by Leslie Morgan Steiner
When you’re first pregnant, delirious with excitement (or panic), and strangers want to rub your belly, no one tells you that the first several years of motherhood can be excruciating. Not because of sore nipples or lack of sleep. But because of the pervasive, at times overwhelming dread that serious harm will befall your child.
Mine are now 12, 11 and 7. Currently my household exists in bliss between the myriad safety hazards facing toddlers and the teenage risks of drugs, drinking, driving and unprotected sex. I sleep well at night, at least for now. But during their early childhood, I was constantly scanning our house, the stairs, the open windows, the street, school, playground, sidewalk, park, alley, parking lot. Danger lurked everywhere. An open toilet seat. Unprotected electric sockets. Drain cleaner under the kitchen sink. A car backing up. An unclipped seat belt. A loose screen on a second story window.
I felt like if I let down my guard for 30 seconds, one of my kids might die.
I was right.
Accidents are the number one cause of death of children ages 1-4 in the United States, according to National Institutes of Health . The top five accidental deaths are car crashes, drowning, fire, falls, and poisoning.
Personally, nothing frightened me more than swimming pools. Probably because we have one in our backyard. In the summer, my kids spend about 10 hours a day in it. We all treasure this luxury.
But until all three kids could swim, I relied on paranoia to keep them alive. We have a lockable, retractable, automatic vinyl cover that sealed the pool at all times unless an adult was within five feet of the water. A chime and locks on all our doors. We never left the kids in the pool unsupervised – not to go to the bathroom, get the phone, make a sandwich. We used a zero tolerance policy when it came to pool safety.
I was the most critical safeguard. I lived my pediatrician’s advice: “Even with every safety precaution, there is no substitute for constant vigilance.” It was dreadful living with 24/7 worry coursing through my veins like adrenaline – checking and rechecking the doors, the pool, my kids’ locations. I employed the same regimen when we went to visit my in-laws in Florida or friends with pools. If the pool had no cover, I constantly scanned the surface and pestered every adult to keep an eye on the kids at all times. It was difficult to sleep at night – a child could wake at any point and unlock the door to the lanai. I considered buying an $80 portable pool alarm to pack in my suitcase (not kidding). My children wore lifejackets on boats (even a public ferry once) and at the beach when the waves and undertow were strong.
This vigilance did not make me popular among my children, husband, friends, relatives, or babysitters. I’m sure some people (hi honey!) thought I was nuts. But my kids never drowned.
I’ve wanted to turn away from the terrible story of Shellie Ross, the 37-year-old Merritt Island, Florida mom of three, now infamous because of her Tweets at the time her two-year-old son Bryson drowned in their pool on December 14. His accidental death was big news last week, reported on The New York Times Motherlode blog , Florida Today  and USA Today . Some mommy bloggers and Tweeters reached out in support of Ross. Others condemned her for Tweeting to 5,300 followers about such a serious event. A few even blamed her obsession with social media for her two-year-old’s tragic death. This viciousness is a sad fact of motherhood today: there is always at least one person, and usually thousands or millions, eager to blame moms when anything, ranging from autism to asthma to death, goes wrong in a child’s life.
But come on. Shellie Ross and her husband did screw up . It’s just that Twitter had nothing to do with it.
Here’s what did:
First, the family moved into a new home on December 1 with an uncovered screened-in pool. Before spending one night in the house, they should have safeguarded the pool area with a cover, locks, alarms, barriers, whatever it took to keep a toddler out of the water. Kids love water. They can’t stay away. And if they get close, they will fall in. If no one is near enough to see the child fall, it takes only 30 – 120 seconds for them to drown; because toddler drowning is a silent death, a caregiver would not know anything was wrong until it was too late.
Try this: use your watch, microwave clock or phone to time 120 seconds. That’s how long it takes to answer a cell phone, go pee in the bathroom, read one email, send a text or a Tweet. With an open pool, the adult in charge literally can never take a break, no matter how short.
Second, Ross and her husband were not sufficiently vigilant about protecting their toddler from drowning risk. They did not watch him 100% of the time, which is what you must do if you live with an uncovered pool. Ross said she put her 11-year-old in charge of the two-year-old while she cleaned an outdoor chicken coop (I know this sounds weird to us city folk, but raising really cute chicks was just a family hobby). What’s far weirder than raising chickens is giving an 11-year-old life or death responsibility for a sibling.
Finally, in breaking the news via Twitter, Ross showed terrible judgment. Regardless of whether she was reaching out to her community for support. A child’s death is the worst event a mom might face. How could letting 5,300 “friends” know make any difference whatsoever? A child’s death is so profoundly terrifying, the idea becomes almost sacred, something you want to ward off by treating it with the utmost respect. One of my friends will only mouth the word “dead” in reference to her children. The possibility of a child’s demise inspires crazy behavior, such as my pool hysteria, or nutty religious rituals by moms who don’t even believe in God.
Which is why no mom should Twitter about it. I get it – Shellie Ross is a blogger , she Twitters about what she had for breakfast and what her chickens pooped. She (appropriately, in my view) blasted the media for invading her privacy with this December 17 post on her blog:
Media outlets: Please leave us alone, stop trespassing onto our property. Yes this includes the private drive you have to turn down to get to our home. Stop calling me my family and friends for comments. WE ARENT GIVING ANY, PERIOD, END OF STORY FOR YOU. Stop posting my information, photos of my home and address.
Those who do not know me, us our family: Find a hobby, get a job, get a clue please. You do not know me us or him. You do not have the right to speak or type his name. He was better than you in every way. Stop slandering my name, stop disrespecting my son and husband with your pitiful pathetic mouths.
There have been NO interviews granted by myself, my husband or my family. There will be no interviews granted, period end of story. So for those who have “covered” this tragedy without learning the facts, and who have misspoken and have not gotten it right, gee thanks. If it were not for you I could mourn in peace. Let’s try this why don’t we, leave me alone, find your next victim and let my sons memory be one of good and peace and strength.
LEAVE US ALONE
Despite how sad this – or maybe because it’s so sad -- Twittering about death, particularly your child’s, seems on par with what people used to be getting at when they said a tragic event was “unmentionable.” In our modern mommy blog lexicon, this is Untweetable.