There Are No Perfect Parents

No matter how vigilant you are about protecting your children, accidents will happen.

Last Friday, my friend’s 18-month-old daughter sustained second-degree burns on both of her legs and feet when she climbed into the front seat of my friend’s car, removed the top of a travel mug, and poured scalding tea onto her lower body. My friend and her family—husband, 4-year-old son, and daughter—were about to leave for Arapahoe Basin, the only ski resort in Colorado still open for business.

“We didn’t make it to the mts.,” read the text Britt sent me Sunday afternoon. “Spent the weekend at Children’s Hospital with Estelle. Second-degree burns to legs and feet due to hot water.”

I gagged when I got the text message. I imagined myself in her place, and conjured the screams of a helpless toddler. How the hell does a toddler get second-degree burns, I wondered. As my mind grappled, a troubling thought popped into my head: I’m not surprised.

My lack of shock wasn’t because my friend’s daughter is a disaster waiting to happen. She isn’t, at least no more than my own toddler—15 months—or any wobbly, curious, impish little human whose grasp on the world is new and whose knowledge of cause and consequence is even newer.

I wasn’t surprised Estelle got hurt because, for a long time, I’ve thought her parents put her in dangerous situations far beyond her maturity and development. They leave her alone in the bath because, they say, their small house means they will hear if she slips or otherwise goes under; they routinely put her on top of the island in their kitchen when she whines to be held, and then marvel that she falls off; they travel when she’s ill with a high fever. This is not tantamount to letting their kids play in traffic. It is not negligent. But their parenting has often made me nervous.

With only that text and no explanation, I blamed Britt and her husband for Estelle’s accident, and I felt ugly and small. I regretted my assumptions, even as I trusted their veracity. I kept picturing Estelle with her wavy light brown hair, her bright eyes, and her wiry, small body.

I scolded myself. I knew that assigning blame wouldn’t change the fact that an innocent girl had been badly burned. But judging and assigning blame is something all parents (all people?) do when bad things happen. We do it in private and we do it in groups, and somehow it feels acceptable, even though such criticism comes from a limited perspective.

What’s not acceptable is giving a voice to that judgment or concern. I never once told Britt that I thought her daughter might drown, or that she shouldn’t put her 20-pound peanut of a girl on a three-and-a-half-foot counter where she could tumble off and break her neck. I didn’t say I thought it was unsafe of her to allow her kids to wander in their unfenced front yard. I knew how nit-picky I would sound if I complained.

More, I knew that my reactions were as much about me and my emotional baggage as they were about Britt’s parenting. Something about her lax parenting triggered in me something wounded or frightened. But I didn’t probe that line of thinking; it was easier to simply judge her.

I texted back, “OMG. Is she OK? What happened? That sounds terrifying!” No response. I called, but she didn’t answer.

Four hours later I texted again, “Are you OK?”

“Sorry. Yes,” she responded immediately. “It’s rough. E can’t walk. She’s on and off in pain. Just sad.”

“I’m so sorry,” I wrote. “I can’t stop thinking about you. Anything I can do to help?”

I meant it, my offer of help, just as I meant it Monday, three days after the accident, when I stopped by her house to say hello and to give her a hug. I was hesitant to see Estelle and her bandages, nervous about my reaction to her physical pain. I also didn’t want my face to betray the unkind thoughts I’d been having.

Terror is the purview of parenthood. I know that first-hand. In March, the day before my son’s first birthday, I called 911 in a panic because he was choking on an apple and couldn’t breathe. Was it my fault the apple lodged in his breathing tract? Yes, partly. I could have cut it up smaller. By the time the paramedics arrived, he’d coughed it up. But the fear stuck with me. To this day, I mince all of his food and try not to hover as he eats.

That alleviates my anxiety, but it doesn’t make him safer. He could swallow a rock or some food from his brother’s plate, and it could block his breathing and he could still suffocate, despite my best efforts. Accidents happen. Bad things happen. We have very little control.

Lately, I’ve been consumed with bad things happening to children. I tore through Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World about her son’s fatal decline after he was diagnosed with Tay Sachs disease. I read everything I could about the Colorado family of a toddler brutally murdered in February while on an extended family trip to Sayulita, Mexico. I replayed my imagined version of events from Estelle’s accident.

These grim scenarios serve as a blunt reminder that I’m not impervious to suffering. The world, my world, can change in an instant. And that knowledge delivers equal parts terror and catharsis. It shoves me into the present moment even as it exposes my vulnerability.

I try to accept my lack of control, but I do my best to tip the odds toward safety. I have no guarantee that my babysitter’s boyfriend won’t attack one of my sons. But I lock the doors and ask the nanny to do the same. I can’t keep scalding liquid from burning their skin, but I move cups out of their reach. I slice grapes into miniscule sizes.

And, though it violates the do-what-works-for-you school of parenting, I think Britt and her husband should be more vigilant—like me. And that’s what threatens to derail our friendship. I realize that as parents, we share the possibility of tragedy. As parents, we need support. I trust we’re all trying to do the best we can. And yet, I want them to do better. 

When I arrived at her house, Britt was feeding her bandaged daughter lunch. Estelle smiled a goofy grin as she shoveled spoonfuls of quinoa into her mouth. Britt offered more details from Friday night: She was racing in and out of the house as they packed up for the mountains. She noticed Estelle crawling in the front seat of the car and reaching for the tea, which was in a travel mug.

“Hot!” Britt recalled saying. “That’s HOT. No touch. Hot!”

But she didn’t move the travel mug or the baby. Instead she rushed inside to get one more load because they were two minutes from leaving. When she emerged from the house, she saw her injured girl walking on her heels and making a dreadful noise. She said she knew right away what happened.

I stopped listening there. I couldn’t stop thinking that Britt had the chance to stave off the tragedy

As if reading my thoughts, she said, “You can do everything in your power to protect your kids, but shit’s going to happen.”

“You’re right,” I said. “But personally, I err on the overprotective side.”

I immediately wished I had said, “What a horrible accident.” Instead, I mumbled something about how quickly accidents can happen and how alert we have to be all the time.

“Good luck with that,” replied Britt. “You could do everything, and still, they’re going to get into whatever they’re going to get into.”

She was right, but she was also wrong. But here’s the catch: So was I.

Estelle would not get into scalding water if she hadn’t been able to reach it. Then again, Estelle could have just as easily ignored the cup. As we sat there, my mind blank, I searched for the right thing to say. But it’s hard to speak when you’re unsure of anything.

I asked Britt one more time what I could do to help.

“I’ll let you know if I think of anything,” she said. “Right now I think we’re good.”

And then we were out of words. So I gave her the hug I came to deliver and walked out the front door, making sure to carefully secure it on my way out.

Rachel Walker is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, whose reported pieces and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Backpacker, Skiing,, and others. She is working on a memoir about the lessons learned from failed attempts at training young thoroughbred horses in her 20s. Find her on Twitter: @rodellwalker.   

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