How many times have you heard it? ‘I turned my back for a second and he was gone!’ I’ve always thought that was a lame excuse used by gabbing mums who ignored their kids, but it’s what I found myself saying just the other day.
Sam, Joe and I had been to a play centre to meet friends. We’d had a great time. Sam and I had had a chance to play together. He ran up a rubbery slide and I, very ungraciously, followed. As we left, I bought him some stickers (Cars – it’s his favourite film at the moment), and everyone was happy. Outside, Sam watched as I bent down to put Joe into the pushchair, but when I turned around he was gone.
I looked around and spotted the shop full of breakables. He was bound to be in there. But it was quiet. I glanced back to the play area. He wasn’t there. I looked inside the café next door, he wasn’t there either.
And then I really started to panic. It was as though someone had hit me in the face. He had gone. He was completely out of my sight and I had no idea where to look first.
What if he’d gone off with someone? What if he’d been taken? What if he’d fallen down some steps or was out on the road? The lady at the play centre came out to ask me something and I couldn’t concentrate. All I could say was, ‘My little boy has gone!’ She looked panicked, and told her colleague.
I asked her to watch Joe and my friend’s little boy as I went one way and my friend searched the other way. And then we were all looking. It was a blur. I was frantic. For what felt like 10 minutes (but could only have been seconds) I stood there, rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do. Then I saw the doors leading outside...
I know it’s a cliché, but as I ran towards them, time really did seem to slow down. All I could think was ‘Please be there, please be there!’ As I got closer, I spotted him through the window.
Little and lost and clutching his new stickers to his chest, he was turning his head from side to side trying to work out where he was and where I was.
A man was standing nearby, watching him. A stranger. Looking back, he was probably a concerned onlooker wondering why a little boy had been left alone like that. As I arrived, the man turned away and my mind thought the worst. He was going to take him! More than likely however, the man was probably making sure he didn’t fall down the steps and that someone was coming for him.
As I reached Sam, he grinned as he saw me, turned to run away again as if in fun, then stopped and ran back to me. I scooped him up and held him tight. Without thinking and in spite of (or perhaps because of) the panic of losing him, I did what most mothers would do in the same situation. I shouted at him.
‘You naughty boy! Don’t run off like that! Mummy didn’t know where you were. If you got lost, mummy would be sad forever.’ It was a bit dramatic, even by my standards, but I just didn’t know what else to say to hammer home just how upset I was and how wrong he was for running away.
But he seemed to understand and without complaint he got into his pushchair and shakily, with my heart feeling like it might pound out of my chest, my friend and I went to sit down and recover.
Talking it over with my husband later, I felt better. He didn’t judge and he didn’t criticise, but he said it was a wake-up call. And he was right. When he arrived home from work he talked to Sam about what had happened. ‘Did you get lost? Did you lose mummy?’ he asked. And Sam looked at his daddy and very slowly and seriously said, ‘Hold mummy’s hand,’ before putting his new stickers all over dad’s face. So maybe he got the message.
I know toddlers run off all the time. It won’t be long until Joe is doing the same thing. I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to do when they’re both at it, but I have to hope that I never end up saying those terrible words, ‘He’s gone!’ again.