Dear Those Outraged Over Harambe’s Death,
I’m a bad mom. I found this out when my firstborn was an infant and the mom gig was new to me and I accidentally buckled her chubbadorable leg into the snap of her carseat belt. Her eyes widened in pain and after a split second of shock, her lungs discovered octaves yet unexplored. I hurriedly released her and in a desperate attempt to pull her into my arms of comfort, I smacked her head on the rim of the car door. We both had a good cry and she spent the next few weeks sporting a welt on her leg and a bruise above her eye.
We took same child around same time on a road trip to see grandparents. We transferred the car seat in and out of various vehicles during our stay depending on who was driving. We returned to Michigan from New York – a 10 hour road trip – with our precious baby safely strapped in, rear facing, mirror in the window to prevent a rare case of car SIDs, playing (torturous) lullabies from a CD case that promised to dramatically increase her IQ, and providing sensory stimulation by dangling educational toys above her. Upon arrival and unloading, we discovered to our horror that each thought another had anchored the seat into the car but no one actually had. We had traveled for ten hours on busy interstates with the seat not actually attached to the car.
As we got better at parenting, we added a second child. And then because we were stupid, we added a third. Three kids. That makes the child to adult ratio 3:2. We are outnumbered. That means if one parent has all three children, which does in fact happen, there is one too many hands to hold. We bought the double stroller. That piece of surprisingly heavy machinery is fun to lug out of the back of the minivan. Opening the stroller is basically Twister: Parent Edition. Right Hand red pull release handle, Left Hand push grey tray out, Right foot kick down and lock wheel connector, Left Foot stub toe on wheel. By this time one child has pooped his pants, one has just fallen asleep which means transfer to stroller will completely ruin her life, and the eldest is furious because she will be wearing *a leash* consisting of a cute little stuffed puppy who “hugs” the child in a tender embrace. The leash then connects to the parent’s wrist and if leashed child tries to get away from herculean mommy – who is using all she remembers about leverage from 11th grade physics to heave double stroller up inclines – leashed child falls on her tushy and cries. Or on her knees and the earth momentarily stops spinning as mommy lets go of stroller (preferably after Left Foot kick down brake) to deal with: Blood! Screaming! Tangle of leash! Epic meltdown! Search for bandaids! No, not Doc McStuffins, I only wear Barbie now!
Which is why we ditched the monstrous stroller and leash and discovered that *Free Range Parenting* is totally a thing. A very trendy and liberating thing. Parent like your own parents parented. Parent like a caveman. Kid climbing on roof of car? Free Range Parent knows kid will learn that what goes up must come down, metal gets hot, and concrete is not a great landing zone. Kid will only climb roof of car once. Teachable moment. Kid eats french fries left on McDonald’s floor hours ago. Free Range Parent knows that immune system has just been strengthened. We totally heart Free Range Parenting.
We took our three to *Disney on Ice* as a Christmas present when they were ages 6, 3, and 2 months. Because we are stupid. One of us jiggled baby on hip and held tickets.The other parent gripped the hand of the 6 year old – who graciously cooperated in the hopes of seeing Cinderella – and the hand of the toddler who was angry because he didn’t want to see Mickey he wanted to see Grandma and in protest turned his body to jello to force the embarrassed parent to drag along a limp blob of passive-aggressive three year old. We entered the arena and followed signs corresponding to our tickets. However, there were other people seated in the places our tickets designated as ours. Hands were released and tickets compared. Other family apologized and climbed out to look for their correct location. Correct dad, mom, baby, six year old headed into the seats and discovered three year old was no longer with the group. Huge arena. Perfect venue for stranger danger, which is of course a calm parent’s instant thought. Everyone knows child predators lurk in frigid arenas filled with 10,000 children, 9,000 of which are dressed like Elsa, and 8,000 are tearfully begging their parents to buy a $12 snowcone in the shape of Olaf. While frantically scanning rows, we noticed a single small brown head alone in a sea of empty chairs. He had gotten bored during the ticket summit and found himself a better place to sit. As we exited the show a couple hours later, hands were gripped tighter. Regardless, three year old caught a glimpse of the escalators and no power on earth could hold him back. He pulled away and ran. Dad dropped six year old’s hand and dashed after and with the help of an observant bystander, captured the escapee.
Same child became four and left the dark tree climbing area at the Cincinnati Children’s Museum where it’s impossible for parents to see anything their child is doing. Parent looked and looked and panicked and looked and then overheard another mom griping, “Some little boy is unattended and is in the water feature splashing other kids.” The lost had been found. “Parents these days!” I said loudly and disapprovingly in solidarity. And did my best SMH before sneaking away to rescue my soaked cherub.
The thing is, we are all bad parents. My parents went home from an evening service at church sans small son still sleeping on a pew. We have a farmer friend who – no joke – was bumping down a farm road in a pickup truck and her kid fell out the window. The last time we went to a water park, we suddenly noticed we had one too many toddlers in our group and went searching for a frantic family who had just discovered they were short by one head. There are just too many of them and too few of us and they suck our energy like three foot tall vampire bats.
And it is not a new phenomenon. Have you read the Little House books recently? Mary and Laura are always one banana peel away from a prairie grave. I was recently reading a Bobbsey Twins book to my six year old and Bert asks if he can accompany the police in searching underground for a hardened criminal who had stolen $100,000. Because what cop wouldn’t want a 12 year old assistant? And Mrs. Bobbsey says sweetly, “All right Bert, go ahead. But please be careful.” Mrs. Bobbsey rocks the free range parenting like no other. There’s a whole chapter in *Cheaper by the Dozen* devoted to kids accidentally left behind – in gas stations, restaurants, on a ship. Par for the course when you have 12 kids. There’s bound to be some collatoral damage.
Which brings me to zoos. We have a zoo membership to the Toledo Zoo, which gives us access to the Columbus and Cincinnati Zoos as well. We’ve taken our children to all three. Don’t waste your time calling me out for endorsing the imprisonment of *animals who are people too* because… well, they’re not. They are animals. Most of them were bred in captivity and would not survive if dropped back in their native land. Zoos serve an important purpose in promoting conservation, educating children, and giving parents yet one more venue for purchasing $12 snowcones.
Zoos today are not your grandparents’ zoos. The small cages have been replaced by large open areas designed to resemble the animal’s country of origin as much as possible. There are frequent demonstrations in which children can pet snakes and let spiders crawl on them. You can now walk through the actual kangaroo enclosures and the kangaroos hop right around you. Go into the butterfly display and have butterflies land on your head. Wipe tears from the child who was ignored by landing butterflies. Playground equipment is scattered between animal exhibits. Train and boat rides take you through rainforests and savannas. Everything is advertised as up close, encounters with nature, experiencing the animals. Near the Toledo primate village is a splash pad where kids run barefoot through water. Obviously there is no expectation for parents other than to sit on a bench taking pictures of their offspring to share on the book of faces, so that other parents feel like bad parents because their children are engrossed in screentime instead of frolicking at the zoo.
Zoos can’t have it both ways. They can’t expect and encourage parents and kids to be all hands on the animals and free range one minute but then around the corner have relatively few preventative measures to keep Johnny from wanting to likewise experience a four hundred pound gorilla up close. They can’t advertise how important it is for children to explore nature for themselves and base the majority of the zoo design on kids being able to roam, then expect parents to know to have a death grip on their child one exhibit later.
There have been a lot of nasty comments aimed at the stroller pushing mama whose four year old got away and fell into a gorilla moat. I’ve seen death threats, calls for the parents to be shot, suggestions that the child should have been left to die, and apparently you can now sign a petition demanding the parents lose custody of their child. There are protests going on for Justice For Harambe! What exactly would this justice look like? I don’t think the protesters themselves even know. Protests are just the thing to do when someone is mad about something. Without outside interference, I’m pretty sure the parents aren’t taking their kids to a zoo anytime soon, the public will mourn the loss of a truly magnificent animal, and zoos across America will reexamine their exhibits to make sure they are even more secure. It was an accident. It could happen to any of us bad parents and the fact that it hadn’t happened before in the 38 years of the exhibit was either dumb luck or a miracle, depending on your religious persuasion.
Let’s leave this family alone. And wow do some people need to calm down the perfect parenting piety in the comments. No one believes you suefromseattle that your children have never once gotten away from you. We can be sad that Harambe is gone without crusading for a child – whose mom took him on an educational outing – to be torn from his family. Or for his parents to live in prison or poverty after being charged with criminal behavior. We can call it what it was – a tragic, freak accident. And be willing to acknowledge that but for the grace of God, that mama could easily be this bad mom.