My first memory is of hearing myself scream. I can still feel the warm, soft apple core in my hand – I squeezed it as hard as I could, brown mush squashing out of my small, balled fist.
This memory is preverbal. I don’t remember thoughts, only physical sensations. I’m strapped into my car seat. I can’t move. I’m hot and crying, sweat mixing with tears and snot. I scream as loud as I can, but nobody comes. All I can do is kick the driver’s seat in front of me and throw my head back, smashing it into the headrest.
Decades later, I step out of the house into the driveway and see a face like mine behind the smudged glass of our green van. It is my five-year-old baby girl, screaming like I had screamed. When we lock eyes, guilt and love rush through me. She looks so tiny, her small, pale face contorted in fear, dark hair curling around the edges. For a second, I don’t understand why she’s in the car. I’ve been looking for her, but I didn’t think I’d find her here.
As I cross the distance between us in a few steps and rip open the sliding door, all I can think of is to get to her. She lunges into my arms, sweaty and crying, clinging to me. Her wiry body clamps shut on me, legs wrapped around my waist, arms so tight around my neck it’s hard to breathe.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were in there,” I tell her. “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m so sorry.”
With her wet face pressed into my neck and her little heart beating against my chest, her sobs turn to a whimper as I carry her inside. I sit down on the couch with her, holding her like a baby on my lap, rocking her, and kissing her face. She sighs and buries herself into me.
We remain entangled for a long time. I stroke her hair and face, whispering apologies over and over. She finally falls asleep in my arms; her body turns slack as her breathing deepens. I stare at my sleeping child, relief and love mixing with gratitude, shame and horror.
Every summer brings headlines of horrifying deaths of babies and toddlers left in hot cars. Stories about mums and dads who absent-mindedly drove to work, forgot to drop off their children at day care, and left their sleeping babies to die in a boiling-hot car while they sat in air-conditioned offices.
I remember hearing about scratch marks on the inside of one vehicle where a little toddler had desperately tried to escape. The image of a panicked child clawing at doors and windows will never leave me.
I was disgusted with these reckless parents. Who forgets their own child? I hoped they’d be sentenced to life in prison. I hoped they’d live every day with the knowledge of being murderers. They should pay until the day they die, I thought. They didn’t deserve to be parents.
Now I directed this disgust and judgment at myself. I didn’t deserve to be a mum. I was unworthy.
It felt like getting punched in the gut repeatedly, gasping for air, as my brain replayed what could have happened if it was a hot summer day. We could have been a gruesome headline. I could have killed my baby, been charged with murder and sent to prison, leaving my other children behind.
I was an unfit mother. How could I have done this? Why hadn’t I paid more attention? I hated myself. I felt like a monster.
“We could have been a gruesome headline. I could have killed my baby, been charged with murder and sent to prison, leaving my other children behind.”
According to noheatstroke.org, every year since 1998, when the site began analysing media reports, an average of 38 kids per year die from heatstroke after being left in hot cars.
The website, run by meteorologist Jan Null — who coauthored an often-cited study about how quickly internal car temperatures rise to dangerous levels even in moderate outside temperatures — also surveyed media reports for the reasons these children were left in vehicles.
Among the about 940 children who died in hot vehicles from 1998 through 2022, 20% had been left knowingly by a caregiver. This number is horrendous and sickening. However, most of the deaths were accidental, with a caregiver forgetting children (53%), or children gaining access to vehicles on their own (25%). A small number of cases had undetermined causes.
And yet, we judge that 78% of cases almost as harshly as the parents who purposely left their children. We so desperately want to believe that it could never happen to us.
It’s impossible to know how many of these accidental deaths were caused by truly neglectful parents and how many were regular parents who made one tragic mistake.
I read about a mum in Florida who accidentally left her 11-month son in the car one day and went to work. He died, and she was charged with aggravated manslaughter. The painful truth about being parents is that we are human and flawed, capable of making grave mistakes, and committing errors with tragic outcomes for the ones we love most. That mother could have been me.
One of the reasons my daughter is still alive, and I’m not charged with manslaughter, is pure luck. Luck that it wasn’t summer. Luck that I found her in time. I estimate my daughter was in the car for 30 minutes before I found her, long enough for temperatures to reach dangerous levels if it had been a summer day.
On that night, we had come home from an outing, and instead of climbing out of the van with her siblings, my daughter had stayed behind. I was probably carrying stuff into the house, probably thinking about getting them ready for bed, probably checking off items on my mental to-do list.
I hadn’t counted the heads coming in behind me like I normally did. One, two, three, four, five, six. The shame swirls like a riptide in my gut, pulling me under. Knowing how scared she must have been — screaming for me while I was a few steps away — makes my stomach turn. I’d lain in bed with her sisters and read them a story while she desperately tried to get my attention.
When I went into her room for tuck-in and she wasn’t there, I thought she was hiding as usual. I had to look for her almost every day. She’d hide under beds or piles of blankets and couch pillows, in closets and kitchen cabinets. Sometimes she wouldn’t come out even when I called, which worried me and delighted her.
So when I first looked for her, I thought she was just trying to delay bedtime. I called her name in that universal annoyed parent voice, but when she didn’t come out of her hiding place after several minutes, I got scared. My calls for her turned shrill, my voice shaky with a tinge of dread. She wasn’t in the house or the backyard, and she knew not to go out in the front.
I hadn’t even considered that maybe she’d never gotten out of the car. That maybe she’d had a hard time undoing her seat belt. That maybe she was taking her sweet time or had fallen asleep.
I didn’t talk to my daughter about the incident for seven long years. I was afraid to bring it up. I didn’t want to retraumatise her. And also, I didn’t want to retraumatise myself. I was too scared to see it on her face — the pain I had caused her. I didn’t want to relive the realisation that as hard as I try not to, I will hurt the people I love most — even my own children, whom I try to protect at all costs.
It all seemed too much to bear: the harsh reminder that I cannot protect my kids from everything and everyone, not even my own mistakes; the overwhelming sense of gratitude that the worst didn’t happen; and the compulsive thoughts of fear that the worst always could and may yet happen.
When I finally decided to talk to my daughter about it, she was in middle school. She wore scrunchies as bracelets, regularly consumed an irrational number of green olives, and was obsessed with the musical Hamilton. I couldn’t shake the thought that the memory might be seared into her cells.
I remembered myself screaming so many years before in another car, another country, another life. I wondered if she would grow up with the faint, inexplicable unease that I would leave her and never come back, without the ability to pinpoint why.
I can’t quite grasp my own experience, only through a haze, the edges blurry, the colours muted. I never spoke to my parents about it. I don’t know if they remembered, and I never will. But I could talk to my own child.
“I couldn’t shake the thought that the memory might be seared into her cells.”
When I nervously sat her down, she was confused, but as soon as I asked if she remembered being left in the green van, recognition and pain flashed across her face.
“Yeah, actually, I do remember,” she said quietly. “I stayed in the car to play and climbed over the benches into the front seat. But when I was ready to get out of the car, I couldn’t open the door. I was so frustrated, I kicked the windshield with my feet. I was scared you weren’t coming back.”
Hearing this was hard, her face and my face melting together in my memories. We are different people, but hearing my daughter express the same panic I had felt when I was a kid, first confirmed my fears about how damaging that situation was, and then somehow normalised my own response.
The guilt and shame shot up through my insides and into my throat, sour and acidic. Yes, of course, I thought. This is a normal response from a child who believes her mother has abandoned her.
I asked her what she remembered the most from when I found her.
“You apologised,” she said. “Like, a lot.”
I tend to apologise too much. But in this situation, I’m glad my own shame didn’t lead me to reject my responsibility or minimise her experience. I’m glad I leaned into the pain and told my daughter how sorry I was. I’m glad she remembers that part. I wish I could have protected her from the knowledge that even though I love her so much, I may make terrible mistakes that can cause real and lasting damage.
It keeps me up at night, the knowledge that as a parent, I’m only one misstep away from disaster. Not being able to control the millions of variables of parenting scares the shit out of me. No matter how much I try, I could inadvertently hurt my children. It’s one of the deepest horrors of parenting — one that no one told me about. It’s easier to pretend that accidents are not really accidents. That parents are bad parents. That we would never make the same mistakes with our own children.
I had just turned 23 when I had my first baby. Already an anxious person, parenting, like nothing else, intensified my hypervigilance to the point of living in a low-grade panic much of the time.
I was afraid of whether I could keep my kids alive. I read all the horrible pregnancy books that tell you everything that can go wrong. I stress-Googled every tiny symptom during pregnancy.
Once my babies were born, I’d stand in front of their cribs holding my finger to their noses and mouths to feel their breath. Sometimes I feared I was imagining the breath, and poked them to make sure they would stir or their eyelids would flutter, and I would retreat, relieved they were still alive. I was terrified of SIDS. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and check on them over and over again. I didn’t sleep through the night for years, even after they finally started to.
I know a lot of this is normal. Evolution obviously selected for anxious, hypervigilant mothers who keep their babies alive. On the outside, I may look like a free-range parent. Our older kids have part-time jobs, they’ve gone on international trips, and they ride public transportation. Outwardly, I do my best to let them experience life, but internally, I imagine gory traffic accidents and children with dead cellphones lost in seedy places.
I act casual when they walk through the door after a shift or after hanging out with their friends, but I breathe a deep sigh of relief that I’ve been holding the entire time they’ve been gone. These are the times I feel most like an animal, gathering babies in her den, curling around them. Safe for another night.
Being hypervigilant and loving my kids more than anyone else on the face of the earth did not keep me from making a terrible mistake.
The memory of leaving my own daughter in the car still hurts. I know that only random coincidence kept the situation from turning tragic. And yet, I don’t have the feeling that it irrevocably damaged our relationship. When my daughter asked why I brought it up, I told her I wanted her to know that I remembered. I wanted her to know I was still so sorry I had made that terrible mistake.
“The memory of leaving my own daughter in the car still hurts. I know that only random coincidence kept the situation from turning tragic. And yet, I don’t have the feeling that it irrevocably damaged our relationship.”
I told her there are some hard conversations I wish I could have had with my own parents, and I no longer have the opportunity. I wanted her to know she could always bring things to me, without the fear of being dismissed or getting into trouble. “I already know that,” she said nonchalantly. “Because of the kind of mum you are.”
My eyes welled with tears.
“What kind of mother?” I asked.
“A good one,” she said, grabbing my hand.
We just sat quietly for a few minutes, holding hands — she texting her friends, me revelling for a moment in the realisation that what I wished for as a child, I have created for my daughter: a life in which she is cared for and protected, while knowing there are no guarantees.
Good parents make terrible mistakes sometimes. I’m grateful to live in a universe where this one situation has registered simply as an unfortunate blip, not a signpost of her life. And yet, I know I’m that mother from Florida, and she is me. We’re all just one mistake away from catastrophe, and that’s such a hard truth to hold about our children — so hard that we resort to mercilessly judging ourselves and each other.
I’m a good mother, and I’ve made not one but multiple mistakes that could have resulted in terrible, even deadly, outcomes. The time I almost carried my baby down icy stairs while pregnant. The time I pulled into the intersection in a rush without seeing an oncoming truck. The frenzied, late-night phone call to the doctor when I worried that I’d given my child too much pain medication after surgery. The time my toddler started choking on a small hair clip I’d dropped.
The close calls haunt me, but they never became moments that set my entire family’s lives on a different path. Each time, I got to pull my children close again, heart racing. Breathing in their milky baby smell, pressing my lips to their sweaty toddler foreheads with the one rogue curl, or squeezing their awkward middle school selves too tight in public.
My oldest is almost ready to go off on her own. I’m thrilled, and I’m terrified. And if any of my children ever decide to have their own babies, the cycle of beauty and terror will start all over again.
We have a hard time talking about the lives of children being ruined by abusive and cruel caretakers. But it seems we have an even harder time talking about entire families being destroyed because a good parent made a terrible mistake. We want so badly for these incidents to not be true, to not be real, to not be a part of our lives. I have kept my own mistakes secret because I, too, believed that good parents don’t make bad judgments like me. Good parents don’t forget or err. Good parents don’t have accidents.
The shame has kept me quiet, but the reality is: I’m not better, just luckier. For now.
Juliane Bergmann was raised by a German hippie mom and U.S. Army soldier dad in a tiny village in Bavaria. She’s a book coach, ghostwriter, and editor helping entrepreneurs, Navy SEALs, Ironman athletes, and CEOs tell their stories. Juliane writes about psychology, parenting, relationships, and recovery for HuffPost, Insider, Scary Mommy, and The Rumpus. Come hang out on her internet porch or read an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir “Collateral Damage” here.