I hardly watch the news on television anymore. I don’t like the tabloid-spin most news networks are putting on their stories, and I don’t like being surprised by stories about children who have been abducted or women who have been violated or any of those other happenings that I can’t forget about for days afterwards. I prefer to just read the headlines and make a decision about whether or not I need to know all the horrid details. I also don’t like being fed this notion that I need to be afraid that any of this bad stuff is going to happen to my family, and that I should be super-vigilant any time I leave the safety of my fortified house. And that I should have a fortified house. And know karate. In some countries, I might be encouraged to carry a gun, to protect myself from the madness that I see on the news every night.
I don’t like being scared and worried. And as a parent you give birth to worry. The list of things you can add to your list of things to worry about doubles when you have kids. What am I saying? Doubles? How about increases by a factor of a zillion. I try very hard not to think about the things that can happen to them but I have an active imagination and I’m usually pretty quick to jump to the worst possible conclusion. I’m 37 in a couple of weeks and my head is covered in grey hair. You can’t tell unless you look at the roots, but it’s there. Very, very grey. Grey like Bill O’Reilly’s hair. OK, grey like Anderson Cooper’s.
The problem is that the kids, my two otherwise perfectly innocent little girls, occasionally do things that give me reason to worry. And although they may see their little adventures as just that – an adventure – I see it as the story on the evening news, complete with graphic images and adjectives in bright scary-red capitals. I don’t want to be one of those parents who wont let their kids out of their sight, but I also don’t want to be one of those parents who wish they had been more vigilant. Where or how do we draw the line?
My seven year old went to a birthday party in a park yesterday afternoon. I dropped her off and she ran across the park to join a bunch of girls from her class who were playing under the low-hanging branches of a big tree. There were about thirty kids, a handful of parents, and two teenage girls who had been roped in to help out with kiddy crowd control. So, I left. What’s the rule about staying at a party? Do you hang around for two long hours, making small talk with the other parents, keeping an eye on the kids’ sugar consumption? Or do you take the opportunity to go and do some grocery shopping, unencumbered by your child? I never invite the parents to stay at parties. To be honest, I can’t be bothered catering for all the kids and all the adults. I tell them to go away, enjoy their afternoon, come back later when I’ve made their child sick with chocolate and ruined their party clothes with facepaints and craft glue.
When I arrived back at the park, two hours later, Ella’s friends were back under the tree. I wandered over, expecting to see her emerge from the shrubs, but she didn’t seem to be there. I called her name a couple of times, and then I asked one of her friends if she knew where Ella was. She told me that Ella had wandered off, ages ago, with a dog. Where did she go? I don’t know, she went that way, maybe.
I went over to where the party food and games were set up, hoping to find here there amongst the other kids who were getting ready to leave. She wasn’t there. By this time I was starting to get quite worried. I ran back to the tree and asked the girls again if they might be able to remember where Ella had gone; they told me again about the dog that had been coming over to the park, but they didn’t know where it or Ella had gone.
Just as I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach (the same feeling I got when I lost her for ten minutes in Commonwealth Park on Australia Day) I spotted her in the front yard of a house across the road and down a little way. She was heading down the driveway to the fence into the backyard, and she was with a man I had never seen before. My heart stopped.
I called out her name and ran over to get her. She walked back towards me, and the man came too. I saw the dog, a great big black mangy thing. The kind of dog that you see on the news, right after it has eaten some poor toddler who inadvertently wandered into its yard. The house was one of the few on the street that hadn’t been renovated – overgrown front yard, bits of old cars and some old chairs covered with faded bedspreads on the front porch. The kind of house you see on the news, fairly typical old cottage with the skeletons of five teenagers who had gone missing back in the 1970′s. The man? He was disheveled and middle aged and about six foot three. He looked like he didn’t have an owner. He looked like the guy on the news, the one who the police had picked up the night before on suspicion of being involved in the abduction of that woman from her car in broad daylight.
“Who are you? What are you doing with Ella?” She was carrying something, a navy blue jacket. She gave it back to him as he wandered over to where we were standing on the footpath.
“I’m Mark, I’m Joey’s stepfather. Do you want to see some photo ID?”
He said it with what seemed to be a tinge of sarcasm. I was completely flummoxed, I was so upset to find my child in the front yard of a strange house with a strange man that I could barely form a sentence. I wanted to slap him across the face and ask him if he thought it was a good idea to leave the park with someone else’s little girl, and to wander off towards a strange and dangerous looking house.
“We just came over here to bring the dog back.”
I have no idea what I said to him, and in fact now as I try to remember the situation I can’t recall saying anything to him. Instead I focussed on my daughter, taking her by the hand and leading her back to the party, away from this strange man and this strange house and this unimaginable almost-nightmare. I started to cry, I had come completely undone. Ella was asking me whether she was in trouble, and I couldn’t speak other than to tell her that we were leaving.
We went home, and eventually I calmed down. She didn’t seem to think she had done anything wrong. She was just taking the dog back to its house. With a responsible adult to help her cross the road.
I told Ella to tell Madeleine (her older sister) what had happened, and as soon as she got to the part about going to the house with the man, Madeleine burst into tears and asked her why she would do something so stupid. There, that’s the reaction I was hoping for – I wanted my seven year old to hear it from her ten year old sister. You stupid, stupid girl.
Everyone was crying.
My husband arrived home, and he talked to her in her room. They talked about Stranger Danger. She told him about the dog and about Joey’s stepfather. Meanwhile I called the mother of the birthday boy to ask her if she knew Mark, and if she knew that my daughter had left the party. Left the party while she was in your care, lady.
I had to leave a message, she wasn’t there.
My husband came out and told me that Ella had taken the dog back to Hannah’s house, and that it was Hannah’s dog, and it kept coming over, and some of the other parents had already taken the dog back over there three times because it kept coming out and wanting to eat the birthday cake. And she went over there with Mark because she was worried that the dog wouldn’t be able to cross the road by itself and she knew to cross with an adult.
The birthday boy’s mother returned my call, and confirmed Ella’s story about the nuisance dog. And yes, she knew Mark. He’d been very helpful at the party, helping with games and handing out balloons and such. She apologised to me, she said she could understand that I had been scared by what seemed to be happening. We both agreed that perhaps on this occasion Mark’s judgment was a bit off but all in all, no harm was done.
I took a deep breath and cursed the six o’clock news and the fear-merchants who tell me that statistics show that child abductions are up when really? They’re down.
I really hate that I instantly felt scared that Ella was being abducted. I hate that this was my first assumption. I hate that I scared my ten year old with the story of my seven year old wandering off with some strange man. I hate that I called the mother of the birthday boy, ready to ask her how she allowed a child to wander off from the party like that. I hate that I am helping to create a society that assumes the worst of people because someone on the news told me that I should be afraid. I hate feeling this way.
I wish there was some way to protect my kids from all of life’s evils, without actually having to tell them about all life’s evils.
I wish I could let go of the sensation in the pit of my stomach. It will go, eventually, perhaps in a few days.
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