Before I had kids, I knew what kind of mother I'd be . . . the kind who'd never leave her little ones locked in a car in a store parking lot or let them ride bikes without helmets on. The kind who would never, ever, leave them home alone.
Years as a reporter reinforced that view, years of stories about babies dying inside locked cars and children perishing alone in house fires while mom shopped or gambled or partied with friends.
I would never be a mother like that, never take such risks--no matter how small--with cargo so precious, responsibilities so profound.
But that was, as I said, before I had kids.
Now, 13 years into this child-rearing job, I know the choices are not always so clear, that the line between good and bad mom sometimes blurs, that the balancing act life sometimes requires can force even a good mother's back to the wall.
I don't imagine that Michiko Kamiyama's early visions of motherhood included three months in jail for child abuse.
She came here with her husband in 1987, a classically trained musician from Japan trying to launch a music career. But her husband was killed in a car accident the next year, just before their daughter was born. Kamiyama wound up a single mother who had to work two jobs--days waitressing, nights as a lounge singer--to give her daughter the middle-class life of her dreams.
The dream turned nightmarish two years ago when police, responding to a neighbor's 911 report of a child's screams, broke through Kamiyama's locked door and found her 8-year-old daughter home alone. Kamiyama had left the house 30 minutes earlier--after her daughter's tantrum subsided--to audition for a singing job at a supper club.
She had left her daughter alone before, she said, when she could not find a baby-sitter or knew she would not be gone for long. Before she left for work that night, she reminded her daughter not to answer the door. Then she locked the door to their townhome, located in a gated community in Huntington Beach.
When she returned from work at 2 a.m., she found a note from Huntington Beach police. Her daughter had been taken to a children's shelter. Kamiyama would be arrested, tried and found guilty by an Orange County jury of misdemeanor child abuse--"inflicting unjustifiable mental suffering" on her child.
Her lawyer appealed and Kamiyama was cleared of wrongdoing last month when a state appeals court overturned the verdict and ruled that, while she may have made an unwise choice, she did nothing criminally wrong.
"It is not for the criminal justice system to prosecute one single mother for trying to raise a child and make an honest living," the appellate court ruled, "simply because her child threw a tantrum."
I read of Kamiyama's story in The Times last weekend as my children--ages 13, 9 and 7--and I lounged by the pool at a hotel in San Diego. I was there on a working vacation--attending a convention for newspaper columnists--which required me to spend hours at meetings, speeches and seminars while my children stayed in our room. Alone.
I left them with my cellular phone, so they could avoid the hotel's switchboard. I kept a pager, so I could be beeped at any time. And I never left the hotel.
But I never relaxed when we were apart, as a litany of "what ifs" ran through my head.
What if they were bouncing on the bed and somebody fell and got hurt? What if a stranger showed up at the door and tricked them into letting him in? What if one of them threw a tantrum, like Kamiyama's child did, and security came to check? How close was I to going to jail?
None of that happened, thank goodness. They watched movies and played Nintendo, drew pictures and played Barbie, slept and, probably, bounced on the beds.
Still, I know I was lucky. I am lucky every time I go and come back disaster-free. And while I'm never comfortable with the idea of leaving them alone, I've accepted the reality that it is inevitable sometimes.
I know mothers everywhere face a similar dilemma. What age is old enough, for how long can you go, what reasons are worth the risk involved?
Is it OK if you must go in to work, but not if you want to hit the Nordstrom sale? Can you leave them while you dash out for cigarettes, or only if it's bread or milk you need?
I am never gone for very long--though an hour can seem like an eternity to a child who is frightened or angry or just misses mom. They're equipped for survival--with safety instructions, the numbers of my pager and cellular phone, and a cadre of caring neighbors who periodically look in on them.
Still, I never drive away without running through a mental checklist of all the things that can go wrong, from an earthquake to an intruder to the dog getting loose--and without wondering what the police would think if they had to respond, what the newspaper story about us would say.
There are no easy answers. More accessible, less expensive child care would help, but there are no one-size-fits-all solutions here.
"We get calls all the time about what is an appropriate age for children to be left alone," says Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America. "We tell them there is no magic age."
There is no magic age, indeed, and no magic way to know if your decision is the right one. Like so much of parenting, it is sometimes flying by the seat of your pants, trusting your instincts, preparing your children . . . then saying your prayers.