Last weekend, I lost my son.
We were at the beach. He was playing in the sand, 10 steps from my feet. I turned away to drink my coffee and talk to my friends.
Next moment, my friend’s daughter was asking, “Where’s Billy?”
Billy was nowhere.
For 10, whole, painful minutes, I searched for him. My partner searched for him. Our friends searched for him. Everyone searched for him.
As the seconds ticked by and we ran up and down the beach, looking, looking, I started to get physically hot. I was scanning the beach but I couldn’t see. Everything was a blur. I only wanted to see one thing – a Spiderman T-shirt and green shorts. A tousle of red hair, a big, open smile. Billy.
But the seconds kept going, and still I hadn't seen those things. No-one had. We spread out. We spoke to the life guards. I couldn't make eye contact with anyone as I garbled, 'I can't see him, I can't see him'. My stomach was empty and rolling. I started to sweat.
And just as lifesavers made the announcement, the kind I had heard over the loud speaker a thousand times before, but never about my child. "We are looking for a missing child. He is wearing a Superman T-shirt (my mind: "No he's not, no he's not, it's Spiderman.") and green shorts, and he's four years old ("No he's not, he's not, he's only three")."
And just as they made that announcement, as the words hung in the air, I saw him. He was running towards me, from what seemed like miles away. He fell and threw himself in the sand, making sand angels. He was there. He had run away. And he was back.
What did I think during those 10, long minutes? I thought of all the possibilities. Would he have gone near the water? Could a freak wave knocked him over? And of course, I thought, Did someone take him? Even the words "Spiderman T-shirt" conjured up memories of a lost child etched in our psyches, William Tyrell, and his Spiderman suit. A jagged, irrational stab that it was a stupid thing to dress him in, as if a Super hero T could hold bad karma.
Was it my fault? I turned away from him. I was talking to my friends. I don't even know what we were talking about, certainly nothing that mattered much. But five minutes probably passed where I didn't know where he was until I realised I really didn't know where he was. Was I a careless parent?
If you listen to the hysteria around Sharon Osbourne's comments this week about the McCanns, you would certainly draw the conclusion that those 10 minutes of angst were my fault. If Billy had vanished into the ether I would be to blame. Because this week, Osbourne got a big old stick and gave an ugly nest of blame a hefty poke when she went on morning TV this week and said, “They left their baby in the room sleeping, sleeping while they had dinner in the restaurant... While they were in the resort their baby was taken. And it’s like, ‘Oh but we can see everything that is going on and it’s like, insane’."
Pundits rushed to agree. A war erupted on a parenting forum where a woman had admitted she left her baby at home alone for seven minutes. A writer on this site wrote about how it was a dangerous message to suggest that what happened to Madeleine McCann in Portugal back in 2007 was NOT her parents' fault.
Confession time: I do not know where my children are at all times. Right now, I am at work, and I haven't seen them for 10 hours. If something happens to them while we are separated, is that my fault?
Sometimes when we're having lunch or dinner or a barbecue, we let them play nearby and if they run out of our eyeline for a few minutes, we don't run after them. Once, we went for a Christmas drink in the unit upstairs, baby monitor in hand, while the kids slept. When we went camping at Easter, the kids took delight in testing out their independence, running around in an unattended pack, checked on intermittently by random parents.
And the big one: Once we were all on holiday on a tiny island and we put the kids to bed, crossed the garden and sat at a table to eat dinner. One of us would go and check on the children every 20 minutes. Otherwise, we left them, sleeping. Sound familiar?
Many, many parents have variants on stories like these. We're not 'free-range' parents. We're parents living our lives. And it is impossible to live your life in a constant state of flight or fright. I can't survive with the constant fear that the worst might happen, I can't imagine that a monster lurks around every corner. How can any of us live like that and teach our kids to be confident in the world? To be unafraid? To see the best in people?
If you take Sharon Osbourne's statement to its logical conclusion then every parent who's lost a child in tragic circumstances is at fault. Because where were they when the worst happened? It was their responsibility to keep their child safe and WHERE WHERE THEY? It's nonsense.
You know who's to blame for Madeline McCann's disappearance? The person who took her.
You know who's responsible for the horror visiting upon William Tyrell and Daniel Morcombe's families? The people who took them.
The Mccann's have set up and official website for Madeline. You can watch the video from the website below. Post continues after video...
The fact these names roll off our tongues so easily is an illustration of how mercifully rare these horrific occurrences are - children abducted and harmed by strangers. They are events that happen so infrequently, they are seared into a generation's collective memory.
Mostly, parents are living busy little lives dotted with these tiny stories: We had no milk, I went to the shops, I'm a terrible parent. I sat in the back garden and had a glass of wine while the kids slept inside, I'm a terrible parent. I turned away to talk to my friend at the beach, I'm a terrible parent.
Maybe we're all terrible parents. But we are not to blame for the unholy devastation caused by a tiny percentage of damaged, deranged men. Only they get to carry that shame.
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