Like many parents, Amber Scorah tried to blot out worst-case scenarios when she dropped off her three-month-old son Karl for the first time at a well-regarded daycare in SoHo. She wasn’t ready to outsource his care to strangers—what if something happened? But the caregiver assured her the worst thing that could happen was he’d be bonked on the head by a toddler. Three hours later, Karl was dead.

In a heartbreaking essay at the New York Times, Scorah lays out the unthinkable. She dropped him off at 9:30 a.m. and returned at 12:15 to find the door of the daycare propped open:

I walked around the corner, expecting to pick up my son, feel his chubby rolls, see his face light up at the sight of his mommy.

Instead, I saw my son unconscious, splayed out on a soft changing table. His lips and the area around his mouth were blue, and the day-care owner was performing CPR on him, incorrectly.

Our sweet son died two and a half hours after the first time I had left him.

The cause was undetermined. Parents imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios when raising an infant—this is when children are at their most vulnerable, when choking hazards abound, when sudden infant death syndrome can strike. It’s a ticker tape of worry at a time when you are most exhausted, when, ironically, the job requires the most extreme vigilance in the day-to-day.

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But in order to get through the day, you learn to blot out the various fears lurking at every turn. You accept that you simply can’t do anything about all of it, so you do the best you can, take all the necessary precautions, and hope for the best. But stories like Scorah’s are nearly too terrible to grapple with. Even though the daycare was found to be unlicensed and was shut down in the aftermath of Karl’s death, Scorah is not concerned with fault. Rather, she wonders if Karl would have lived so much as another day had he been with her. She will never know the answer to that.

But she knows the answer to this: “Should parents have to play this roulette with their weeks-old infant?” Absolutely not.

A mother should never have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at 3 months old if that decision doesn’t feel right to her. Or at 6 weeks old. Or 3 weeks old. I would have stayed home with Karl longer, but there just didn’t seem to be a way. And I knew well enough that a million other mothers in America before me had faced the same choice and had done the same, even earlier than I had, though it tortured them emotionally, or physically, to do so.

The reason Scorah and her husband put Karl in daycare at three months will be incredibly familiar to many working families: they simply couldn’t make a go of it otherwise. Scorah’s tragedy illustrates all too frighteningly how inhospitable this country is for new parents, and how fraught finding affordable licensed care has become.

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You have a baby, you cobble together whatever leave you can from a mixture of paid leave (if you’re super lucky), unpaid leave, general paid time off, sick time, and whatever else you can muster. And then, when it comes time to return to work, you may realize you feel differently, and start calculating.

Scorah and her husband looked at every option. After her three months of paid leave was up, she was told there was no other way to get more time off other than quit. By the time they paid for daycare (which is typically harder to find, and more expensive for babies under 1 year), she barely had anything left over. But her quitting to stay home meant losing good health insurance for the family, as her husband was a contract worker without benefits. He couldn’t quit and cover their health insurance too, but they couldn’t pay their bills on her salary alone.

Then they went to phase two: finding a good daycare near work where Karl would be cared for and loved. Scorah thought she’d found “a loving, safe space” for her son. She’d thought of all the terrible things that might happen, but she admits:

But the sad truth is, even though I am possibly one of the world’s most imaginatively anxious mothers, I never thought of the possibility that my baby would die that morning. And no wonder, because unexplained infant death is rare, and parental leave in the vast majority of cases is not an issue of life and death. But I am now asking: Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care — or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat — to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?

And the answer to that is just as depressing: because we let it. To stop letting it, go here to support paid parental leave in the U.S.

Image via For Karl