This is what happened. On a rainy Wednesday morning in early June, one week into summer vacation, I picked up my 11-year-old daughter from a friend’s house, where she had spent the night, and the two of us headed south on the interstate toward the nearest Kohl’s, about 30 miles away, to shop for a bathing suit.
Kohl’s parking lot was nearly empty, so we pulled into the front space and ran, dodging puddles, to the entrance. The store was cold, with the air conditioners blasting regardless of the outside temperature, and my daughter started complaining immediately: "I’m tired, my legs hurt, I’m freezing, I can’t walk anymore. Can we leave? Why do we have to do this today? I’m freezing! My feet got wet. Can we leave? I’m tired..." And on and on. She and her friend had apparently followed summer sleepover protocol and stayed up all night.
“We drove all this way. We’re not leaving without a bathing suit,” I told her, flipping through a rack of Speedos, although as parent to a resolute 11-year-old knows, it’s hard to concentrate on projected growth spurts and chlorine resistance while being bombarded with negativity. I was not up for a battle of the wills. After looking for a place for her to sit down, which didn’t exist, I offered to walk her back to car. She gladly agreed.
We crossed the parking lot, I gave her the keys, she locked herself in, and I went back into Kohl’s to pick out a bathing suit.
When I came out – 14 minutes later, according to the security camera in the parking lot, which I later consulted – the first thing I noticed was another car had parked right next to ours. The second thing I noticed was my daughter, sound asleep in the backseat with her mouth hanging open. As I knocked on the window to wake her, a man erupted from that next car telling me to FREEZE! The police were on their way!
He looked to be about 65 and was with his own adult daughter, who was visibly embarrassed and trying to calm him down. He circled my car, as if he thought I might flee, tsking and condemning, shouting things that sliced me to pieces: "Don’t you care? She could be dead! How could you just leave her? How could you?" He grew hoarse berating me, while I stood there in the rain holding a Speedo.
By the time the policeman arrived, my daughter was sitting upright, oval-eyed, and had for some reason buckled her seatbelt. The old man was giddy with anticipation, eager to see me hauled off in handcuffs and he be awarded a medal for bravery. His daughter was leaning miserably against their car, facing the opposite direction, away from the commotion. I was rehearsing my defense: My daughter is 11. She has the car keys and could open the windows if she got hot (even though it was 67 degrees outside). I was in the store without her for less than 15 minutes. She's impossible when she is tired.
It turns out, I hadn’t broken any laws. The policeman told the man to stop yelling and leave the area. He took a small notebook from his uniform pocket and recorded my name, and then he left too. I climbed into the backseat of our car, next to my daughter, and held her tight. She was terrified. She had been awakened by a man circling our car, screaming at her mother. She never felt one bit endangered, she said later, she was afraid for me.
In the days following, my reaction to this incident evolved, running the gamut from the initial feeling of deep shame, to anger at this aggressive man, to finally feeling frustrated at the lack of compassion, the rush to judgement, and the attitude of righteousness that mothers endure. Had I made a poor decision, letting my daughter sit in the car alone in a parking lot? Probably, but by attacking me, the man gave me no room to be anything but defensive. Were his actions fueled by concern for the well-being of a sleeping girl in a car? Most definitely, but he allowed his concern to boil over into inappropriate hostility.
Statistically, my daughter faced far greater risks driving to Kohl’s, staying the night at her friend’s, and walking across the parking lot than she faced sitting by herself in the car. She loves McDonalds, which isn’t good for her and can lead to serious health problems, and she has a YouTube account, which theoretically exposes her to online predators, but strangers don’t feel entitled to criticize me about those choices. What is the difference?
More concerning than our choice of balancing personal freedom with responsibility is the growing animosity toward each other in respect to those choices. What makes mothers fair game? Had my husband been the one returning to the car, would the angry man have unleashed a torrent of insults upon him? We all know the answer.
It is sensationalism surrounding isolated instances that gives the false impression of danger, and social media is an enormous catalyst. Ultimately, the best strategy to combat foes, both foreign and domestic, is to keep doing what we think is best.