I did something really death-defying with my daughter this summer.
I taught her to drive.
Truly, teaching a teen to drive is scarier than just about anything else we do as a parent. It’s scarier than giving birth, as there are usually skilled people around during labor who can take over if things go awry. It’s way scarier than first days of school or first dates, scarier than most illnesses and injuries — some of those are scarier, but again, you’ve hopefully got medical folks around who can take over.
There’s nobody taking over when you are in a car with your teen.
Think about it: You are in a two-ton death machine that is in the hands of a teenager who doesn’t really know how to use it — and is too young to have any sense of their own mortality. Or anyone else’s, for that matter, including yours or that of the unsuspecting pedestrians and other car drivers.
To make matters worse, you can’t even let on how scared you are (I was reminded during one driving lesson that it’s really important not to gasp; it makes them more likely to swerve and do other dumb stuff). All you can do is hold on really hard to the arm rest (for emotional support), try not to let them see your foot pressing on the passenger brake you wish you had … and pray.
And it was in one of those prayerful moments that I realized that driving lessons are really the perfect metaphor for parenthood. Just like driving lessons, parenthood is terrifying. You aren’t in control. You have to do all sorts of things that make you afraid. You need to let your kids try things (at some point you have to let them drive somewhere besides the empty parking lot) — with no guarantee, ever, that something bad won’t happen. And yet you need to keep a poker face about it — even more than that, you need to be calm and encouraging and not panic (no matter how much you want to vomit).
It amazes me that we parents survive parenthood in general. Especially driving lessons.
But it was also clear to me in that moment of gripping the armrest that my daughter was terrified too — and doing her best not to show it. Because life is scary when you are behind the wheel for the first time — or going to kindergarten or high school, or getting on the blocks for your first swim meet, standing up in front of the class, trying to make friends or going on your first date.
Life is intrinsically terrifying. We don’t like to think about it, because it makes getting up in the morning hard when we do, but it’s true. Every day is an act of bravery and optimism.
That’s ultimately how I saw driving lessons, especially after she passed her driving test: an act of bravery and optimism for both of us. She didn’t let her fear get in the way of getting her license, and I didn’t let my fear get in the way of my love for her.
Which is maybe the hardest and best thing we do as parents. And by being brave, we teach our children to be brave, too.
I am really glad, though, that I have two years before my next child can get her permit. It may take me that long to fully recover.
Claire McCarthy is a pediatrician. She blogs at the Huffington Post, where this article originally appeared, and at Boston.com as MD Mama.
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