When I had my first daughter and held my little bundle of joy, I had so many hopes and dreams for her future. I promised her that I would always be there for her, protecting her, while promising her a childhood of happiness, carefree days, and joy. Never once, during her first few years of her life, did I ever think about her behind the wheel of a car – because, of course, that day would take an eternity to get here! And yet here we are, 16 years later. Now, my baby is driving.
Just like all young Illinois student drivers, my daughter got her permit when she was 15 and enrolled in driving school. Little did we know that Illinois student drivers need a total of 9 months with their permits before being able to get a license. Twenty five years ago when my husband and I were student drivers, there were no rules on how long you had to have a permit. Needless to say, we screwed up and got her permit late (parents always learn with the first child!) and now she’ll have her permit three months after turning 16, before being able to get that coveted license.
When she first started driving, I learned the obvious simple fact that having a new driver in your household is hard. Here is your child, behind the wheel of an expensive and dangerous piece of equipment. The child that you strapped very carefully into that infant car seat, made sure she was always well-secured and properly positioned in her booster seat, and that always caused you to drive a little bit slower and more defensively, is now a driver herself. Mentally, it takes some getting used to.
Student drivers are eager drivers, always wanting the chance to drive, regardless of the traffic or conditions. It’s hard for parents to give up control. You are now at the mercy of your child. You have to learn patience, allowing her to drive slowly and carefully, and deal calmly with mistakes. In the car, there is often stress, arguing, and friction; it just kind of comes with the territory.
When I was 15, my entire driver’s ed class was done at school. Every day, I had a period of driver’s ed; some days were classroom days, other days we drove in simulators, and we drove on the road the other days. I remember my dad taking me out on the road some Sunday mornings, but I don’t remember doing it a lot. I think I caught on quickly and had plenty of practice in school. These days, many kids take driver’s ed privately. Classroom work is concentrated in a four week period, and four driving days are scheduled throughout the next few months. So all of the initial driving skills are then relinquished to the parent. We have to teach our child the basics. The driving school simply takes them on the road and tests their skills.
As a parent, you take them out driving on deserted roads, parking lots, and in neighborhoods. You want them to practice and get better, but that takes courage and patience from the parent. You’re on edge and nervous, yet you want to appear completely calm on the outside and be completely supportive to your student driver. How does one balance fear, anxiety, and worry with encouragement, confidence, and support? My daughter knows I’m nervous, and fortunately, she’s accepted that. Some people pick up driving pretty easily. Other’s don’t. My daughter, who’s incredibly book smart, needs more work out on the road, not only to master her skills but to confirm my confidence in her.
As the heated discussions have come and gone, I’ve tried to explain to my daughter that it’s not her abilities that I mistrust; I worry more about the drivers around her, how they’re driving, and my daughter’s reaction time. As a student driver, she hasn’t yet learned how to be a defensive driver – to always be watching other cars and not just focus on yourself. I worry about her safety, I worry about her confidence, and the “what ifs” are never far from my mind.
Maybe I’m weak because I’m a mother of daughters. Or perhaps I’m this way because I have devoted my entire adult life to them. I don’t know if it’s this hard on other parents; I just know it’s hard on me.
As we finish her last months on a permit, just as I’ve gotten more comfortable with her abilities, now we get to add WINTER into the mix. Driving on snow and ice is a whole different ballgame. Add to that the ever increasing darkness, and my anxiety goes back up again.
In a way, it feels like I’m letting go of her hand – not like on her first day of kindergarten, when I knew she would be safe in school, but letting go of the hand of my young adult daughter, that wants more independence and responsibility out in the world. Instead of doing everything that I can to protect her, I now put her safety in her own hands. This is not something I do easily…
..but I’m trying.