As a step-mom, you have to be careful not to overstep your boundaries with the real mom; life is a constant negotiation, with strategic planning taking place around many things. V’s mom emigrated here with her mother from the Ukraine; she has her priorities and perspectives and they don’t often match anyone else’s. She and I are on good terms but she has a lot of pride and I’m always careful when I buy V something or offer to pay for something that it doesn’t have the whiff of charity.
Being childless, teaching a young person to drive wasn’t something I expected to have to do, but I realized as V approached sixteen, that with her father gone it was going to be up to me to make sure it happened. I wanted to teach her and pay for driving school, however, I wasn’t sure her mother would consider something like learning to drive as a teenager very important. Trying to get her to understand American teenage needs, rituals, and milestones is something of a losing battle. She, herself, only learned to drive eight or so years ago. I knew I had act but I also knew I had to step cautiously.
After a careful and somewhat obsequious chat, I was given the green light (so to speak!) I enrolled V in driver’s training and took her to an office park parking lot one weekend to start practicing. At first, I had her put the car in park with the parking brake off, and we rolled slowly around the lot while she practiced steering. Over the months, and after she got her permit, we graduated to the road and the – fortunately – quiet neighborhoods around her house.
I found myself slipping into the instructor role fairly easily, making sure that I always kept calm and aware of what was happening, and giving her lots of warning before a change of direction. I also realized how important it was to pay attention to everything and everyone around us, and to everything she was doing or about to do. It was a little terrifying to realize that I was effectively out of control of the car and that whatever happened, I could only affect it a little bit – I wasn’t expecting that, but it does come with the territory. I am part of a long tradition of terrified people calmly teaching their children to safely drive two thousand tons of metal.
As I taught V to parallel-park, or we inched out onto the freeway for the first time, or I made her change lanes back and forth on a long stretch of road, I thought even more about the simultaneously amazing and frightening fact that I was responsible for teaching this child how to keep herself and others safe by navigating a car. But I realized that what I was also, and perhaps more importantly, doing, was teaching her how to successfully navigate the road to adulthood. And it’s not that I didn’t know that; I’d been answering questions about sex, relationships, school, and why parents behave the way they do for the last five years or so. For some reason, teaching her how to drive felt more important, more impactful.
When V took her driving test, she passed the first time, to my great relief and excitement – it was like I had passed, too. Once again, I realized how performing a parenting task can connect you so quickly to your own past and parents. I have enjoyed the trip back in time to my own experience as a new driver, and the chance to remember how something that has become somewhat boring and routine was once an exciting yet terrifying breath of freedom and adulthood.
Both of my parents taught me how to drive. My father was by far the better driver but I remember preferring to practice with my mom because she was less intimidating and more understanding and patient than my dad. My dad was much more exacting and I could feel when he got frustrated with me, which made it even harder to perform correctly. What I would realize later on, of course, was that it was my dad’s instruction that actually made me a better driver since he made me really pay attention to the car and the road.
Among the many, two of my father’s lessons have stuck with me over the years: when turning the car on at night, don’t turn on the headlights until after you have started the car in case there was only enough charge in the battery to do one or the other; and, when stopped at a stoplight or sign, leave some space in between you and the car in front, while simultaneously keeping an eye on your rearview mirror; if the car behind you doesn’t stop in time, you will have that forward space to move into.
With both of my parents now dead, I have no way of knowing what they were thinking as they taught me to drive, but I have to believe that they had the same worries about me that I do now about V. I can see what they may have been trying to teach me, which after all, isn’t so different to what I have been doing with V. They wanted to give me the tools to not only get myself safely from one place to another in the car, but also for navigating and inhabiting life.
Keep calm, take your time, wait your turn. Be generous and let others go in front of you. Do what is right no matter what other people are doing. Follow the rules, and trust your instincts. Be careful; judge where you are in relationship to others, but be willing to take a chance and merge. Be in the present moment, but always try to keep your eye both behind you, on the past, and ahead of you, on the future, so that you know where you’ve been and can be prepared for whatever is coming. Don’t forget to give yourself room – a little safe space, or some time, or a cushion of money – if you need it. Most importantly, save your energy for the really important things: having light to see is important, but you have to get your engine started first or you won’t move.