A few weeks ago, I was pushing my baby in a stroller on the way to pick up my son from school. I was walking along Queen Street, a main artery in downtown Toronto. I passed a new eco-shop selling no-VOC paint on sale, and although I didn’t really have time to make a stop, I ran inside just to ask how long the sale would last. When I did that, I left my baby in his stroller parked in front of the store.
A minute later, through the glass storefront, I saw a police car pull up and wondered what was happening. Then a police officer strode to my stroller and looked inside, all the while talking into a microphone held against his mouth. I realized then that their concern was my baby. Immediately I went to them.
I told them I was sorry for the scare. I explained that while I should have brought the baby into the store, I had stepped inside without him very briefly because the store had a glass front through which I could see the stroller. I was probably no more than 12 feet away from my baby at any time. Then I said I was sorry again (and would repeat this several more times).
The officer speaking into his microphone visibly relaxed as I spoke to him, but presently another officer emerged from the passenger seat. He stormed toward me. “Are you crazy?!” he yelled.
I work for government authorities, sometimes relating to enforcement, and I have a sound appreciation of the scope of their powers should they turn their attentions your way – and I didn’t want this. I also felt empathy for the officers, even the one who was shouting at me, because I knew they believed they were helping and that they see more the underbelly of our lives in the city more than I ever would.
So my goal was not to defend myself, but to defuse the situation. I remained calm, accepting the yelling and the lecture. I was remorseful and compliant until the second officer told me that he could report me to the Children’s Aid Society. Suddenly, I had had enough of the over-reaction. I turned and looked directly at the officer. Clearly and evenly, I said, “If you feel, in good conscience, that you need to do that, then I totally understand.”
It was as if I cut the strings that were holding him up. His shoulders slumped down and he said, in a different, quieter tone, “Well, you could make a complaint about me for the way I’m talking to you.”
I told him that I would never do that. And I wouldn’t. I didn’t enjoy the shouted reprimands, but I could plainly see that the officer was genuinely afraid, if not by what he saw, by what he might have seen. “You know what we just saw before coming here?” he told me. “A girl, maybe 9 years old, alone in the alley, playing with her dog! Where are her parents??”
You will be pleased to know that I did not mention Leonore Skenazy and her 9 year old free-ranger to him.
I went on my way, but I was affected by this encounter. I was sorry for what happened and felt fine about receiving a reminder to be careful, although I preferred the first police officer’s approach obviously. I did not, however, think that I had done anything dangerous.
Yes, it’s possible that someone might have seen the unattended stroller and tried to swipe it away. Just as it’s possible that someone will whisk away one son away from the slide or the baby sleeping in the stroller when I’m at the opposite end of the playground pushing another child on a swing. Or that someone will steal my children out of our backyard when I let them play there while I’m inside the house, usually in the kitchen facing the yard, but sometimes even while I’m using the washroom upstairs. It’s possible.
But it’s much, much more likely that our children will die in the vehicles that almost all of us use every day. Statistically, cars are primary kid killers. But who views getting in (buckling up, of course) an inherently dangerous activity? Do police officers scream at you for taking unnecessary risks when you get in the car with your kids for optional trips, ones that are accessible by transit or within walking distance? Ought they?
While I could have done without the drama from the second policeman, I’m fine with getting a reminder to be attentive with my children. It’s hard to argue against safety. But fear and paralysis I’m willing to tango with. I noticed that after my encounter with the police, I had a heightened sense of awareness – essentially suspicion – of basically everyone I passed on the street. Who are you anyway, and are you looking at my kids? Ususally I let the boys ride their bikes and play in the lane behind our house while I stay with them. But that day I shepherded them into the house because somehow I didn’t like the look of someone else who was out there. In other words, I was afraid.
I had to shake it off. I suppose some people manage to live like this, but if I were to worry when I went out the door that someone might abduct my baby were I to leave him momentarily unattended in a stroller in broad daylight on a main street, I simply would be unable to go out. I can’t function like that. I can take safety measures generally, but I can’t live trying to take preventative measures for that level of trauma.
There’s a degree of risk that exists everywhere, and terrible things are happening everywhere. I am painfully aware of this. But there are good things happening too, lots of them, even if they don’t make it to the front page of the news. In the very neighbourhood where I had my “talk” with the police about its dangers, and at the very same time, people are creating community, food and beauty out of an ignored patch of land. I choose to focus on this and other tangible evidence of goodness because I want to see more of it and be a part of it. I will always make this choice over worrying about minute possibilities of horror. Because in the morning I want to get out of bed, and explore and enjoy the day with my children. How else would I be able to do it?