It happened today at the park, in the early evening hours. I was tired and so was my little girl, so I loaded her up into her red wagon and we walked to our favorite local playground in search of a change of scenery.
The playground was deserted during this time of almost-twilight, when the shadows are long and the tree branches are still and the world seems to be taking a collective breath after a grueling, busy day. I love this park because of its lush scenery, but I’m always a little wary of the density of the wooded area on its eastern border. Thick parcels of bushes and trees and overgrown ground-cover can hide so much, innocent or otherwise.
My daughter was just learning to navigate the tallest slide while I coached her from the ground, and that’s when I heard him. “Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned around, as always stung by the “ma’am.” It was a middle-aged man in a sedan, bearded, leaning out the driver’s side window.
He wanted directions. I gave them to him and he drove away. I turned back to my daughter and we went on our way.
That’s the end of this story.
Nothing bad happened. But I couldn’t help but think, as he drove away, that perhaps I had acted wrongly. Perhaps I had taken my focus too much off my daughter to respond to his question. He was a stranger, and we were alone in this park. Someone could have run out from those bushes and snatched her and I might not have even noticed until it was too late. This Choose Your Own Disaster version of the completely innocuous exchange I’d just experienced rubbed against my consciousness like wool on sensitive skin. I couldn’t shake it. I thought about it the rest of the evening, as we walked home, as I gave her a bath, as we ate dinner and as I put her to bed.
I didn’t totally succumb to this self-criticism, though; there is a strong rational part of me that fought back against this line of thinking. You’re being absolutely, totally and completely ridiculous. It was a friendly guy in a car who doesn’t have GPS on his smartphone and there was no one around and he figured hey, there’s a lady who looks like she lives here, why don’t I ask her for directions, like people have been doing for literally ever, and I’m sure she won’t think I’m a pedophile because why in the world would she, unless she’s a hopeless basket case who watches way too much Dateline?
This inner struggle isn’t foreign to me, though. This happens with some regularity, whenever we have a Close Call (or what I, in my mind, later deem to be one). All moms know the Close Calls. Your toddler wanders into the street at the one moment your head was turned, or somehow manages to get ahold of your iPhone charger and wraps it around her neck while you have dinner on the stove. You walk into the room at exactly the moment she’s reaching for the single un-baby-proofed outlet. She gags silently on the one piece of food that’s a hair too large and ungainly for her little throat, and for the three seconds that you don’t hear her breath or voice, in your mind you lose her a thousand times over.
Social media increases our paranoia, because now we’re exposed to everyone else’s Close Calls. How many times have we seen the warning posts from other moms in our neighborhood our buy/sell/trade groups, alerting us to a possible predator on the loose just one town over? How many times do we see the viral photo of an injury, a burn or an infection that no mom was expecting but that turned her life upside-down all the same?
The Close Calls tend to haunt us to the extent that we modify our behavior, at least for a time.
Maybe we change the route of our afternoon walk or switch diaper brands or stop eating certain foods. But eventually, when weeks go by and nothing happens, we’re lulled back toward our sense of security.
We’re so much more aware now of what can happen, even if it does not happen. We have Amber Alerts (thank God), we have true crime and procedural drama topping the charts of every channel. We have modern medicine and the internet and Google available for every little rash and earache. Is it a good thing? Is knowledge power? Or is it shackling us?
I don’t have the answers for you. I suppose I only have the answers for me. Yes, perhaps I am hypervigilant. But the next time a stranger slows down his car and asks me for directions, I’m scooping my daughter up into my arms before responding. Call me crazy… I probably am.
But I never met a mom who wasn’t at least a little bit crazy.