Our daughter recently got her learner’s permit, so you know what that means: Mother is going to need a sedative.
Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with my daughter’s driving skills so far. There is a lot wrong with my skills as a passenger.
I don’t consider myself a control freak in general. But traveling in a car in which I can’t reach the brake pedal terrifies me. In fact, it’s the primary reason I don’t have a chauffeur.
My daughter is being a good sport. She’s learned to ignore most of my sharp intakes of breath, my cringing at intersections, and the way I lean hard left or right to telepathically steer the car in the direction I want.
In her first few forays, in fear of driving too close to oncoming traffic, she would hug the white line. This might have been acceptable on a wide-open stretch of Route 7. But on the back roads on which we started out, the white line marks what is less of a shoulder and more of a wrist or, in some places, a finger, beyond which the road drops off to a steep ditch and, to my mind, certain death.
Leaning far, far to the left, I would try to turn my screams of terror into offhand comments. “AAAUGHll-righty then, how about you move it a bit to the left?” I’d say in a high squeak, bracing myself for imminent rollover. If my voice didn’t give me away, I’m sure the way I had my fingernails firmly embedded in the dashboard did.
She has improved remarkably in just a couple of weeks and each day we venture a bit farther afield, much to her delight and my dread. I make certain to tell her, after every trip, that she did a great job in spite of my frequent hysterics.
I even apologized for that time in front of the Middlebury Inn. She knew she wasn’t going to pull out in front of an oncoming vehicle. The driver of that vehicle knew she wasn’t going to pull out in front of it. Everyone but me, it seems, felt pretty good about the whole situation. And I knew, even as I spoke the words, that “We’re all going to die!” was not the right thing to say.
I don’t remember my parents being so nervous when I learned to drive. I grew up in a small town — about the size of Cornwall — in far western Massachusetts. At 17, just a few months after getting my license, they suggested that I take my grandmother’s sky blue VW Dasher to Boston to look at colleges — alone.
I know I survived the ordeal. I only hope the thousands of drivers who crossed my path (intentionally or through poor luck) fared as well. This was nearly 20 years before the GPS, meaning I was navigating a spaghetti pile of unfamiliar, narrow, one-way streets while referring to a 3-foot-by-4-foot map laid across the passenger seat. Given that my hometown was a single curved road with not so much as a traffic light, Cambridge came as a bit of a shock.
And yet, my parents trusted me. They knew eventually I’d have to learn to deal with more stressful driving than on our 25-mile-an-hour street. And if they did have apprehensions about letting me go to Boston alone, they never mentioned them.
It means a lot that my parents had such confidence in me —assuming, of course, that their nonchalance was confidence and not simply inattention. (Thirty years ago, this distinction in parenting was often quite hazy.)
I want to show my daughter I’m similarly confident in her. To do that, I need to replace the clownish grimace of fear that strikes me every time she says, “Can I drive?” with a nod and a cheerful, “Sure.” While riding, I need to rest my hands calmly in my lap and not shriek every time she starts, stops or accelerates. I must offer instruction in a non-strident manner, stifling the involuntary car-alarm noises that come out of my mouth when she exceeds 30 mph.
From what I’ve seen so far, she’s going to be perfectly competent behind the wheel. The best thing I can do for her is to get over my anxieties as a passenger and show her that I have faith in her ability to be safe on the road.
On second thought, there is one thing I can do that would be better for both of us: have her father take her out instead.