-life balance, appropriate, affordable child care, and a living wage, all to the disadvantage of children and families. Are you listening, Wal-Mart?