Before you become a parent, your worst nightmare goes something like this: "Ohmigod, today's my Algebra II final and I forgot to buy the book!!!"
After you become a parent, your worst nightmare is of a different nature: "Ohmigod, where's the baby?!"
I've had that dream a hundred times in the past 16 years. I wake up panting and terrified, grateful to realize that it's just a dream. Of course, I never actually "lost" my child, except during those instants when the little squirm-master momentarily slipped out of sight.
Hiding in the clothing racks of a department store was one of his favorite early-toddler amusements. Given his ability to fool me into terror on more than one occasion, I am inarguably guilty of a degree of distraction common to most parents and understood by all.
But never - not on my toughest workday or in my worst nightmare - did I forget where I put my child or forget that he was in the car while I was elsewhere. In the past few weeks, at least three women have done just that - forgotten their babies were in the car, where they roasted to death.
In all three cases, the women said: "I forgot."
I realize that I'm supposed to be hemorrhaging empathy at this point, but I'm having a little trouble. How do you forget your child is in the car? How do you become so preoccupied with work that you forget to drop your child at the babysitter's, as two of these women claim to have done?
In one of the incidents, a hospital executive in Perry, Iowa, discovered her 7-month-old daughter dead in the car as she was picking up her other child at a day-care center. Kari Engholm told police she thought the baby was at the sitter's house, where she was supposed to have dropped her earlier in the day.
By way of explanation, a friend noted that Engholm, chief executive at a county hospital, was terribly busy and had a lot on her mind. "The woman simply forgot, she was so consumed. She's the CEO of a business."
In another June incident, a 3-year-old girl died in Rialto, Calif., when her foster mother left the child in the car after arriving home with her other foster children. The mother, Linda Montano, told police she didn't realize that the girl was still in the back seat.
In Colorado Springs in May, another mom, Diana Rodriguez, left her infant son in the car while she worked an eight-hour shift at McDonald's. Rodriguez, who found her baby dead in the back seat of her car after work, said she thought she had left the infant at her sister's house. Oops.
All three mothers reportedly are bereft, and why doubt it? What could possibly be worse than finding your child dead from your own neglect? The questions before law enforcement officials are meatier: Should these women be punished?
Invariably the answer is no. The Engholm case may be determined an accident, though it's still being investigated. In the Rodriguez case, prosecutors have offered the 18-year-old mother probation in exchange for a guilty plea to a Class 3 felony, child abuse resulting in death by criminal negligence.
At this writing, officials haven't decided what to do about Montano's "unfortunate tragedy," as one police officer put it. You can't help wondering what they would have called it if these babies had died while in the care of their similarly distracted fathers.
The news media, meanwhile, has been curiously supportive of the grieving moms. Inevitably, the spin will waffle between the difficulties of balancing career and family in the Perry-CEO case and, in the Rodriguez case, the tragically punitive effect of a welfare system that forces single mothers to work without adequate (government-sponsored) day care.
We don't dare suggest that personal irresponsibility played a role or that these women's lives were so other-focused that they failed in their most important job of mothering. The unspoken source of our vast understanding, of course, is the fearsome prospect - the awful possibility - that we other working moms might get too busy ourselves someday and ... well, it (ital) could (unital) happen to anyone.
Tragedies come in threes, they say, so perhaps these baby deaths are merely insolated events that, owing to Taurus's ill humor this year, forced a random coincidence from which we should infer nothing. On the other hand, maybe three I-forgot-the-baby-because-I-was-too-busy moms suggest a cultural Rorschach about our priorities, which, inescapably, reflect our values.