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I have a 10 month old nephew.  My sister-in-law, his other aunt, is very protective of him.  She fairly has a heart attack every time he eats solid food.  She obsesses over his every bowel movement.  She roves the internet in search of UV protective clothing and the Consumer Reports #1 rated sunblock, SPF 450, for Baby’s First Shore Trip, but then refuses to allow him in the sun once they arrive at the beach house.  She goes into palpitations when his mother doesn’t pull down the sunshade on his stroller, or when he looks hot, or cold, or clammy, or his Pack ‘n Play doesn’t have a fitted sheet.  She is consumed with worry in exactly the way any first-time mother ought to be.  Except it isn’t her kid.  She doesn’t have any children, and, being single at age 42, isn’t likely to come into any in the short- or long-term.  So he’s her Substitute First Child, the one all the parents (and maiden aunts) worry themselves sick over.

Erma Bombeck famously penned in one of her columns, that when First Child swallowed a quarter, she bolted straight for the emergency room.  By the time Third Child rolled around, she just deducted it from his allowance. 

As calm and relaxed as I am now about children, as much as I know about child development to assure myself children come with many safety features, and as silly as I judge my sister-in-law’s fussing to be, I know I’ll worry over my First Child, too.  I know Mr. Apron will wake in the middle of the night just to make sure it’s breathing.  He’ll take its pulse, I know he will.  I know I’ll blanch at the sight of abnormal poo. I’ll become preoccupied with its feeding cycle.  He’ll worry about its dental development and toenail health. 

But all these worries are on a scale of worries.  They all compare in magnitudes of greatness to real things to worry about.  As my Israeli father-in-law says, “It’s all compared to what!”  To fears of real child endangerment and neglect.  My mother-in-law won’t allow my nephew to fall asleep with a bottle in his mouth.  Not that she would ever dream of putting him into his crib with a bottle; she won’t even give him a bottle to help him fall asleep, for fear it would instantaneously cause bottle rot in his precious milk teeth the second he closed his eyes. 

Today, though, I saw a sight that puts everything in perspective, a sight that fairly caused me palpitations.  As I waited outside a daycare for my victim child to arrive with his brood of siblings so I could spend a futile hour working on a tongue thrust that, in a 5 ½ year old, is going to require more than bi-weekly speech therapy, I saw a mid-1990s 4-door Honda Accord pull up – a father dropping his kids off.  From my vantage point, I saw a small head in the front passenger seat.  As Dad got out, the picture became clearer; I saw two small heads, side-by-side in the front seat.  Two children young enough for day care, seated in the front seat of a car, not even buckled into the one seat they were sharing.  And as they piled out, Dad walked around to the rear door.  As he opened it, he made a motion to hold his arms out as if waiting for a large beach ball to come his way, and the smallest child yet climbed happily into his arms.  Alive, and yet, I was scarred.  The kid was walking, yet couldn’t be older than 18 months.  Couldn’t have unfastened any sort of car seat I’ve ever seen.  Minutes later, as I walked to the door of the day care, I glanced at the rear seat of this vehicle.   What I saw would have curdled the blood of my sister-in-law.  She would have locked herself in her condo, curled up on the floor in a fetal position, and started rocking.  Filling the back seat was an assortment of laundry, towels, and pillows. 

That was all. 

Mr. Apron says he would have narc’ed on the guy.  I see any number of kids come to the center where I work strapped into front seats, arriving without car seats, piled into back seats with 5 others.  I hope I haven’t become desensitized to the dangers of automotive child endangerment.  If public service announcements, stricter laws, and “Don’t be a dummy” ads haven’t taught people, they won’t learn until they see their own precious kids flying out the windshield.

That’ s the scariest image of all.

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