I remember many years ago when my younger sister tried to teach me to drive stick shift. She had a new white Ford pickup truck and we were driving to Iowa together. A very late bloomer, I had recently gotten my driver's license at twenty-two and was practicing driving with anyone who'd have me. My sister thought learning stick shift on the freeway would be easier than in the city where I lived. We started at a gas station outside of Chicago and by the next off-ramp she had booted me back into the passenger seat. I never did learn to drive stick shift.
When my other sister Katherine and I drove across the country a few months later I was driving in the left lane somewhere in North Dakota when she looked over at me and said, "You know you're not supposed to stay in the left lane right? It's just for passing." I didn't know that and there's lots more that I didn't know. I learned along the way, pushing through the fear with every new driving experience.
This week I drove 800 miles from Seattle to Northern California with my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia. We planned a much-needed getaway to see my sister and her two sons during her spring break. Like so many, we've missed our family during the last year of COVID and figured that this drive, though long, was worth a few days of being with them.
Lucia got her driver's license about a month ago and is a good in-city driver. But she's had minimal experience on freeways. On our first day we drove to Ashland, Oregon. Normally the trip would take about seven hours but with Friday traffic it took us over nine hours.
Lucia drove the middle stretch of the trip and did great. She managed to pass big semis. She figured out how to yield to faster cars. She seemed relaxed and happy. After witnessing Lucia's highway driving for an hour or so I too relaxed and settled into the luxury of looking at the scenery and eating snacks.
Our second day would be another six hours. Lucia was eager to take the first leg and I was happy to let her do it. We left Ashland and very shortly after entered a several-hour stretch of mountain highway around Mt. Shasta. This is the kind of driving I am most afraid of. Growing up in the midwest I wasn't regularly exposed to mountains and elevation. Though I've lived on the west coast for thirty years, driving on windy mountain roads still renders me panicky, rigid, and fearful. I lean into the windshield and grip the steering wheel with each mountain curve, settling behind slow-moving semis instead of cruising with the rest of the drivers.
With Lucia at the helm, I quickly realized that my control tactics-- leaning in, white-knuckling, having a stare-down with the lines on the highway-- wouldn't serve me. I had no control over the car. I spent the first hour micro-managing Lucia. I told her when to speed up, when to slow down, when to pass. Lucia was patient at first but eventually became irritated.
"Mom," she said, "you are stressing me out."
"I'm sorry," I said, "this is the scariest kind of driving for me. It always has been. It really stresses me out."
"Yeah," she said, "but I'm not scared and your fear is making me more nervous."
Oh my god, I thought to myself, "she's not scared of this mountain highway." She's been driving for a month and this is just one of the many roads she's being introduced to at the beginning of her driving career. So many times, as a parent, I have wanted to put my daughter back into the swaddle that she used to love when she was a baby. When she has a hard time with a friend or in school, or during the many moments over the past year when her threshold for isolation and restriction has reached an edge, I've wanted to wrap her up and make her feel held, protected, and safe.
But here, now, as we drove, my beautiful, competent, comfortable daughter was not feeling unsafe. She was loving the feel of this-- country music blaring, speeding through time, infinite blue sky above, massive mountains close in and in the distance. She was not afraid. She was alive. She was invigorated. In that moment I was the one who wanted to be swaddled.
When we finally reached our destination, a house in the mountains outside of Sacramento, we had to travel up a winding one-lane, pot-holed, dirt road with a steep edge. Lucia was still driving and I could tell it was challenging. At one point another car was coming down the hill and Lucia had to navigate pulling around it. I saw us dropping off the edge, our Prius wedged between two massive Sequoias. But we made it. She'd driven the entire second leg. We were safe and sound at our destination.
We have eight hundred miles to go on our journey home and I understand myself and my daughter a little bit better. The main thing I can see clearly now is that my fear is not her fear. I see her differently now. She does not want to be swaddled anymore. She cannot go back there. Like a butterfly who's no longer living in her chrysalis, she won't fit anymore. Her wings are too wide. Her desire to fly is what guides her now.
I can't say that I won't still worry and back seat drive a little bit. I'm still a mother and my instincts to protect are strong and everpresent. Lucia still has things to learn and there are things I can teach her. But I can let go a little bit too. I can celebrate this new stage of my daughter's life, this time where her wings are open and strong, carrying her to new and wonderful places. I'm looking forward to the drive home. I don't have to grit my teeth through the mountain roads. I'll let Lucia drive while I settle back in the passenger seat and enjoy the ride.