“Mommy, get in your spot!” Simon, strapped in to his booster seat next to his brother Gus, points confidently at the passenger seat. “See Gussy, that’s Mommy’s spot and there is Daddy’s spot.” He points at the driver’s seat.
My husband drives. He takes time off work to take our kids to doctor’s appointments. To the dentist and the allergist. He drives them to school. He takes them to play dates. To get hair cuts. He does grocery shopping. He picks them up if they get sick at school in the middle of the day.
Sounds perfect, and no doubt, he is pretty great. But there is one thing all those tasks have in common. They involve driving.
Jack also takes me to my doctor’s appointments and my allergist in Pleasanton, about 45 minutes from our home. When we go out at night he drives. When we go on long trips in the car and he gets tired we have to pull over and wait until he’s rested.
All because I don’t drive.
It’s not that I can’t. I have a valid license from Wisconsin. I keep getting it renewed there because I don’t want to have to take the written test here in California. Even DMVs make me nervous. Getting a California driver’s license would mean I might actually– one day–far into the future–drive.
I don’t like talking about it. In fact, I almost never mention it to anyone. New friends just “get” it after being with my family awhile. “We only have one car” or “Jack has the car today” can only last for so long. At some point in a new friendship there is inevitably that awkward moment where I have to say it. “I don’t drive.” And then there’s the question–“Why?”
I usually respond curtly “because I don’t like it.” And my tone signals the asker to probe no further.
What no one knows is how humiliated I feel in those moments. I start to sweat and my throat gets dry. Almost the exact physical reaction I get when I imagine myself behind the driver’s seat.
That is how I feel when Simon points out Jack’s and my “spots” in the car. My whole body heats up. Perhaps he senses some tension around the issue, or perhaps he’s just noticing his world in a new way. He goes on play-dates and sees the other moms driving.
He can’t know how much that comment hurts, the guilt it brings up. I don’t want him thinking mommies don’t drive, and I don’t like him seeing my weakness.
I failed the behind-the-wheel portion of my driving test twice before I finally got it on the third try. I was 17. I remember the face of the first guy who failed me. He stared at me through the whole test and said nothing. His intimidating silence worked. My anxiety level ratcheted up. At one busy stop light I hesitated to turn left and waited several beats too long. When we were done he got out, walked ahead of me and over his shoulder he said, “Well, you failed.” I stepped out of the car, my knees shaking. My mom drove us home.
At first my mom tried to teach me to drive, but she and I bickered too much. Then we tried my dad. Big mistake. He fixated on a biker way up ahead and began lecturing me about the perils of hitting “pedestrians.” When I didn’t respond–hoping he would just stop–his voice level went up and he kept lecturing. When Dad felt like he wasn’t being listened to he would repeat himself an abnormal number of times. What psychologists call persevarating. This time was no different. He repeated his point loudly, maybe ten times in a row. If the perseverating wasn’t having his desired impact he would begin to swear.
By the time he called me a “stupid fucking idiot” I pulled the car over, got out, and sat on the curb. He flung open the door and said,
“Get back here!”
I said, “This lesson is over,” and refused to get back in the car. He sat for a moment and then got up and went around to the driver’s seat. I got in to the passenger’s seat. We drove home in a rare silence.
My shrink has a theory that at that moment standing up to my Dad was so difficult and I was so angry that I “transferred my murderous rage” onto the car and began to fear the car, instead of my anger. That’s a bit too Freudian for me to really accept, but I can’t toss it aside, either.
After that I went to driving school and had an instructor teach me. Once I got my license I was happy to go out with my friends, but I was definitely a nervous driver. I was always sure the other driver was right, any problem my fault.
When I was 18, a fender bender occurred behind me in a parking lot, and two women repeatedly honked their horns at each other. I got so nervous, so afraid it was my fault, that I leapt up and got out of the car to see what was going on. It wasn’t until after I had finished my errand that I realized I had left my motor running with the keys inside. Of course I had locked the door. I went to a garage a few doors down and, red faced, convinced a mechanic to help me break in to my own car.
After that it was easier to let my more confident friends drive me around. But I still made short trips, and drove around my neighborhood on my own.
Then I began to avoid freeways. That worked until halfway through college. I was spending the summer in Boulder, CO, an hour and a half drive from my small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs.
I got up at five in the morning on a Sunday to make the drive in my little Mazda (a hand-me down from my grandmother) to Boulder to ensure that there would be no traffic.
And here I am, almost twenty years later, and “no freeways” has gradually become no driving at all.
Most days I feel recovered from my PPD. But there are these little pockets of my life that I prefer to overlook. When I come across one, it feels that much more painful. That’s why Simon’s comment shakes me up so much. I’ve been going along, thinking things were going well. And then, suddenly, here in my face is something I forgot about. A specter of mental illness tugging at my side. “See, you can’t get rid of me! You can’t even do the simplest thing for your kids. You’re helpless–dependent on your husband. On a man. Some feminist you are.”
The rational part of me tries to focus–I know that phobias are low on the spectrum of mental illness and having one doesn’t have any bearing on my status as a sane person. Anything that approaches that line between sane and insane is so loaded that it doesn’t take much for me to start questioning myself.
I try to give myself some leeway. I can’t fix everything about myself all at once. Today is not going to be the day I start driving. The dry-mouth and stomach flip-flops at the mere thought of it are enough to set my mind to work at denial.
Jack gets in the car and Simon repeats “See Gussy! Now Mommy is in her spot and Daddy is in his. We can go.”
I say, “Oh, sometimes Mommy drives too. But today is daddy’s turn. Let’s go to the park!”