When my daughters were told that we were going for a trip to Wellington, one of the first things that they asked to do was to go to the zoo. Daughter One had been previously and wanted to go again and Daughter Two is obsessed with all things animals and was desperate to see the lions. (Dragons were her first choice but apparently they’re not suited to living in captivity). I quite like a zoo trip myself, and we don’t have one where we live, so we scheduled in a visit.
We were well prepared for the zoo with a 5:3 adult to child ratio, packed picnic, plenty of time to see everything and an exit strategy that involved bribery with ice cream. Husband even had a trick up his sleeve to stop Daughter Two from skipping the other animals in her quest to get to the lions – the tale of how they eat the first child who gets to them each day made her eyes widen ever so slightly and while she didn’t quite believe him, she was also in no great hurry after that.
Wellington turned on a cracker day without a hint of its infamous wind, and the animals were out and about enjoying the sunshine. The kids had a blast. There was excitement over seeing a real kiwi, awe over the size of the tiger, and general hilarity over the baby chimpanzee who did a wee while swinging on its rope. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day out.
But, at the back of my mind was paranoia about one of my children getting lost and ending up in an animal enclosure. Or leaning over the rail and falling into an animal enclosure. Or somehow sticking their arm into an animal enclosure. Actually, the thought of pretty much any interaction involving anything more than standing back and passively admiring the animal enclosures was slightly nerve wracking.
The zoo signage did not help:
I mean, look at the expression on that child’s face! And the adult can do nothing but look on in horror, head in hands. I’m not even sure what sort of animal that is – the sign was on the giraffe viewing platform – but it looks like it has approached that child with the express purpose of trampling it to death.
Anyway, apart from the lingering paranoia, I enjoyed the day (even when Grandad decided that Daughter One would have a better view when lifted onto the top of enclosure fences). Afterwards, though, my thoughts did go to the poor mother of that wee boy who got himself into the gorilla enclosure a while back.
I’d thought a lot about her at the time but, as with most things these days, the spotlight had moved from the event pretty quickly and she had slowly drifted out of my thinking. The whole situation was tragic. I don’t want to debate the rights or wrongs of animals in captivity, or of the decision to shoot the gorilla, or the standard of fencing in the zoo. I’ll tell you one thing for sure though, if my child had ended up in the same situation, I’d be looking for a gun myself. A gorilla is a gorilla and a child is a child. Child wins. Every time. And I’ll tell you what else is sure – I would never forgive myself for the fact that my child ended up in that enclosure. And that’s why I found the endless, cruel and thoughtless slating of that mother on social media so distressing. That woman has lived through a nightmare. An absolute nightmare. She has already been punished enough for the fact that her child somehow got away from her and yet she’ll punish herself, torture herself probably, forever. Anything anyone said on social media, she’d already said to herself. Twice.
When Daughter Two was about 15 months old, I had one of the worst parenting moments in my history of parenting moments. It haunts me still, in the wee small hours when I can’t sleep and I do that thing where you rewrite history through changing one small moment in the narrative.
Long suffering husband was negotiating shoe options with the three year old who had very definite ideas about the sorts of shoes that were beautiful enough to adorn her precious feet. On reflection, these ideas have not really changed, flimsy ballet flats – beautiful, high heels – beautiful, sneakers with glitter and preferably featuring Elsa – beautiful, anything practical or inexpensive – not beautiful. Suffice to say, husband had his hands full.
Meanwhile, I was doing laps around the store with Daughter Two who had the opposite attitude to her sister. In her opinion, all shoes were perfectly grand and therefore as many as possible needed her attention. The resulting trail of shoes and their boxes were, of course, left to me to clean up.
In the time it took for me to retrieve a pair of sneakers from the floor and replace them in their box, my toddler had disappeared. Assuming she’d gone back to her father and sister, I went that way too but she wasn’t with them when I got there and as I scanned the store for her I saw a small blonde head bobbing its way out through the automatic doors.
Now, I am not a runner. In fact, generally speaking I avoid running at all costs.
But, my God, did I run. I remember people’s heads whipping around as I dashed past them, dropping the shoe box and its offending sneakers as I went. But, by the time I got out the door, my baby had crossed the road. The main road. The road through the middle of town that usually has a steady stream of cars driving down it.
She had crossed the road.
The thing that comes back to me, apart from the horror and the relief that rapidly followed, is the way that people looked at me. There were three women on that street. One had met my daughter on the other side of the road and stopped her going any further – I’m not sure whether I thanked her or not that day because I was too busy scooping up my oblivious child and trying to block out images of myself cradling a lifeless wee body picked up from the roadside. The other two looked at me like I was some sort of demon. I heard one of them mutter disapprovingly to the other about how lucky I was, as if I deserved things to have turned out badly. Neither of them said anything directly to me. Not one word of reassurance or to ask me if everything was OK. Nothing.
Maybe they went home and updated their social media pages to comment on the useless mother that they witnessed during their shopping trip. Maybe I made dinner conversation that evening. Maybe my worst parenting moment of all time still features over coffee and cake when they meet with the girls. I’ll never know, thank goodness. But the mother of that wee boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure, she knows. So does every other parent whose worst parenting moment ever has ended in a tragedy and who has then made it onto the news.
And the only difference between me and those others is luck. Things could have been very different. I could have lost my child that day because I looked down for a few seconds so that I could put some shoes in a box. I can’t even imagine the horror and emptiness of losing a child, but I think that if I had lost my child that day it would have destroyed me.
There but for the grace of God go I. And you too, most likely.