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Confronting My Fear of Driving for My Daughter


It’s a bit embarrassing. I didn’t even tell my friends. But now that it’s over, I confess: my new year’s resolution for 2013 was to take driving lessons.

Yes, I already had a driver’s license. I’ve had a license since I was 17 and living in the New York suburbs. But I left for college in Boston shortly before my 18th birthday, and ever since, I’ve lived within walking distance of Boston’s T or Washington’s Metro system. I never owned a car and never really needed one. I took the train or a bus nearly everywhere.

My driver’s license typically stayed tucked in my wallet. It helped me board planes and enter bars, but until recently, I didn’t need it for anything more.

Becoming a parent has changed that, though. Not every activity or appointment is downtown anymore. Many are scattered across the suburbs. For that, we needed a car. So, my husband and I leased one last Thanksgiving.

For most adults that would be great news. However, it stirred slight panic for me, since the longer I’d gone without driving, the more complicated driving had become in mind. I knew rationally that this was ridiculous, that many people drive, and that driving requires no special advanced degree, but I still freaked myself out.

(Un)fortunately, my fear wasn’t entirely baseless. In January 2009, I visited Baton Rouge to do research for my graduate thesis and had a harrowing first night in town. I was exhausted after a long day of connecting flights from Boston. Driving home after a late welcome dinner, I navigated an incredibly wide street, turning left, then right, just as the GPS directed. But suddenly, headlights were speeding toward me. Thankfully, the other driver reacted swiftly and switched lanes, probably cussing me (incorrectly) for being drunk. But that brush with death scared me, and I enthusiastically embraced public transit again.

Since my husband was generally happy to drive when we went places, my driving hiatus wasn’t a serious issue. That is, it wasn’t until we returned from a family trip in January, and he felt ill. We had parked our new car at the airport and needed to drive it home. I didn’t feel comfortable driving though, so my husband powered through.

Lila, our chatty toddler, said nothing, but I knew she was watching. Because she watches everything I do, I try to model the behavior I’d like to see in her, and I didn’t want her emulating my fearfulness. Living fearfully is limiting, while living fearlessly is exhilarating. I wanted Lila to learn that she could, and should, address anything that scared her. That meant I needed to tackle my fear and drive the drive.

My initial online research was deflating. I found many driving schools, but all of them showcased driving lessons involving instructors arriving at area high schools after last period. I felt like the aged senior. Thankfully, I found a driving school that matched me with a patient instructor accustomed to working with older, non-traditional student drivers.

My instructor was an easy-going, Reggae-loving gourmand. He metaphorically held my hand as I practiced navigating busy local streets, the Beltway, and parallel parking. I had nervously hoped for an Aeneas-like protective cloud but discovered that driving a car labeled STUDENT DRIVER is the next best thing. Other drivers stayed carefully clear of me.

On our first afternoon together, I told my instructor about my goal: driving Lila to a local music class. It’s a 50-minute bus ride from our home, but a mere 10-minute drive. I focused and asked many questions about technique and road rules. At the end of our third two-hour lesson in January, my instructor pronounced me safe to drive with Lila.

That was a huge relief. But then, I didn’t practice. Most of what Lila and I do each day is within walking distance or Metro-accessible. I simply didn’t remember to create driving outings.

My test came on our family drive back from New York following Passover. My husband, who had been driving, needed to join a conference call for work, so I took the driver’s seat. I was nervous, but determined. The drive home was smooth and uneventful–a success.

When Lila’s older, if she’s ever scared and asks how I handled fear, I’ll tell her this story. I want her to know her mother faced her own fears, and no matter what scares her, she too can conquer it.

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