“There But for the Grace of God” or Accidents Will Happen

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Cartoon from the Star Tribune by Steve Sack.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be on vacation. A week away from the British weather in the glorious sunny reaches of southern Spain. One of the peculiarities of being on holiday is that, even in this interconnected world, news rarely permeates the idealist bubble that constitutes our vacation time. It’s one of the nicest things about being away–all the bad news stops.

On returning home, my Facebook feed contained the cartoon that heads this piece. A brilliant image by Minnesota’s Star Tribune Cartoonist Steve Sack. At the time of viewing, I was unaware of the two news events that prefigured it. Yet its message was clear. The death of multiple hundreds of refugees is barely news. In Britain, the refugee crisis is used as political currency in an increasingly bitter debate, centered around membership of the European Union. As tragedy, it is hardly worth a mention.

Counter that with endangering an animal, and in Britain, a “nation of animal lovers,” you can easily see that tying animals to the outside of their boat might be a successful way for refugees to be treated with more humanity (go figure). The cartoon made sense, even without knowing the second event it referenced.

And then I read the Hey America, Do Accidents Happen Any More? post on Medium, written by Kimberley Harrington. A measured and thoughtful response to the incident at Cincinnati Zoo. It highlights the modern society’s need to find somebody to blame, and how easy the internet makes it to be judgmental and vindictive without being remotely aware of the facts.

Harrington’s piece has been churning around my mind throughout the day, and I have imagined myself and my parenting being judged by the internet.

Firstly, I don’t consider myself a good parent nor a bad parent. I am both of those things. I have good days, where I’m a Super GeekDad, and I have other days, when I look and sound like a Roald Dahl character. I am a parent. We all have those days.

This morning was the first back at school after a week off. Things in the house were not quite where they were supposed to be, adding to the difficulty of getting out on time. As usual, we left the house in a bustle of stress, slightly behind schedule. It was a pleasant early summer’s day here in the UK, which means a slight chill first thing in the morning. My youngest, astride his wooden bike, was wearing the shorts and t-shirt he’d need to be in later, but for now he was cold. He cried. I didn’t turn back for a warmer layer. (Bad parent!)

He continued to cry. I was indifferent. We approached a crossing. One we cross every day. It has a long delay on it, but you can cut the waiting time if you cross halfway to the central reservation. The lights are red for the cars on this side but the crossing man is red too, but often we cross. (Bad Parent!) If we do, I call out, “Halfway boys, halfway!” (Normally in a Penguins of Madagascar voice.)

I called out, “Halfway boys, halfway!”

My youngest is still crying, I look down and see his arms have goosebumps. I judge myself–Bad Parent! I reach down to comfort him and give him a warming cuddle. I hear my oldest gasp and look up to see my middle son, on his scooter, still crossing the road into the path of a moving car. I bellow his name. The car screeches to a halt. Time stops.

He is safe. The driver gives me a filthy look. I apologize. I start yelling at my son, guilty at my inattention (Terrible Parent!), relief floods in. We hug, he’s safe. Our worlds carry on, unbroken.

It could have been different. The accusations could fly. Why wasn’t he watching his child? (Bad Parent!) Why cross the road at that point? (Bad Parent!) Those who know nothing about me, or the situation, would make these judgments. As Harrington says, people without children think you should watch them all the time. It’s not possible, not even with one, let alone three or four. Accidents happen, blame can be apportioned, but it can still be nobody’s fault. Life happens, whether we want it to or not.

The day continued. My youngest fell asleep on the floor, watching TV. (Bad Parent!) I scooped him up at school pick up time and put him in the car. Only to find at school I’d forgotten his shoes. (Bad Parent!) We had a swimming lesson after school, so he had to spend two hours in the sports center without shoes. (Actually he didn’t HAVE to. I could have gone home and gotten them, but I chose not to. (Bad Parent!)) The children ate chips and sweets and ran riot a little. (Bad Parent!) I hadn’t checked my son’s swimming bag properly, so he didn’t have his goggles, and had to swim without them, which he hates. (Bad Parent!)

None of these things were deliberate. They were all accidents—avoidable, yes—but when you’re trying to parent, things slip through the cracks. Most of us do our best. If you’re lucky, all you have to deal with is a near miss or a grumpy toddler without footwear. If the dice land differently, a beautiful life might be snuffed out. Somebody will probably be at fault, but it isn’t always necessary to blame.

To everybody dealing with the consequences of their mistakes, my thoughts are with you. It’s peculiarly easy to take up a stance of superiority from a position of ignorance, and the internet makes action without thought all the easier. We all make mistakes; most of us are lucky enough that they aren’t life changing, but from now I will try to remember that, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”


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