Published in the Life Lessons feature of Real Simple, June 2011
The cartoon gave me a little shock of pleasure. In it, a woman sits behind the wheel of a car talking into a cell phone. The caption reads: “I thought that driving around all day picking kids up and dropping them off, then waiting for them, would be more fulfilling.”
Fulfilling? Any parent (and let’s stipulate that this is most often a mother) who is driving around all day picking kids up and dropping them off, then waiting for them, knows that the only thing getting filled is the gas tank. Or so I would have said not long ago. As the mother of two teenagers, ages 18 and 15, I’ve spent enough hours in the last two decades hauling kids from place to place that I’ve been approached by the local chapter of the Teamsters union. Carpooling is as ingrained in my routine as the buzzing of my alarm clock while it’s still dark out; the confusion of trying to make breakfast and lunch simultaneously (don’t ask about the time I served one of my kids a tuna fish sandwich at 7 a.m.); and the challenge of finding a new way to tell someone that three consecutive hours of screen time “isn’t good for your body.” In other words, it’s part of motherhood—a priceless and evanescent part, as it turns out.
I started carpooling occasionally when my daughter was about three or four. At that point in time, we were typically carpooling for the sake of carpooling: Sweetie, your friends are going to ride in our car today! The other mothers would hand me their car seats—the safe securing of which seemed to require an advance degree in engineering. Prior to departure, the moms and children would exchange huge hugs, as if they were about to be parted for months. Then the moms would head off alone to their cars while ours, fully loaded, drove off. The hugs would be repeated once everyone’s car had reached the destination—the kids delighted by their bravery and the mothers oblivious to the fact that they were one small step closer to the great good-bye that comes when children acquire their own driver’s licenses.
Soon I was in the carpool trenches. I carted tiny ponytailed soccer players to games and home again, their bodies smelling of mud and Capri Sun. I drove on school field trips, grinning madly while the kids behind me sang, “We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo/How about you, you, you?” for 45 minutes straight. I chauffeured a minivan of third-grade boys over the mountains to the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, then drove them home again once they had taken their final roller-coaster ride and consumed their last deep-fried Twinkie. I developed a chronic twinge in my right hip, from pressing the gas pedal of a car built for a taller driver (I’m five-two).
And during all this, the kids were growing. Now it’s almost hard to believe there was a time when I was routinely kicked in the kidneys by restless, cranky children sitting behind me. Or recall the exact age they were when they played “punch buggy” with such dogged dedication. (The objective, if you’re not familiar, is to look for a VW Beetle; if you see one before the kid next to you does, you win the right to punch that kid in the upper arm and shout “Punch buggy!”) This game eventually gave way to another—more acquisitive in nature—in which the kids competed to be the first to see a Porsche and yell “I own that Boxster!” For some reason, this game was far more emotionally grueling, and it often ended in tears.
The car pool is life writ small: At first, your children just want their favorite stuffies, so you have to run back into the house; then they’re focused on their friends, and you have to grab your cell phone, hoping some other mom will be looking to offload her kid at the exact moment you want to on-load him; then it’s the friend who is the problem, and as you drive, you try to offer wise counsel without going overboard and being one of those helicopter types; and finally the kids don’t want to talk at all, saying, We just want to chill and listen to the radio because, you know, school can be really stressful. Eventually your job—maybe the hardest you’ve ever had—is to just to sit there and be quiet.
I should have seen it coming. My then 15-year-old daughter had her learner’s permit. She practiced driving with her dad; it wasn’t productive to have me in the passenger seat gasping whenever a driver in front of her hit the brakes.
All the while the months ticked by, and I blithely ignored what was about to happen. In a primitive part of my parental mind, I figured that I’d pick her up from school…well, if not forever, then at least until graduation. And then suddenly, she got her license. I was obsolete. Just like that! It took my breath away. Our old Volvo, long stationed like a stalwart in front of the house, was now her car.
A hundred other things changed then, too, the most terrifying of which has been familiar to parents since the advent of the automobile. (Although who knows? Maybe 300 years ago, parents of teenagers stayed up fretting about horse accidents.) My daughter was out driving at night. I had two strategies for coping with that development: text messaging (some evenings) and Ambien (others).
It was most difficult to make up for the loss of the car time I’d spent with her, getting a snapshot of her day—through conversation or observation or that time-honored maternal technique known as eavesdropping. (And what mother-driver has not all but stopped breathing so as not to disturb a group of teenagers who seem to believe, against all evidence, that they are alone in the car?)
On the road, my daughter and I were outside the units of time that set the structure of our day—cooking time, homework time, chore time, mealtime, bedtime. For those 15 or 20 minutes, we didn’t have to accomplish anything; we could just be together.
Joni Mitchell, that wise woman, had it right all along when she said you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. But I’ve learned. I know what I’m facing.
My son has his permit, and I’m clinging to our car pools like a baby laboratory monkey hanging onto its wire mommy. When my friends call and ask apologetically if I can drive their kids home, I have to feign nonchalance so they won’t think I’m crazy and forbid their children ever to ride with me again.
“Please,” I want to say. “Are you kidding? Can I drive them home every day?”
I’ve known all these kids since they were in second grade, and every time I park in front of the high school and wait to see who needs a ride…every time I watch these boys with their astonishingly long, hairy legs and low voices cram into my backseat, and start wisecracking about chemistry class…every time I start the car and steer away from the curb, I count my blessings that I’ve still got a little more time.