In the 13 years I’ve been a mom, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to listen to my instincts.
“Hi Oprah,” I said, my voice sounding wobbly to my own ears. Perspiration pricked my upper lip as I held the phone. I wiped my free hand down the leg of my jeans.
From 1,100 miles away, Oprah Winfrey asked me to explain to her live studio audience what had happened the day I doubted my intuition — a mistake that nearly cost my 9-month-old son his life.
I’d called in to her “Mom Confessions” line a month or so earlier when she’d asked for stories about mistakes mothers had made. It was a recorded line — a voicemail confessional — and anyone who called could opt to leave their phone number or not.
For whatever reason — a desire to let it all go, or as a possible warning to other parents — I’d decided to phone in. After leaving my story on the recording and breaking down halfway through, I’d hurriedly mumbled my number. A producer called a few days later to ask if I’d be willing to talk to Oprah about it live.
Of course I said yes, although I was hesitant to tell the world about an error that almost cost me everything.
A few months later, I found myself ensconced in the safety of my bedroom on a humid mid-September afternoon, my hand white-knuckling the phone to my ear. And I told Oprah Winfrey about the day my actions had almost killed my son.
I’d put my son down for a nap in his room, awake, so he could figure out how to lull himself to sleep. It was what all the experts I’d read had recommended I do.
As a new mother, I was trying my very best to get him to sleep on his own because he still woke several times a night to breastfeed, and I was at the point of exhaustion where day bleeds into night and night into dreams and dreams into days like some sort of hazy carnival ride you can’t get off.
To add to my fatigue, my husband and I, along with two business partners, had scraped together every last dime to purchase four condos on the Gulf of Mexico for vacation rentals. It was our nest egg. A promise of a better life. A chance to invest in something substantial, solid, and stable.
It was my new responsibility.
Since I’d given up my teaching job to spend some time home with my new son, I was currently in charge of making sure those rentals stayed full. It was exhilarating, sure, but with each passing day, the weight of our entire future, and that of our partners, rested on my dog-tired shoulders. At that time of my life, it was almost too much to bear.
That particular day, after I’d laid my son down, I closed his door quietly and went downstairs, the soft static of the monitor sure to let me know if he needed me.
As first-time parents, we were extreme in our preparedness for his safety. We’d installed safety latches, erected baby gates, and covered the outlets. We washed his clothing and mine in dye- and perfume-free detergent. We fed him organic, non-GMO baby food and scrubbed his toys after he dropped them on the floor.
We’d also hung a video monitor above his bed, in a perfect position to see him from our room.
The set we’d purchased came with a portable audio monitor and a video monitor, which, back then, was a kind of permanent fixture, set up by my bed. That day, I carried the audio monitor with me to my desk near the kitchen so I could get to work. This was way before the days of apps on your phone, one easy click away.
As I poured another cup of coffee and sat down at my desk to answer vacation rental emails, I heard him playing up there in his crib. My first reaction was irritation. I needed him to sleep!
Not yet knowing how to balance the needs of a baby and a job at home, I felt like I had no time other than his nap to focus on our new venture.
My husband worked long hours, and the closest family was four states away. All of my friends either had kids of their own or full-time jobs, and my husband and I had spent so much on the business, we didn’t really have cash to spare for a babysitter. I had no one on whom I could rely to lend a much-needed helping hand.
I popped open an email, read carefully, and began to craft my reply. Again, I heard him playing through the monitor; it sounded like he was laughing. Gritting my teeth, I tried to focus on really selling our sunny vacation spot to this potential renter, while part of my mind was fixated on him not sleeping.
He laughed again, this time a little louder, and something sort of twanged in the back of my head. A quiet little bell dinged. It wasn’t a major “get-out-of-your-seat-and-get-up-there” kind of alarm, but it was a nudge.
And I ignored it.
I overrode my own instincts with logical analysis. I told myself it was nothing. A new mom’s panic. If I went in there and checked on him, and he saw me, nap time would officially be over and I’d never get to those 17 emails. Since nothing was really wrong, I’d waste an entire afternoon.
I kept typing, crafting a reply for this potential rental, my hands beginning to shake, my body literally screaming at me that something was wrong, wrong, wrong with my son upstairs, but my brain forced my hands to keep moving because I didn’t trust my gut.
So, I answered another email. When I tried to answer a third, my hands shook so much I couldn’t form a reply, and all of a sudden, in a rush, I felt my body do what my brain said it shouldn’t.
I knocked over my chair in my haste, and flew up the stairs with my heart in my throat. When I threw open his door and flipped on the light, I found my baby boy.
He was hanging by his neck from the monitor cord, gasping for air. It wasn’t laughing I’d heard through the monitor. It was choking.
I screamed and ran to him, pulling the cord from his neck. He gurgled and gulped in mouthfuls of air around his wailing, while I rocked and screamed and held him to my heart.
My precious, precious child. His neck was already a mottled blue. Angry red striations showed where he’d tugged, trying to free himself from the cord. His cries were hoarse, evidence of a mighty struggle.
I called the doctor, bleating what had happened into the phone, and she reassured me that if he was breathing, all was well. She said to bring him in if his condition changed, and warned me that I should never hang a cord within such easy reach of my child — that I’d almost lost him because I had.
But I knew I’d almost lost him because I didn’t trust myself.
Yes, I should never have hung the video monitor up with the cord behind his crib. At the time, I had no idea his little fists could reach through the slats and wind it around his neck. It was 2008, and you just didn’t hear about it happening at the time.
But, had I just accepted that my instincts were right, had I trusted that little nudge that something was off, I could have spared him some pain, and myself the guilt that never really goes away.
My conversation with Oprah left her live audience shocked. When I watched the show the day it broadcasted, audience members covered their mouths when I’d described him hanging. They’d pursed their lips and shook their heads when I’d talked about not trusting myself. The mother headlining Oprah’s show that day who’d accidentally left her toddler in the car only to find the child’s still body hours later, had teared up at my story.
She knew, as I did, how lucky I’d been. My son had been saved. I’d eventually listened to that instinct and had propelled myself out of my chair.
That afternoon, as I held my son to my chest for the entirety of his well-deserved nap, singing a lullaby I knew he loved, I promised myself I’d never doubt my instincts again.
Exhaustion is temporary. And jobs, even the ones people rely on you to do, can be replaced. But my son, and the two who came after him, are the most precious, most irreplaceable of gifts. It doesn’t take any logic to tell me that — just a feeling in my gut. A feeling I’ve learned to trust.
Kelly Coon is the author of Gravemaidens and Warmaidens (Delacorte Press/Random House), the editor for Blue Ocean Brain, a former high school English teacher, and a wicked karaoke singer in training. Kelly was the test prep expert for About.com for 7 years, and has been published with both Scholastic and MSN in the education arena. In the parenting realm, Kelly has been published in The Washington Post, Scary Mommy, ParentMap, Folks, and others sites, regaling tales of life in the trenches with her three boys. She lives near Tampa with her family and a rescue pup who will steal your sandwich.