Saturday 24 March 2018

Don't worry, Dave and Sam. Every parent has a bad day...

Samantha and David Cameron with their daughter Nancy Photo: Getty Images
Samantha and David Cameron with their daughter Nancy Photo: Getty Images

Judith Woods

David Cameron isn't the first and certainly won't be the last parent to forget their child, writes Judith Woods

I never thought I'd ever find myself saying this, but British Prime Minister David Cameron and wife Samantha are Just Like Us.

Yes, they're worth €5m and due to inherit €30m more, and rub shoulders with G8 leaders -- but when all's said and done, it seems their parenting is as slack as anyone's.

We all felt a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God shudder of recognition, relief and yes, sympathy, earlier this week when we heard how the couple had left their eight-year-old daughter, Nancy, at the pub.

Virtually every parent is familiar with the plunging, lift-shaft nausea that hits when a child goes missing, even for a moment. It's a ghastly rite of passage that all of us endure and learn from.

Usually offspring are discovered safe and well, as attested to by the public response to the news story when the great, the good and the forgetful fessed up to leaving newborns under restaurant tables and toddlers in virtually every public place you can think of.

And you know, it's as much a badge of pride as a rite of passage, provided nobody calls social services. Why, only last month, Victoria Beckham was in such a hurry to get her boy Brooklyn to school that she bundled baby daughter Harper into the car seat and set off, forgetting all about Brooklyn, who was left, bemused, playing keepie-uppie in the kitchen.

None of us is perfect; around this time last year I lost my three-year-old, who woke up unexpectedly at 10pm in a cottage we'd rented in the countryside and went walkabout.

While we were in the garden admiring the late-evening view, she had made her way downstairs -- mercifully avoiding both the roaring log fire and the pond outside -- and was found wandering on the main road, crying and trying to find the car (she wanted to visit Grandma).

My elder daughter, at the same age, sloped off during a boozy family lunch in France; she is only alive today because her cousin found her upside down, having toppled into a high-sided paddling pool. Anyone indignantly shrieking "boozy?" is clearly not a drinker or a parent.

Similarly, the fact Nancy was left in a pub appears to be the most aggravating aspect of the story in some quarters, when the truth is that the Camerons might equally have been at Marks & Spencer.

It's not as if there's any suggestion that the prime minister was four sheets to the wind, and his wife certainly wasn't knocking 'em back at the Plough Inn in Buckinghamshire.

In fact, the fleeting thought occurs that, if I were Sam, I might have orchestrated the whole thing by way of registering my pique that I couldn't have a drink because, although David was driven by his chauffeur, the pompous so-and-so still made me ferry the kids in the family car. Or maybe that's just me.

Mum Anne O'Connor, founder of, Ireland's top parenting website, says she can empathise with the Camerons -- up to a point.

"Most parents will admit that, at least once, they were so preoccupied with something else that they took their eye off their child," she says. "Between the school run, work and getting dinner ready, there are times in the day when parents may temporarily forget that there is a little one with them.

"However, it's hard to understand parents forgetting young children for prolonged periods -- if it happens, maybe it should be seen as a wake up call to pay more attention to your children when out and about."

As Cameron's security team obviously aren't on the ball, the way forward might be to emulate fellow British diplomat Jonathan Powell and his journalist wife Sarah Helm -- who casually checked their eight-month-old daughter in with a cloakroom assistant on a night out in 1999.

Helm later complained to the Press Complaints Commission about the coverage it received, on the grounds it intruded into the infant's private life, but the complaint wasn't upheld.

But, unfortunately perhaps, you can't always find a left-luggage office when you need one.

Clinical psychologist Anne admits she once temporarily lost her son in a shop.

"Once in a nursery shop, I was trying to decide between high chairs and suddenly realised that my little boy had wandered off," she recalls. "I quickly found him but that overwhelming sense of panic and guilt lasted long after he was safely back in my arms.

"If you have a number of children, it's a good idea to develop a system to check that all are present before moving on to the next activity or location," she adds. "The old reliable of taking a quick head count or dividing the children into pairs, putting an older child with a younger child, and explaining that if they go anywhere they have to go together should help. As soon as your child is old enough, you should also teach them their full name, address and telephone number in case of emergencies."

When there's a happy ending, such incidents pass into family mythology and are the stuff of shared anecdote, to be told and retold and embroidered a little more each time -- although some stories are so jaw-dropping they require no embellishment.

Last year, an American couple forgot their five-year-old daughter at her own birthday party at a fast-food chain in Texas -- only realising that she was missing the next morning.

Elsewhere last year, a Syrian couple returning home from holiday remembered to unload their luggage from the taxi -- but left their seven-year-old boy asleep on the back seat, where he was later discovered by an astonished driver and returned to his parents.

Back in 1998, British couple Jerry and Sarah Standen set off around the world by yacht with their four children, all aged under 12 -- and very nearly only came home with three after accidentally leaving their four-year-old Genevieve behind in a bar in Colombia.

When they returned, however, Genevieve was gone. But then, as the family combed nearby streets, they discovered their daughter being led back to the bar by a policeman.

"She'd been so confident that she had wandered out of the bar, across two busy roads and had somehow managed to walk into the police station," tells mum Sarah. "It was incredible and such a relief to get her back. One of the main things we've learnt as a family is how to survive as a team."

Survival isn't always a given; as a child, I vividly recall being abandoned in a bomb scare, which was (eventually) funny, although not for a long time.

When my mother went shopping on a Saturday afternoon in our little Tyrone town, she would always leave my older sister and me in the car, as it was illegal for vehicles to be left unattended.

One afternoon, we dimly heard loud hailers and sirens but were too busy squabbling to notice that all but one of the cars nearby were hastily being driven away and the shops cleared.

Finally, there was a knock on the window from an English soldier, in full camouflage, face blackened and carrying an assault rifle.

He gestured to the empty car beside us, explained there was a suspect device inside and demanded to know why we hadn't been evacuated.

Utterly terrified, we gazed in mute horror, as he opened the door, jumped into the driver's seat, and, realising there was no key in the ignition, released the handbrake, threw one leg out and on to the ground and used his foot to push us to safety. My mother did finally remember us, albeit only after the controlled explosion.

But every so often a story doesn't end happily ever after. Think of the McCann family, who left their three children behind in an unlocked bedroom at their apartment in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz, back in 2007. As they dined with friends at a restaurant 130 yards away, three-year-old Madeleine was apparently abducted and has never been seen again.

David Cameron, then, can thank his stars that "Pubgate" wasn't a lot more serious. But this is one PR disaster his office can't blame on the eurozone.

Just-Call-Me-Dave's publicists are clearly terrified that the debacle has made him appear rather too fond of chillaxing. They seem to think that the British electorate's response will be: if he's so careless and cavalier with his own gene pool, how in heaven's name can he be trusted to look after the country?

In fact, most people just sympathise with the privileged politician, who, for once, looks all too human.

Additional reporting by Deirdre Reynolds

Irish Independent

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