— It was a rarity for a working mother of two — a meal enjoyed in peace and quiet.
Inez Louzonis, 33, still fondly recalls the time she and her husband were driving to a restaurant and both her children fell asleep on the way. The Boston-area couple found a table looking directly out the window into the car — and let her toddlers stay snoozing while they dined.
“The kids were perfectly safe,” she insists. “They were in full view. We could see if anyone went near the car instantly. We checked on them every 15 minutes.” Still, she admits, not everyone approved of her decision. “My husband’s sister and brother-in-law were appalled.”
In the aftermath of the high-profile arrest of the Illinois mom who left her napping toddler in a car parked outside a Wal-Mart while she donated change out front (charges were later dropped), parents are left wondering whether their own small misdeeds could land them a nasty scolding from a meddling busybody — or even a charge of neglectful parenting by the authorities.
“I think every mom does stuff like that — they just may not tell other moms,” says Los Angeles comedian Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, author of the new book "Naptime Is the New Happy Hour."
“We all live in fear of being judged,” she says.
If there are rules of perfect parenting, Wilder-Taylor, 41, admits she has probably broken most of them. She lets her 3-year-old daughter eat things that have dropped on the floor, she doesn't brush her teeth every day and she locks her in the car while she hits the ATM. She has even accepted a ride home from a nearby park without a car seat — twice.
Sweating the big stuff
Wilder-Taylor says she is careful to sweat the important stuff, like rushing her children to the doctor at any sign of illness. “Just because I don’t put hand sanitizer on her every second doesn’t mean I’m not a great parent,” says Wilder-Taylor. “The time I don’t waste on that other stuff, I tickle my daughter, play with and read to her.”
Of course, there are some behaviors clearly unacceptable at any times — abandoning a child home alone for hours, leaving a child unattended in a bathtub or by a pool, exposing an infant to a choking hazard, not locking up poisons, storing unsecured guns around the home.
But what about everything else — the small, guilt-inducing shortcuts that every parent is tempted to take?
Are there really parents who haven't popped in a "Dora the Explorer" DVD and let the TV play babysitter in order to dash off an e-mail? Or dropped a child at day care with a runny nose, knowing they might infect the other tots? Or bribed their kids with candy to get them to please, pleaasssse behave in public?
With laws on what constitutes neglect varying among states, today’s parents must constantly negotiate the fine line between acceptable and too great a risk. Is it really so wrong to leave a child alone in the house for a minute or two to run out to the mailbox? Or in an apartment to pop down to the laundry room?
And ambiguities abound: While a dozen states have laws against leaving a child unattended in a car, there is no ban against the common, yet undeniably risky, practice of letting a child ride without a car seat in a New York cab.
‘Bad mom moment’
Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile, co-authors of the new book “Dirty Little Secrets from Otherwise Perfect Moms,” urge parents to stop judging themselves as failures for having a “bad mom moment.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure (for women) to be what they think is a ‘good mom,’” says Nobile. “The expectations we have set for ourselves are insanely high. No matter what we do, we feel like we can’t live up to that.”
While moms are often the big worriers in the family — and the ones usually more likely to be judged —
dads can feel the pressure to be perfect parents all the time, too.
“It is awful when someone can judge you by a single moment,” says Jaret Eccleston, 35, a single dad of a 3-year-old son in Anthem, Ariz. “We do the best we can as parents and have to make decisions on the spot. It is very hard these days with what the world expects from us, and the time we have to do it all in.”
And parenting standards today are indisputably more exacting. While European parents still leave babies in strollers parked outside shops, the days when a “respectable” American mom or dad can let the kids play unattended around the neighborhood are long gone. A writer in New York recently stirred a debate when she allowed her 9-year-old, at his request, to ride the subway home alone, a common practice in generations past.
When asked to offer examples of ways today's parents go wrong, Debra Holtzman, a Hollywood, Fla., mom of two and author of the book “The Safe Baby: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Home Safety,” produced a laundry list of no fewer than 44 no-nos.
To name some of them: forgoing tick inspections, neglecting to wash hands before every meal, not using a meat thermometer, not scrubbing fruits and veggies before serving, sampling cookie dough batter, failing to keep up on toy recalls, letting a child eat in the car, propping a baby bottle.
Holtzman accuses parents of slacking because they feel a time crunch. “We are in a hurry,” she says. “No time to wipe down the handles of the shopping cart, no time to put sunscreen on the children.” She also blames grandparents, who are quick to roll their eyes or say, "We didn’t do it this way."
“You don’t have to make yourself neurotic, but the one time you don’t do it is the time something bad is going to happen,” she adds. “You don’t want to look back at life and say, `I can’t believe I didn’t do that.’ Those are things that are going to haunt you.”
Still, it’s a standard daunting enough to make a modern mother shake her head in disbelief — or cry.
“We have so many rules that make people feel guilty about things they shouldn’t feel guilty about,” says Fran Silverstein, 36, a New York City attorney who has handled child neglect cases. She personally rolls her eyes at the anti-TV zealotry proposed by experts and lets her 16-month-old toddler watch "Sesame Street." “As long as they’re not watching constantly, I don’t see what’s so wrong with it.”
No perfect parents
“There is not a parent alive that is perfect,” agrees Jackie Lebihan of Petaluma, Calif., who has been scolded for letting her two children hang off a shopping cart. “You do certain things that you’d said you’d never do, to get through the day. You aim for the big stuff, and you have faith the little stuff will work itself out.”
Lebihan, 35, believes parents should be able to use their judgment to take a calculated risk without so much second-guessing. “We need to have enough discernment as a society to recognize true negligence, and to differentiate it from parental shortcomings that pose no real harm to a child.”
The problem, according to Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard’s School of Public Health and director of the KidsRisk Project, which analyzes risks to children’s health and researches strategies to reduce them, is that we are generally bad at assessing risk. We believe nothing bad will happen — especially if we’ve done something before with no repercussions. And we place far too much emphasis on worrying about things that are far-fetched but get media buzz, such as car-jackings with babies in the car, compared to the basics, like wearing seatbelts and washing hands.
“People have to understand, it’s a conscious decision. Every time you do something, like leaving a child alone in a bathtub, you are making a choice, and you won’t know what the consequences will be,” Thompson says. “Can you live with the uncertainty of the potentially bad outcome?”
A cautionary tale
Sadly, for every 99 instances of life-as-usual, there is always a worst-case scenario that comes to pass.
Tracey Hoyle, of Charlotte, N.C., will never forget the time she left her 5-year-old twins parked in her landlord’s driveway and briefly stepped inside the house to pay her rent. Her son somehow put the minivan in reverse — and she watched in horror as the car almost rolled into a pond.
“My children were scared to death, and so was I,” recalls Hoyle, 35. Now, “I'm obsessive about everybody getting out with me — no matter what. We have all done it, and I’m here to tell you, it’s not worth it.”
But Carolina Busse of Plainfield, Ill., says that as a single mom of three, she has often been forced to “color outside the lines.” She recalls leaving her children home alone, her 9-year-old supervising the sleeping 5- and 7-year-olds, to run out for cold medicine for her asthmatic son.
“When you don't have a husband to send out or to stay home with the kids, you have to do things like this,” says Busse, 42. “Just make sure you're smart and take precautions.”
“You check that the doors are locked, you run to the store. It’s reality,” she says. “The question I used to ask myself, how am I neglecting then, running out 5 minutes, and aren’t I endangering them more [by] waking them and running out in 20-degree weather?”
Busse believes scare tactics and paranoia have overtaken common sense. “Tragedies will happen, even if you take every single precaution,” she says. “There’s a point where you go, `Am I going to worry myself sick over it — or enjoy my children and my life?’”
Melissa Schorr is a Boston-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe Magazine, Reuters Health, Working Mother, Self, GQ and People. She is the author of the young adult novel "Goy Crazy."