What’s the worst that could happen?
It’s my mother’s favorite hypothetical, though she means it literally. And while the answers remain unspoken, the preemptive nervous energy abounds.
I’d remained oblivious to her anxiety in my coddled childhood, and dodged it after college when I lived alone in midtown Manhattan, accepting drinks from strangers and letting potential serial killers escort me home. But as soon as I got married to a nice Jewish boy, priming my womb for babies, Mom began finding solutions to “the worst” before I even perceived a problem. Sketchy first apartment? Better move to a nicer block. Leftover Chinese food? Better not eat it. It’s a boy? Better hire a baby nurse to care for the circumcision wound. Can’t be too careful…it could get infected. Our family had moved within 10 minutes of my parents before my baby was 6 months old. With my mother’s vigilance and diligence, my own reflexive panic began to show.
So it was no surprise that I didn’t know how to deal with a standard carpool request: another work-at-home parent offered to alternate days at preschool pick-up. Everyone did it, I assured my mother. (All the cool parents did it–just like the cool kids in junior high smoked cigarettes at the Exxon station before the first bell.)
My voice must have betrayed this secret thought, because my mother frowned. I’ll admit it: I need her validation. After all, pediatric studies are her leisure reading. And her memory is better than mine.
Did I know what kind of car this man drove?, she asked.
I did not.
Did I know what kind of car seat he had?
Did I remember to tell him Sam’s weight and height, so he could make sure the car seat was suitable?
I didn’t even know Sam’s weight and height–though I was too proud to ask Mom to remind me.
We found the family’s house on MapQuest, and my mother studied the route. Didn’t I realize it was very hard to make a left from that particular street, with no traffic light? And would I really feel like schlepping there in a snowstorm?
Racked with fear, I almost told the father no thank you, but then tried to figure out how to grill him in a friendly, offhand way. “Hey! Can I check out your brakes? And how’s your driving record?”
I reasoned I shouldn’t be afraid to “speak up” to demand what I needed to know. After all, this man would carry the most precious of cargo, my 4-year-old boy, for five critical minutes, three times a week.
And yet I was mindful of my reputation. Our town is small, and my mother already draws stares when she rushes up to a grocer in the market, asking which organic pasta is best for her grandchildren and which Tuscan melon would be sweetest in a homemade baby puree. She has boundless energy and anxiety, which means she can steel herself for acts of incredible chutzpah. She once demanded my husband’s brother’s fiancé, recovering from pneumonia, furnish a doctor’s note before she set foot in my house. I would sooner vanish into the floor. (And yet, it turned out my future sister-in-law was sick, communicably so. See! my mother gloated. See! I know what I’m doing!)
My radar for credible threats has remained haywire ever since. Still, I sought out the preschool director and asked whether she thought the carpool was OK. “I don’t see why not,” she said. “His wife is a doctor.”
At last, I had my second opinion. I texted the go-ahead to the dad without knowing his life story and, 12 minutes after school let out, my son was delivered intact to my doorstep, all smiles and laughter: “Mommy, we told poop jokes the whole ride home! It was so much fun!” I kissed and hugged him, relief exploding in my breath, and waved goodbye to the car that was blasting Russian music. Oy, I thought, was the volume too loud? I was more proud to have worried than actually perturbed. My boy was safe!
Monday was my turn to pick up and drop off. I arrived at school cowed and trembling at the weight of the responsibility placed in my hands, someone else’s flesh and blood utterly dependent on my competent driving. “Calm down–it’s a freaking carpool,” my husband had said by way of pep talk.
My son, normally rowdy and disobedient, protectively clasped his friend’s hand as I gathered art projects and jackets.
“Can we tell poop jokes?” he asked.
“Of course, my love,” I said.
Once I had strapped in both children with painstaking care, willing my hands not to shake, I began the seven-minute drive. The kids were whooping with laughter when I felt my eyes begin to tear and sting. Was it my pride in becoming, at last, “just like everyone else”? My triumph in overriding my fears and my mother? My joy at Sam’s pure happiness? My nose twitched several times before I realized what had triggered the tears: the heavy scent of the little girl’s coat, sweater, and pants, releasing a cloud of cloying fragrance through the car. I have a sensitive nose and eyes and my mother, mindful of this, has always mandated unscented, dermatologist-vetted detergent for the kids and me. As always, the outside world had stung me. I had shed a layer of protection too fast.
It took supreme effort to lock eyes with the road, and I had to wipe away tears to see the painted lines.
“Mommy, can we do this again?” asked Sam.
“I hope so,” I said, resolving to always crack the car windows open–and bring blankets.
My mother eventually agreed: carpooling has its virtues. I suppose neither of us really want to defy each other. But whereas my paranoia grafts onto matters far more trivial than pneumonia (will singing “Eight Days a Week” confuse the kids? Will their Buffalo Bills jerseys provoke the Evil Eye from Pats fans?), my mother remains focused on true danger. In celebration of “Change Your Clocks, Change Your Smoke Alarm” day on Sunday, she reminded my children of the home fire drill she’d designed long before I realized there was such a thing. They’re going to meet at the white picket fence, which always keeps out The Worst.