Sometimes being a single mom feels like a burden. And sometimes it’s a gift. Teaching my youngest daughter to drive has felt like both. She passes her driving permit test on her birthday, the last day of May, a day that we have both been eagerly awaiting. This is going to be great! This is going to be fun! I’ll have another driver! Soon the late night pick-ups and long rides to friends’ homes will be over!
We skip out of the DMV so proud and grateful to have reached this milestone. And then she wonders if she can drive home from the DMV. What? Too soon! Too soon! Panic sets in. Luckily, she isn’t yet allowed to drive on the highway we need to take. I am saved this time, but how many highways can I put into our future routes?
We have birthday plans for the rest of the day so I am able to avoid the inevitable. But the next day, I really can’t justify any of the excuses I’m conjuring up in my mind. As I sit in the passenger seat, this responsibility of the parent to teach the child to drive feels cruel. Who came up with the inhumane idea that a parent who has given their everything for this child, now is required to be driven in a 3000 pound moving vehicle by this same child, who knows absolutely nothing about driving?
And even more daunting than my safety and the safety of my precious child, is the responsibility I feel toward every other living being, car, and property arund us. I am horrified to see friends walking their dog on our block as we begin the first lesson. I want to warn them to get off the street. My neighbor tells me he saw me and my face was frozen in fear. It is an ‘okay’ first drive around the block. My daughter only drives up on two lawns. “Brake! Back up!” My journal entry from that date says, “I don’t think my heart can take this.”
Grit. A quality I have always been grateful this daughter has in large quantities. She stays with something and does not give up until she has mastered it. But unfortunately for me this means my daughter wants to go driving all the time. I know I am supposed to be supportive and, of course, how else will she learn? There is no one else to pass this buck to, but the ulcer that is starting to develop inside of me begs to differ.
We start off with some ground rules. I let her know that there might be times that I yell. I ask her not to take it personally but to react immediately without questioning, and I promise to do my best not to overreact. I inform her that I will be constantly telling her what to do at first, and hope she won’t resent it. She doesn’t resent it. In fact, she comes to rely on it and it becomes exhausting for me.
We spend a few days just driving around the circle of our neighborhood. Eventually we venture out onto “real roads.” My daughter gets the hang of driving around these suburban roads but will pull over if she sees any other cars! I fear she may not get very far in life if she keeps this up. She starts to get used to having other cars on the roads and we venture onto more main roads. I’m starting to feel much better about this teaching- driving thing and then she asks, “Can I now drive on the interstate?”
What? Merge into traffic and change lanes quickly by squeezing between cars? Drive 55 miles an hour? How did I not realize that this was eventually going to have to be taught? I give excuse after excuse until she finally wears me down. She wants to drive to Grandma and Grandpas. How can I say no?
We verbally go over what she will need to do in order to merge immediately upon entering the interstate. I take a deep breath, say a couple of prayers, and off we go, zooming and slowing down in the jerky, new-driver pattern to which I’ve grown accustomed.
As we drive down the ramp toward the interstate, I don’t know who is more nervous. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s me. I try guiding her how to switch into the moving traffic, but she’s not moving over; she’s just zooming straight ahead toward the wall that’s approaching quickly. I assess the situation, look at all of the cars and cry, “Switch now!” She swerves as dramatically as one can, and lands in the next lane, barely missing cars on either side. Okay, we’re alive and moving, as is everyone else. We’re going to be okay. Oh no! This is an Exit Only lane so we need to switch again! I’m feeling a little traumatized so I don’t take as long to guide her how to check mirrors and the blind spot; I fast forward to “Okay, switch now!” inviting another sharp swerve. That’s when she says what every parent hopes to hear from their child, “I didn’t even look before I changed lanes. Ever.” God help me. How do I get off of this ride?
Slowly, over the next weeks, my daughter begins to drive smoothly and even looks before changing lanes. However, as she drives more confidently and I get quieter, giving her leeway to make her own decisons, she becomes more nervous. She wants me to tell her what to do. I assure her that my silence is approval and means that she is driving more capably. I’ll chime in if I have to. She isn’t buying it; she doesn’t trust herself.
So we come up with a new strategy. She starts speaking every thought she has out loud, telling me what she sees, what she’s thinking, and what action she’s going to make before she takes it. And it is wonderful! I don’t have to wonder if she actually sees the people slowly crossing the road a block ahead, because she lets me know. “I see people walking up ahead so I’m going to slow down and protect the pedestrian.” And that’s when I start to enjoy this amusement park ride. It is so cool to hear her saying out loud all of the instructions and advice I have been giving her up to now. She actually listened and uses the phrases as her mantra, “Hug the yellow line.” (It might not be good driving advice, but it keeps us from swiping mailboxes.) At each stop sign, “One…two..three. Move up a little more until I can see, look both ways, start turning, one more look behind, and punch it!” “I have the right of way so even though I see a car waiting on the side, I’m going to keep my eye on them but I’ll keep going.” It’s so cute! And she jokes (I think) that when she’s driving alone, she’ll be talking aloud to herself.
And now I actually can remove my death grip from the handle on the door. And as I breathe for what feels like the first time, I use the space to feel grateful that I have been given the opportunity to watch my child learn a complicated skill from beginning to end. There are so few chances that we have these days to be the sole teacher of our child, and now that my daughter is actually a good driver, I feel really proud. Yes, she still feels the need to tell me after-the-fact that “I didn’t even notice that other car,” which I almost feel I don’t need to know. But, in general, I have the honor of watching her learn.
I literally have a front seat view to how she takes in information, processes it, practices it, retains it, and then owns it. It’s neat! I see her openness to conquer her fears. She was scared of driving around other cars so she begged me to take her out on more busy roads. She was scared to switch lanes so she begged me to take her on four-lane roads to practice switching. She is very impressive!
And now, four months after she’s been driving with me exclusively, she has her first Driver’s Ed lesson. It goes well but she tells me that she missed me. She’s never driven without me. And, you know what? As many palpitations that my heart had, I will miss this time too. For I’m teaching her a skill that’s going to drive her away from me. Soon there will be no more conversations about whatever event I picked her up from, or conversations about how her day went and why, while it’s still completely fresh in her mind. Not knowing where she is at every moment. It is bittersweet. I am giving her the keys to her independence, even though I want to hold her against me at all times. She is my baby and once she is gone, there are no more children at home. I just need to remember to send her out for ice cream so I can soothe my sorrow.