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Driven to independence

Posted: July 8, 2014 8:25 a.m.
Updated: July 9, 2014 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- This was a bittersweet Independence Day for me.

Not the Fourth of July. In our family, the weekend ushered in a different sort of independence: our second, and last, child received her driver’s license. After almost 20 years, my husband and I are free at last -- from the childhood schlepping to playdates and religious school and violin lessons, the teenagers’ treks to friends’ houses and the mall.

Now what do we do? Now how will we know what they are thinking?

The relationship between child and car is both a microcosm of and metaphor for the experience of parenthood. It reflects the terrifying reality that you bear complete responsibility but lack complete control, and that what control you retain is a dwindling asset, slipping from your anxious grasp.

The art of parenthood is learning when to let go and when to hold close, and how to cope when that choice is not entirely your own. The paradox of parenthood is that you want both to shed responsibility -- dear Lord, how many more soccer practices? -- and to hold it fast.

It begins with the first nerve-wracking moment you leave the hospital with your newborn; double check that the car seat is fastened tight enough to withstand a Category 5 hurricane; sit with your tiny new bundle in the back seat -- Is her head flopping over? I think her head’s flopping over! -- and instruct your husband to drive so slowly -- slower! -- that you risk not making it home by nightfall.

It continues with the slide from automotive paranoia to automotive resignation. Because here’s the decision every parent must face. You can let other people: your baby-sitter, her friends’ parents, her friends’ nannies, drive your child, or you can spend the rest of your life -- at least what seems at the time like the rest of your life -- behind the wheel. And so you begin with CSI-level interrogations about driving records, and end with insouciance bordering on negligence: Great! Would she mind dropping off Emma on the way home?

Along the way, you learn that chauffeuring has its privileges. It produces the random, unexpected question, of the sort best addressed to the back of a parental head. How does the baby get out of your tummy, exactly? Does Rachel have two mommies? Even the side of the parental head, when they are older beside you in the front seat, offers a no-escape opportunity to broach topics so delicate -- yes, I’m talking about sex now -- that your child would flee were she not strapped inside a moving car.

The parental chauffeur also benefits from the useful fiction that the “help” has no ears, even when the help is your mother and you are yakking away about who did what with whom. This is the moment when the driver, like a hunter trying to remain invisible to her prey, must try to blend in with the surroundings, barely breathing for fear of alerting the chattering creatures.

Then comes the moment, simultaneously terrible and liberating, your children, and their friends, learn to drive. For us, anyway, the friends-who-can-drive experience paralleled the baby-sitters-who-can-drive experience -- from intensive investigation of driving history to lax acquiescence.

Imagining our own children behind the wheel was scarier still. I remembered the moment, after I received my learner’s permit, that my mother cheerily offered me the keys. I climbed into our behemoth of a station wagon even as I thought: Does she realize I have no clue how to drive this monster?

Decades later, when our older daughter informed me that she was six weeks away from getting her learner’s permit, I promptly burst into tears. Then, something snapped. I couldn’t wait until she could get herself to soccer practice, run to the market to pick up some milk, fetch her sister after a late-night (late for me, anyway) party.

Now there will be less fetching, but more bickering over who gets the car. The younger one is as thrilled about her independence as she is about the fact that she, unlike a certain sibling, passed the first time around.

For her parents, the anticipation of independence is tinged with nostalgic regret about all the driving now in the rear-view mirror. With the knowledge that we are, literally, no longer in the driver’s seat. And with the vague hope, as the kids pull out of the driveway, they will at least wave to the now-dispensable chauffeurs left behind.

(Kathleen Parker is away until July 15, but may return sooner. Ruth Marcus is also a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.)

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