When accidents happen and the baby gets hurt and it’s all your fault. GARY STEEL feels the guilt.
It’s the split second that every parent dreads. My dear wee 11-month-old boy hoisted himself up to standing position at the coffee table, grabbing my large mug of hot peppermint tea, which tipped over and scalded both his hand and foot.
The first I knew of it was baby’s loud scream and the ensuing commotion, as my wife tried to interrogate our 4-year-old – who was closest to the action at the time – as to what happened.
Panic, anger and guilt surged through me like short-circuits in a power station, but all those emotions had to be put on ice while we made an action plan. Scalded body parts were put under cold running water, just like Uncle Google recommends. The doctor was rung, and we were advised to bring the lad in, just to be on the safe side.
Two hours later, baby was home with gauze wrapped around his tender foot and hand and children’s Paracetamol had been administered. The little blighter seemed happy enough, but I wasn’t. My panic had subsided, but the anger and especially the guilt, kept on rumbling through me.
A parent’s overriding responsibility is to keep a child safe. I had failed at the most basic of tasks.
Possibly worse, I tried to rationalise the event and shift responsibility to others. My cup of peppermint tea was on the coffee table because I had sat down on the couch to enjoy a spot of afternoon tea, but the 4-year-old had kept hassling me to get her more food, and had then badgered away at me to let her watch TV. I’d slipped away for a brief minute to my office to find out how I could stream The Neverending Story for her, and while I was away, Yoko had returned from feeding baby in the bedroom and plonked him down in the lounge.
My ‘angry man’ line of reasoning was that we should all take some blame for the accident. I was wrong: it was my cup of tea, and I’d left it on the coffee table while I was out of the room. I needed to own the error.
And that’s really galling, because I’m the original worrywart, and always thinking of ways to make our home environment safer for the kids. I’m hopelessly slow and fumbling when it comes to the thousands of repetitious tasks that make up a day with baby, but I do have a knack for assessing risk, and obsess over things like practical procedures to keep too-small toys and objects out of reach.
Why, then, did I leave a scorching hot cup of tea on a coffee table that baby can reach? Put it down to parental fatigue and the absent-mindedness that comes with long-term fatigue.
But should I be beating myself up over this, and would a chill-pill change my perspective? Probably. I’m glad that I have the on-board problem-solving apparatus to deal with it all, but I think just about every parent has weathered similar incidents with their young children. It’s a reminder that we’re not perfect, and we’re learning, and mistakes teach us stuff.
I witnessed an awful incident at our local play centre not long ago. A mother had left her baby in a pram on a steep path down to the play centre while she chatted away with other mothers inside the building. We heard a crashing sound and several mothers screaming. Somehow, the pram had suddenly taken off down the path and crashed into a tree, the force of which propelled the tiny baby out like a projectile. The mother was beside herself, and several other mothers were also wailing from the shock of it. Mother and baby were duly dispatched to the local medical centre. Baby had a few bruises, but was otherwise okay.
I remember feeling a mixture of shock, sadness and disdain that day. I felt sorry for the mother, but also thought: “What a stupid thing to do! What kind of idiot would leave a pram on a steep path?” But I guess the mother would have learned a tough lesson that day. She left the area shortly afterwards.
The only other incident of any real consequence in our house occurred when our daughter was a very mobile and curious two-year-old. We’d recently moved into a new house and we were still figuring out the best way of keeping potentially dangerous items away from her ceaseless explorations. I noticed that she was sitting on the couch playing with an object, and she said, “Daddy, look, my fingers are red!” Then I noticed that she was playing with razor blades, which were cutting her skin. She had no comprehension of what was happening, and thought that the red colour was pretty until she slowly realised that her hands were stinging.
She’d gotten into our bedroom by dragging a small chair to our closed door, then figured out how to open the sliding door to the en-suite, opened one of the vanity cupboards, removed layers of stuff to discover a box at the back, which she somehow opened to find some razor blades. Then she’d removed them, posited herself on the couch and started playing with them.
I was mortified at the time and wracked with guilt over this incident for weeks, and security around potentially dangerous objects was ramped up accordingly. And I guess that’s the thing: you live and you learn. You can’t anticipate every little thing in your risk assessments, and there will be bumps along the way.
Postscript: The day after the tea-scolding incident, there were blisters on baby’s hand and he got a change of dressing at the doctor’s, but he seemed oblivious to the problem, and was as happy as anything. He still loves us, and everything is healing nicely.