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Lessons from the Passenger Seat

I didn't learn to drive until I was twenty-two. My twin sister got her license at sixteen but I never felt the need. I grew up in Chicago and rarely left my neighborhood. When I did, it was easy to get my sister to drive me or to take the bus or the train downtown to go shopping or see my grandparents. I went to college a short plane ride away and on one of my trips home, the woman checking me in at the gate asked for my driver's license. I only had a state ID, a form of identification commonly used as a fake ID back then. The woman told me that I'd need to bring a passport or driver's license the next time I flew. So, that summer my mom gave me a few lessons in the parking lot of 47th and Lake Shore Drive and I took my test. I passed, but barely.


My car is cracked or dented on all four corners, each bumper showing signs of ineptitude. It's a family joke and I take the ribbing about my poor driving in stride because, let's face it, it's all true. I'm also highly anxious and kind of overbearing. When my daughter Lucia turned fifteen, we started talking about her learning to drive. Because of my nagging, anxious tendencies, and my less than stellar driving history, I was considered the last person in her cadre of supportive parents and stepparents in her life to be her driving mentor.


Lucia and I started driving together a few weeks after she started her online driver's ed course during the beginning of the pandemic. Taking practice drives to the drive-thru Starbucks a few miles away was a great way for Lucia to get a little bit of driving experience. After a few drives, Lucia said, "Mom, you are so relaxed when I drive. It's surprising!" And she was right. I felt completely at ease, wholly trusting of this 15 1/2-year-old new driver. I didn't worry about her navigating the tight corner into the drive-thru. I didn't worry about her pulling up too close or too far from the payment window. I didn't worry about her at yellow lights or left turns.


Having a teenage daughter is the gift our mothers give us. I remember my mother saying, "I can't wait until you have a teenage daughter." And now I say those exact words to Lucia. I am the most uncool, most annoying, least understanding human in my daughter's life. I don't "get" anything. My rules, ideas, and suggestions are an insult to Lucia's budding independent spirit. Her developmental cues are telling her to be in charge, not me. And of course, I, as her parent, still feel compelled to offer my guidance, to shepherd her into adulthood safely and securely.


But, when we are driving, when I am in the passenger seat and Lucia is behind the wheel, there is a recalibration of all the energy that we normally create when we are together. I surrender to her being in charge. Not consciously. It just happens. Maybe it is my lack of driving expertise that renders me so comfortable with Lucia at the helm. But whatever it is, it works. When the two of us are in the car, we are in a groove. She's in charge and I'm not.


When we are at home, my role is to be in Lucia's business--- about her school work, cleaning her room, her phone, her plans. She never asks me for advice about any of this. She doesn't have to because I always preempt her. It's my way. But when we are driving, Lucia has questions. She needs me and she gets to be in the role of asking me for help. She has technical questions about rules of the road (which I generally cannot answer), but also subjective questions like, "Should I start changing lanes now?", "Why didn't that guy use his blinker?", "How should I pass this biker?"