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Every Parent's Worst Panic
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Readers tell their frantic stories of losing a young child in public. If you have your own experience to share, drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 4 Newer Notes

'Losing a Kid in a Split Second Can Happen to Anyone'

“I was a perfect parent before I had a kid,” quips a reader responding to our callout for stories of losing a child in public:

There are a lot of childless, perfect parents in the world lately. Parenting is the hardest job in the world that no one can prepare you for and everyone thinks they can do it better then you.

Our story: My husband and I decided to do yard work on a gorgeous spring day, our almost-two-year-old son in tow. He was alternating between helping push the wheelbarrow and scooping up dirt.

And in a split second he was gone.

“I thought you had him,” followed by mind-boggling panic. You can’t really describe what it feels like when your world disappears in front of you. It only took a second. It was maybe two minutes before we found him just a few yards away checking out my husband’s car. But it felt like a lifetime.

Another reader can relate: “As any parent knows, it only takes a few seconds for attention to be diverted and something horrible to occur. Not minutes—SECONDS.” That’s the pattern I’m seeing among the dozens of notes coming in from readers: “split second,” “I looked away for just a moment,” “blink of an eye.” That tiny fragment of time, followed by a seemingly endless span of dread, is illustrated in the following scene from The Witch, a brilliant and unnerving film I recently watched and rewatched. (The full scene of the missing baby is so deeply disturbing—one of the most disturbing I’ve ever seen in cinema—that I cut most of it out to create this custom clip on YouTube.)

This next reader, like most of you writing in, wishes to remain anonymous:

I have a story of a lost child. It’s a story we thought of immediately in the aftermath of the Cincy Zoo incident.

We live in Cincinnati, coincidentally. We were at a Cincinnati Reds game and our four-year-old daughter wanted to go on the big, enclosed slide that goes down a full story to a garden area. My wife was at the top of the slide, and I walked down to the bottom—maybe a two-minute walk. Thinking I’d be down there already, my wife let her go down the slide and find me.

I stood at the bottom of the slide for a good three minutes, and my wife and younger daughter come down. She looks at me and asks, “Where is she?” I’m sure my eyes looked like dinner plates as I turned and sprinted through the garden to the top of the slide.

The panic was unbelievable: How in the hell am I going to find a little kid amid a 6th-inning crowd on a Sunday afternoon?! If she got scared and turned and started running in the wrong direction, I’d never find her.

Luckily, I did find her: at the the top of a slide, clutching a stranger who was comforting her.

Does this make me and my wife negligent parents? Turns out, there were two walkways through the garden. I was walking down one, and she must have gone down the other. We didn’t see each other. My wife, a borderline “helicopter parent,” was certain we couldn’t miss each other, so she let her go. Was it our faults? Absolutely. Could it have happened to anyone? Absolutely.

Losing a kid in a split second can happen to anyone, the best parents included. We are good, attentive parents, but this isn’t the only story we have. And it will happen again. As always, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Tens of thousands of online commenters should have considered that Christian adage before assailing the Cincy mother (whom Ron defended at length). This Notes thread is already becoming a sort of confessional space for parents to open up about the extremely common, though extremely judged, experience of losing a child in public. From a reader in Indiana:

Oh boy, do I have a story. Let the parents and non-parents judge me all they want, but make it anonymous so I don’t have to read the comments or fend off death threats.

If you haven’t yet heard about the story of the four-year-old kid at the Cincinnati zoo who climbed into the pen of a gorilla that was subsequently shot dead, Ron covered it yesterday. He defended the mother against the hordes of online commenters blaming her for the child slipping away in a split second. (An edited version of events is embedded above, and the original smartphone footage is here in full.) One reader’s reaction to the story:

There’s a post going around Facebook from a woman on the scene who indicated that parents simply lost their kid in one of those “blink of an eye” moments. Most parents will tell you that yes, small children are curious and impulsive and can act stupidly in an unbelievably short span of time. In the meantime, the rush to judge the parents has led to: