'I Left My Daughter Home Alone for the First Time When She Was 20'

The first time I allowed my daughter, Jessica, to stay home alone, she was 20 years old. She was certainly old enough, but because she has an intellectual disability, it took a long time before I felt comfortable leaving her.

For months before, we practiced unlocking and relocking the door. We practiced using the phone so she could call and let me know she was home. Although she had difficulty dialing 10 numbers, she could manage *9. I celebrated this achievement; we had finally passed another milestone.

For the next month, our routine went smoothly. Until the day Jessica mistakenly dialed 911, instead of *9. Twenty years later, I still feel myself cringe whenever I think about it, but I've had plenty of time to mentally reconstruct what must have happened.

Jessica's bus probably pulled up in front of my house to drop her off. She probably showed the driver the pink key tied onto the lanyard around her neck. He probably watched and waited for her to unlock the door. Once she was inside, she most likely remembered my instructions to pick up the phone and call.

Catherine Shields with her daughter
Catherine Shields with her daughter, Jessica. Shields' daughter has an intellectual disability that means she was not left home alone until she was 20. Catherine Shields

But that day, when she misdialed, I imagine Jessica panicked. It wasn't Mommy saying hello. Jessica quickly hung up. And she didn't pick up when the 911 operator called back because she remembered Mommy told her she wasn't allowed to answer the phone. Her silence and unresponsiveness certainly triggered the series of events that followed. The police arrived at our house, and because I'd told her not to answer the door when she was home alone, she didn't respond when they rang the bell.

Thankfully, I arrived home in time to intercept them. One of the officers told me they were about to break the door down.

For the next few years, a babysitter met Jessica after school and stayed until my husband or I returned from work. At that point, I contemplated the move to a group home.

I thought about it for eight years. My internal argument went like this: She should move, her sisters had already found their own apartments, didn't I want her to have the same experiences as them?

By this time, Jessica was in her late twenties. One mother, whose daughter also has an intellectual disability and who I've known since our kids were preschoolers, asked if I was interested in looking into group homes. Just in case.

Months later, she had arranged a visit to a beautiful facility an hour away. I don't think either of us were ready. Although we wanted our girls to live as fulfilling and independent a life as possible, when two spaces opened, we declined. We kept saying things like, "It would be easier for them to make that transition now instead of when we die," but that didn't make the decision any easier.

Catherine Shields with her daughter
Catherine Shields with her daughter Jessica at the beach. Jessica has been living in a group home for 11 years. Catherine Shields

A year later, we were still mulling over the possibilities when we ran into a friend who told us a nightmare story about her son's first group home. Now that he was settled in a new house, she talked about the lessons learned. She urged us to go visit. Encouraged by her recommendation, we went. As we toured the house, we nodded in approval, feeling more at ease with everything we saw. The girls would share a bedroom and have their own private bath.

The girls moved in a week later. All of us were thrilled with the situation. But I should have known something was off. From the very beginning, my friend complained about the meals. She'd call me to vent.

"Did you know they ate macaroni and cheese for a third night in a row? Why aren't they eating salads? Why aren't they serving any vegetables?"

Then one day, three months after the girls moved in, the unimaginable happened. My friend called to say she'd had a change of heart. She was moving her daughter back home.

I was scared about how Jessica would manage. Yet somehow, she did. After her friend moved out, I was relieved Jessica took the whole thing in stride. She didn't ask to move home, but I constantly worried she would.

Catherine Shields with her daughter Jessica
Catherine Shields with her daughter, Jessica. Shields writes that moving Jessica into a group home was a very challenging decision. Catherine Shields

Occasionally, Jessica would get upset about something and refuse to cooperate with the staff, but thankfully she had a deep bond with one of the caretakers, one she called "my other mommy."

Jessica has now been living in the group home for over 11 years. My husband and I were in our early sixties when Jessica moved in. Now we are in our seventies. Although Jessica has many friends with similar issues, about half of them still live at home with their aging parents. Some have parents who have passed on, and those individuals live with siblings or other family members.

For me and my husband, the decision to move Jessica to a group home was a personal one. I'm happy with our choice, even if it was one of the toughest, most challenging things I've ever had to endure. Jessica has taught me many things about being a parent. My husband and I planned what we believe to be the best for her. This, to me, is the truest representation of the power of parental love.

Catherine Shields is a writer based in Miami, Florida. Her memoir The Shape of Normal will be published with Vine Leaves Press in November 2023.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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