There is no real way to prepare for the time when your baby becomes a driver.
You imagine it will be a surge of freedom. Finally, you will be a liberated parent. Suddenly, your time and your radio are yours. You watch with great pride as he takes his driving test and is rewarded with a license. You take pictures, post on social media and begin to build your personal driving playlist in your head, one he cannot argue with. You imagine singing loudly, visualize leaving work at will, not in a hectic rush to get to someone.
But instead, this momentous occasion feels like a silent punch in the gut. Not at all what I expected.
Driving is an exhausting reality of parenting. Like most parents, I spent endless hours driving. In fact, for much of the past 22 years, I've been driving kids. The cars changed, the seating configuration altered, but the bottom line was simply this: It was endless. It is hard to even imagine total hours spent behind the wheel.
The daily driving grind is as much a part of the parenting gig as school field trips or teacher appreciation gifts. Kid after kid, year after year. Drop-off to pickup and then back again. Perhaps there are parents who secretly loved the wheel time. I was not one of them.
Early morning for sports, late night for full-cast rehearsals, long schleps for away games and the much-loathed driving in circles when everyone needed to be somewhere at once. Let's not forget the two years when we had four kids in four different schools. There was the post-work rush, the morning rush, the "I forgot something" rush. And when I was not the driver, I was brokering deals or carpools or paying someone to drive on my behalf.
By 2019, I was three down, one to go. I knew the process. Sam took his lessons, logged his hours and gathered his paperwork.
The test was scheduled, and my exuberance was only exceeded by his. I could hear the echoes of emancipation in the air, just around the bend.
And then it happened. He was a driver.
Sam picked up the keys to the familial kid car. As a gift, I had it detailed. So while not even close to new, it was shiny, full of gas and ready to roll. It had that clean car smell Sam assured me was his new standard. He bought air fresheners.
The first morning he left for school by himself, he was organized and early. Keys in hand, he made his way out the back door. I watched as he adjusted his mirrors and composed himself. I smiled, but still, I felt a wave of sadness. It turns out, I was not alone. When he came home that night, Sam towered over me as he does, and he told me he missed me in the car.
He said it felt lonely and that he had no one to talk to. I told him the feeling was more than mutual. He told me we'd get over it soon.
In many ways, I did. Having my time back was a gift. Twenty-two years, plus years of my kid-driving career, had made me super efficient. Now that Sam was driving, my days included time for me. Podcasts and endless Springsteen or newly crafted playlists filled my ears. I explored ideas, I sang, I may have allowed in too much MSNBC for a while. I made stops on the way home without worrying about pickup. And once home, I did not have to devise plans to stay up for a late-night trek to the hockey rink. I read, I took classes, I even fit in a little binge-watching. Our dog Addie got longer walks, and I created new rituals for myself.
As the days passed, the novelty of my newfound time gave way to a bit more perspective. I began to realize one undeniable truth: The car offered my kids and me agenda-less space. We knew where we were going, but we did not know what those minutes would hold. And that was both the true value and the real loss of my baby having his driver's license.
Without the car, we lost that time in which we were forced to be together. It turns out, the silence of an early morning or late-night car ride is invaluable. Sometimes it led to a question or a confrontation. Sometimes it led to a confession. Sometimes Sam wanted to share a new song he liked. I would tell him about the old days or reminisce about when he was little. Sometimes we would compare dreams from the past night. Sometimes I'd look over and he'd be sleeping. It was so valuable and so free-form. And now it was gone.
My memory bank of the kids as passengers is full. Matthew demanding the front seat as always (an obvious call, given birth order). Rebecca leaving school with an oversized backpack, collapsing low into the seat, asking "What's for dinner?" and quickly vetoing it. A very young Lila proudly singing her first Springsteen song from her booster seat, or later, eager to get home quickly to get to her homework. Thinking back, I can see and feel it all. I am lucky for that.
As for Sam and me, our relationship continues to evolve, and I think we are both getting comfortable with our new normal. He is managing gas money and curfews. He runs errands for me. His car remains clean, and he has landed on a signature car-freshener scent.
Still, today, Sam asked if I could join him somewhere. The answer was yes, of course, and I asked him if he wanted to drive. "No, why don't you?" he said, as he slid the keys across the counter.
And that felt good.