Teachable Moments Behind the Wheel

April 1st is a big day in our house. It’s Husband’s birthday, and the kids and I never miss an opportunity to tease our lovable April Fool. Long-lost friends show up in emails and phone messages, because though you may forget your wedding anniversary, you never forget that old high school buddy who was born on April Fool’s day.

This year we added another milestone event to the day. Daughter (youngest of three, last to feather our emptying nest) passed her road test and got that most coveted of all teen documents … a driver’s license.  And given that April 1 happened to fall in the middle of spring break, she hasn’t gotten out of the car since.

My friends remind me that this represents liberation. A new kind of freedom for her, but freedom for me too, they say.

No more 7:15 AM drives to the schoolbus, followed by the return trip at 3:45, unless there’s an after school activity, in which case it’s a longer drive to her school at 5:30. Or 6. Or whatever.

No more tailoring our Saturday night plans to fit the obligatory drop-off and pick-up at the movies or friends’ houses.

No more weekend drives to this practice or that rehearsal or another study group, followed by an unnecessary hour or two spent shopping for something I don’t need or sitting in the parked car with a book, since it’s not worth driving all the way home just to turn around and come back.

No more of that. My schedule is mine now.

So why this empty feeling? Come on, I’ve been through this before. No big deal. Older Son did it (OK, he was the first, that was a bit hard), followed by Younger Son. I should be used to this by now.

I’ve made friends with that moment of terror as they pull out of the driveway for those first few weeks (years?). We’ve got the drill down — text me when you get there, text me again when you’re headed home, and call if your plans change.  NEVER NEVER NEVER use the cell phone while driving. But it’s bigger than that.

My youngest child — and only daughter — can now get away from me at will. She can put physical distance between us. As long as she follows our rules (and she does, since she’s smart enough to know that our trust is the key to her freedom) she’s no longer tethered to our home.  Or to our world.  Or to us. And something’s lost.

All those hours spent driving and waiting?  That’s when I get the details of what’s going on. The real deal, not the pro forma stuff she offers when asked “What happened in school today?”

We’re in the car. I’m driving. She looks out the window and the walls come down. She’s not annoyed by my questions, but seems to welcome them. As long as she opens the door, I’m invited to come in. I’ve learned it’s best not to knock too loudly before she’s ready.

Like when she offers up the funny comment her history teacher made about her skills as class mediator, and tells me why the dress code is fundamentally ridiculous. And how amazing that quiet, geeky kid in speech class turned out to be, now that she’s gotten to know him. And how sad it is that a friend who lost her mother earlier this year now seems so distant and scared, consumed with adult worries, and how helpless she feels to make it better. She never tells me that stuff when I ask outright.

When I’m focused — not on her, but on getting us wherever we’re going — there’s no pressure, no need to keep me at arm’s length, no urge to guard those becoming-an-adult boundaries.

And now those hours will be fewer. She’ll drive herself to the movies, practices, rehearsals, and friends’ houses. Those moments of unguarded chatter that have given me such exquisite insight into the woman my little girl is becoming will be the exception, not the rule.

So we’ll have to find another way, another place where I wait patiently (never my strong suit) to be invited in. There are always doors, even when you wake up one fine, foolish April day and find that the keys have gone from your pocket to hers.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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2 responses to “Teachable Moments Behind the Wheel”

  1. Alison

    My daughter (oldest child) turns 16 in five days and will be eligible for her driver’s permit. So, you see, your words are perfectly timed. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might experience what you described, but as I read your entry I realized that this is EXACTLY what I’m going to be feeling. And with your advance notice, I have time to prepare myself a bit, and perhaps handle this transition, and the loss and the gain that goes with it, more gracefully. Thank you.

  2. Katrina

    I am so glad that Angels posted your blog on their facebook page. I had no idea you had this blog to help me deal with my teenage children too. What a great post. My son just received his driver’s permit and although I am rejoicing about not having to take him to so many different places, I too, will feel a loss. I love the conversations we have in the car and sometimes that is the only time we are alone. Thanks again for the post.

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