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Notes From the Underhill: Learner Mom

Tackling new skills is what kids do all day—but what's it like for an adult to learn to drive? The challenge can be existential.

This morning I took my road test.

Let me explain: I’m old enough to have been driving for a quarter of a century but never have. My first question, when I started lessons recently, was: “Which one’s the brake?”

Many people think it’s highly eccentric not to drive—especially once you become a parent—but in New York (and in London, where I come from) there are many actual documented cases of people with kids but no licence. My mother-in-law, who lives a block away from us, raised three well-rounded, intelligent (and driving) offspring without ever sitting behind a wheel.

Trips that in other places would require automotive power—school, the Zoo, even Ikea—are all possible in New York without it, and yet summer's here and soon we'll be swimming in a lake, not the . It would be nice if I could help get us there.

And so this morning I woke at 6 a.m. to shower, dress and pack the kids’ lunches for summer camp, in anticipation of leaving at 8 a.m. for the road test site in Staten Island.

As I was anxiously bagging pretzels, a news story came on NPR about women campaigning for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. "While you are protected by your status," the interviewer asked the royal Princess spearheading the movement, "aren’t other women taking great risks by speaking out?"

I turned up the volume, fascinated. How ironic: here I’ve been eschewing my right to drive for decades, while in other parts of the world women are putting their lives on the line for it!

How is it that I came to overlook this (it suddenly seemed) sacred human right?

Perhaps the answer can be found in my attitude, described beautifully in the words of a Jonathan Richman song: “I want nothing between me and the ground/Just wanna wander and walk around.”

The truth is, I’m not a driver by nature.

As I explained to my husband after one particularly trying lesson (Valerie, my supremely risk-embracing Russian instructor, took me out on the Prospect Expressway), there’s an existential element to my discomfort with driving. The suspension of disbelief required to propel myself along a highway at 60 mph gives me a weird sense of unreality—as though I could deliberately do something very strange.

Instead of freaking out when he heard this, as he might reasonably have done, Michael said:

“Yeah, it’s like that scene in 'Annie Hall.'”

He was talking about the episode when Woody visits Annie’s family and the psychotic-looking brother (played by Christopher Walken) breaks into a monologue: “Sometimes when I’m driving … on the highway at night, I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into oncoming traffic …” The camera cuts to the brother driving Woody and Annie at night in heavy rain, Woody’s face a portrait of silent terror.

I have this suspicion that Woody Allen belongs to my club of car-shy parents. By invoking him—and making me laugh—Michael did a good job of calming me down.

In fact, taking driving lessons at an advanced age has been a positive experience for me in surprising ways. For one, my children—especially my 6-year-old son—have been very interested and keen to hear about my progress.

When I explained to my son that I’d had a struggle with parallel parking in the second lesson he absorbed this information gravely and seemed very relieved, next week, to hear that I’d finally got the hang of it.

“In the first lesson you didn’t know much,” he announced, “in the second you couldn’t parallel park, but by the third you were just great!”

His formula was a little abbreviated—but by turning my struggles into this narrative, he revealed a curiosity about the process of learning and a desire to package it into a manageable shape that, I realized, makes perfect sense.

Being an elementary school-age kid means spending your whole day, almost every day, at the bottom of a steep learning curve. What my driving lessons reminded me is that that’s a tough place to be. At the end of each of my 90-minute lessons, what I most wanted to do was sleep. The concentration required to perform tasks successfully that have not yet become instinctive—whether that’s a broken U-turn or multiplying 6 by 4—is much greater than perhaps we remember when we spend most of our days doing things we’ve done for many years.

I now clearly see why my son was so often exhausted at the end of a first-grade school day last year: from 8:40 a.m. until the last minute of after-school piano, chess, or swimming—or whatever other activity I’d manically scheduled in true New York-parent style—his brain was feverishly working to admit new information.

Even in a one-off skateboard class he took once school was out his face wore an expression that reminded me of my own while driving: a dazed focus as his brain attempted to follow spoken instructions his body had not yet assimilated.

I was proud of him, watching his serious face. My own adult learning experience has made me think childhood is a time of all-but-heroic endeavor. It’s also made me think that, as a parent, learning a new skill—a language, sport, art, whatever—is a great idea, even if just to remind us of how it feels to be a kid. And the sweet thing is, your child will be proud of you.

The first thing my son asked me when he stepped off the bus from summer camp this afternoon was: “Did you pass your test, Mom?”

 I’m happy to report that the answer was “Yes.”

Adam Epstein July 28, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Adam Epstein A great piece of limpid writing that's made me look at my daughter's efforts to learn to drive in a whole new way. Could you take some written exams and make some applications to college next please.
RI Rachel July 30, 2011 at 05:57 PM
How brave of you to learn to drive without the comforting blinders of teenage obliviousness. I wouldn't have the guts!
Gail Thomson July 31, 2011 at 04:27 AM
You have said it all brilliantly Kirsten. I, like Ben, am extremely proud of you and terrified too. It has taken me forever and I still don't think I will ever be completely comfortable behind the wheel......besides, I am always lost as well.... as you undoubtedly know. I have the memory of driving you and Laura to Heathrow when you were nine and ten, with Laura giving me directions.....I don't really remember how I got back. I am excited for you. Love you. Mom
michelle August 02, 2011 at 07:04 PM
o good job on passing the test. i failed my road test the first time i took it so good for you. this reminds me of when i took ripley to her first swimming class when she was 6 months old. i felt like the odd mom out because i was the only parent who did not know how to swim. so i went to kingsborough community college for night time swim lessons. after my first class i was ready to quit i just knew the teacher was trying to kill me. but i got over it and i can now say i love swimming just like you will soon love the freedom of driving.
Kathy Zucker August 31, 2011 at 05:56 PM
When you are a NYC (or apparently, London) native, you just don't need a driver's license. I took road tests when I was 17 (failed) and 28 (passed); most of my childhood friends didn't get their licenses until their twenties and thirties. A Texas friend told me that the first question he asks corporate relo applicants who come from NYC is, "Can you drive?" What is normal for us is cause for credulity in the rest of the country.

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