My stomach is clenched as though it’s braced for a Muhammed Ali punch. A sweat ring has formed at my hairline and my grip could probably form a diamond if I were clutching coal rather than a door handle.
“OK, give it a little gas,” I say, swallowing what little saliva I have to lubricate the calm tenor I’m trying to bring to my voice.
She does, and I relax. Slightly.
I’ve never known fear like this. Dark closets, jumping out of an airplane, “The Shining,” a house filled with spiders. But there I sat: helpless, shiver-sweating, hoping my sheer mental prowess could will the car next to us out of her lane in time for her to move over.
Such is the New World Order for any parent living in that delicate space known as “Instructional Permit for Teen Driver.” The anxiety that comes with handing a 16-year-old a set of car keys is akin to putting all your fears into one big jar, shaking it and then letting it spray you in the face like a can of soda that’s been dropped on the sidewalk.
With time served as resident owner of the parent taxi, I was (perhaps overly) gleeful for the day when she could pick up the milk at Ralphs or take herself to a Starbucks study date. But then I slid into the passenger seat.
When my child was a newborn, I thought I knew fear. Will she be healthy? Happy? Sane? Able to reach the glasses on the shelf that are out of my range? The first time I put that little peanut in a car seat was akin to strapping her into the Mercury space capsule. Her first wobbly steps as a toddler? Terrifying.
Back then, I was afraid for her. Now, it’s about my mortality.
Take, for example, the first time we merged onto the 91 freeway in Orange County. As soon as I directed her to the onramp, adrenaline took over like a body snatcher, and the sound that came out of my mouth was a stifled scream mixed with very urgent instruction about how to swiftly exit the 91. With my hand gnarled around the seatbelt, I realized I was literally handing control over to a kid who used to try to color her hair with lip gloss.
Then I realized that I wasn’t just fearing for my life. This was the parenting moment they tell you about but you are never prepared for: letting go.
Realizing that has helped me unclench. “This is what she’s supposed to do and will transform her into an independent adult who doesn’t need me to pick her up from a football game in my sweatpants at 11:30 at night,” I tell me. Now, every time we slide into the car, I focus on looking past the former toddler in the princess dress and glittery shoes, adorable but not remotely capable of taming a four-wheel death machine.
I also try to remind myself that this girl, while still not intellectually fully an adult, makes a thousand decisions each day, many of them good ones. She picks carrots over cookies (sometimes), guides her friends through bad breakups and whips up a mean batch of blueberry pancakes without burning the house down.
Teaching your teen to drive is essentially the mama bird pushing the fledgling right out of its safe, comfortable nest as Mama stands helpless, watching her gawky offspring glide and flop its way through flight lessons. Eventually, the youngster will find the thermal, but the learning is painful to endure and is requiring me to try take up some serious evening yoga and meditation and cookies.
I recently tagged along on my daughter’s driving lesson and asked the instructor how he remains calm. “I breathe,” he said. Sounded simple enough. His second piece of advice? “Let her drive.”
In other words, push her out of the nest and watch her fly, hopefully right into a full-fledged driver’s license.
Carolyn Graham is a freelance writer and mom of two. Her work has appeared in L.A. Parent and a variety of other publications.