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The 800-Pound Military Parenting Gorilla in the Room

Photo: Rick Scavetta/ U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern

Surely you saw the news about a 4-year-old boy at the Cincinnati Zoo who got away from his mother and climbed into a gorilla enclosure. The story became very controversial because zoo keepers killed the gorilla in order to get the boy back safely.

Consider the words of Brittany Nicely, a witness at the Cincinnati zoo for the gorilla incident, as reported by The New York Times: "She had three other kids that she was with. She had a baby in her arms," said Ms. Nicely. The boy was in the pen in "the blink of an eye."

Did you just get a chill? Did you picture yourself in that woman's shoes? Trying to snap a picture of your own adorable young children with one hand while holding your baby with the other?

I have two eyes, two arms and three children. When my kids aren't side-by-side -- which is pretty much never -- it is physically impossible for me to watch them all, all the time.

Up until now, I've been blessed. I've solo parented through more deployments than I have fingers, nearly more than I have fingers and toes, and my kids have never once climbed into a gorilla pen. (And they all still have all their fingers and toes. A not-so-minor miracle, if you ask me.) But that doesn't mean I haven't experienced some gorillas.

My gorillas are why I wrote my cell number in Sharpie on my kids' forearms all three times I took them by myself to Disney World.

My gorilla was once a fountain at my mother's house that my 2-year-old toddled into during a mid-deployment visit home to Nashville. My mother and I rushed over and found her there, panicking and flailing, face down, in 18 inches of water. I scooped her out and aged 10 years in one second. Six years later, my mother still drains the fountain when any toddlers are visiting.

My gorilla was why my son wore a leash nearly every time we went into public, long after he had outgrown the acceptable age for leashes, because he ran away from me every time we went anywhere without it. When he got so big that those cutesy toddler leash backpacks made him look like Chris Farley in the "fat man in little coat" scene in "Tommy Boy," I used a retractable dog leash clipped to his back belt loops. Yes, an actual dog leash.

My gorilla was last week, at my own home, when my 4-year-old just disappeared. She wasn't in the house, she wasn't in the yard, she wasn't playing with the other kids in the street. That feeling -- that horrible this is really happening feeling -- washed over me and I pushed away the panic and all the thoughts of everything that might have happened to her so that I could hyperfocus. Ten agonizing minutes later, I found her, curled up in the corner of her closet, taking a nap.

Sometimes my gorillas have even turned into funny stories. A few years ago, my sister-in-law and I took our kids to a waterpark together. We stayed until closing time and, in the chaos of trying to make a bunch of children leave a waterpark, my middle daughter -- then 5 years old -- slipped away from the group. We assigned my teenage nephew to sit with all the other kids while my sister-in-law and I took off in different directions, looking for my daughter. After minutes that seemed like hours, I spotted her, sitting on a stool in the information booth, surrounded by waterpark employees.

I ran up to them, breathless, distraught, relieved, my hair a mess from a day of swimming and wearing just a bathing suit. Oddly, I noticed the staff members giving me once-over looks and trying to mask their laughter.

Later, as I praised her for going to find the employees when she realized she was lost, I asked her what she'd said to the staff members.

"I said, 'I can't find my mommy,' " she told me. "And they asked me, 'What does she look like?' So I said, 'She has brown hair and big boobies.' "

It's summer time now. We're all going to be visiting places like amusement parks and zoos. We're going to have looser schedules and probably a little less vigilance. Be safe and be alert out there, parents.

The proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room is that it could have been any of us.

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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