Straight on, or turn right?
Or turn right?
Straight on, to the supermarket…
…or turn right, and go home?
Hmmm. Straight on–
No, wait! Turn right! Aaaaaaaaarrggh!
Caught between our momentum forwards down the dual carriageway and suddenly steering 90 degrees to the right, the car compromised at an entirely unhelpful 45 degrees. After mounting the kerb, it sped across the small plot of land-for-development, straight towards a large mound of earth which it hit like a stunt ramp.
We sailed gracelessly into the air…
…and came down heavily on the other side. We scrambled over the adjacent road – in front of the oncoming traffic – before finally regaining control and pulling over to park around the corner.
Dizzy and shaken, I climbed from the car and went to check on my baby. Strapped securely into the back seat, six months old, she appeared oblivious to our little diversion. Not trusting myself behind the wheel again that day, and only ten minutes from home, I called Emma and asked her to come and drive us the remaining distance.
Although that particular episode was the worst, ghastly moments such as this dogged my first twelve months as a driver.
Unfortunately, my first twelve months as a driver coincided with my first twelve months as a father. I passed my driving test and became a legal driver in July 2012. Thirty-two years old. Alex was born in August.
I’d never wanted to drive. I’d never needed to. Other people drove. And there were taxis, buses and trains. And walking. Through education and into the world of work, I made do just fine. As did my brother. Our parents never expected it – nor did any of my friends. It was not required. It was not necessary.
It was not cheap. I couldn’t afford to pay for a car, let alone the lessons.
In my early twenties, I met Emma and we eventually began a life together. Emma drove. Driving was as natural to her as it was unnatural to me. She didn’t mind – it was the least of what she had to put up with.
Over the years we became a great team – Emma at the wheel, me at the map. I became an unrivalled navigator.
Up and down and all around the UK we (she) drove. Our road trips were glorious, but not unblemished by the subtle presence of my inability. It sat quietly in the back like an unseen spectre. Subliminally, it infused our journeys with awareness of the imbalance.
By the time we bought our house, our future path together was roughly sketched out. Marriage and children and all that goes with them.
What went with children, it turned out, was my learning to drive.
No great surprise. I knew it was coming. Part of me had always assumed one day I would learn to drive. One day. Just like I always assumed that one day I would have children. And now, here they both were, waiting for me in my thirties, staring me in the face like both barrels of a shotgun in the hands of my patient but determined wife.
True story: I was more nervous about learning to drive than becoming a father. Not because the latter means climbing into bed with a willing member of the opposite sex while the former means climbing into the wrong seat of a vehicle under the scrutiny of an unsympathetic taskmaster…
…but because I was ready to become a father. I wanted to become responsible for several pounds of baby.
I suffered no such inclination regarding one-and-a-half tonnes of hurtling steel.
‘Nervous’ is an understatement. Throughout my twenties I rolled out the same tired excuse every time someone asked or challenged me: Learning to drive wasn’t on the agenda because I didn’t consider it necessary.
What I neglected to mention was that I was also terrified at the very idea of it.
But I couldn’t postpone it forever. Even as I climbed into my instructor’s car for the very first time, I was consciously trying to swallow my fight or flight instinct. Not because anybody else was making me do it, but because I knew I had to do it.
Fatherhood was still a couple of years away, but it was irreversibly approaching. I also knew I was far from being the confident man that I wanted to be in fatherhood. Not being able to drive was not something I wanted to have to explain to my children, nor did I want to transfer my apprehension to them. Overcoming my fear and passing my test would cut another head from the hydra of self-doubt and give me a profound psychological power-up.
But learning to drive was not going to happen overnight. I needed to give myself time. I wanted to feel genuine confidence when I took my test. And for me that means a long, gradual climb.
So I volunteered to begin after I turned thirty. The year before our wedding. My pace was slow and steady but, while I’d made reasonable progress by the time I paused to focus on getting married, I still had a long way to go.
Time and money forced me to spread my lessons out during 2011, but the irregular intervals prevented me from building ability. So in 2012 – the year of the pregnancy – I turned to Emma, asking her to accompany me for regular practice.
Through numerous arguments and ultimatums, admissions of defeat and reluctant re-attempts, begging and forgiveness, hope and despair, I became more comfortable in the driving seat.
Emma’s level of comfort in the passenger seat was another matter entirely. That our relationship survived my awful behaviour behind the wheel (immature and irrational, driven by fear and self-frustration) is testament to Emma’s patience and commitment.
By then, time was running out. Approximately three years had passed since I started. Emma was seven months pregnant when I finally took my test.
Fortunately, I passed. Several weeks later, Alex was born.
I may have been able to pass the test, but I still belonged to my fear. By the end of August I had engaged in very little driving. My (cowardly) plan had been to incrementally increase my responsibility for driving the car over the course of several months.
The emergency C-section ripped my arm-bands off and shoved me in at the deep-end. Emma was not allowed to drive for six weeks. I had to do all the driving. No choice. It was the worst and best thing that could have happened.
Even so, it took me more than a year to become a comfortable and competent driver. Alex may not have been exposed directly to the horror that was me as a learner driver, but she still had to endure the distressing echoes of that stage in my development. Always fretting to her mother about my performance behind the wheel. Often losing my temper with myself. Occasionally exploding in objectionable outbursts.
She was less than a year old. I don’t know what – if any – impression it had on her.
This period also coincided with training myself not to swear. Talk about spectacularly bad timing.
By the time Adam was born, my experience had forever banished my fear to the past and awoken an unexpected enthusiasm for driving. Fortunate, because another C-section meant another six weeks with me exclusively at the wheel.
Anyone who has made the transition from “Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t!” to “Can I drive, this time?” knows and appreciates how the ability to drive adds a whole new dimension to life in general.
Any parent knows and appreciates how it adds a whole new dimension to parenting.
Being able to replace Emma behind the wheel during both periods of post-caesarean incapacitation was invaluable. But for a parent, the advantages of being a legal driver extend far beyond the regular benefits:
- Killing time. Bored of playing the same games, reading the same books and going to the same local playground over and over and over? Well, say goodbye to cabin fever. Now you can jump in the car and go somewhere – anywhere – else. Hopefully somewhere that’s as engaging for you as it is for baby.
- Killing more time. Wishing for a temporary escape from parenting without actually abandoning your child? Treat yourself – and your baby – to a little easy variety by taking them out for a sight-seeing spin. They get to peer at everything new and fascinating, while you get to pretend they’re not there.
- Legitimate alone time. Got errands to run? Instead of asking your partner to do it, or packing the family into the car so you can all go together, take the keys and take off. Whether you’re going to the supermarket, the hardware store or the post office, savour a brief interlude without spending brownie points.
- Sorry, I’m driving. Infants are just as demanding en route as at home. Somebody has to feed them, clean them and comfort them with touch, talk and song. And that somebody is… never the driver. So sit back, concentrate on the road and abdicate parental responsibility while steering everyone safely from A to B.
- Layby lullabies. Been up since 2am? Wish your baby would just go back to sleep instead of wailing like a banshee on helium? Quit your rocking and get yourself a-rolling. Your car is an unrivalled sleep-induction machine. Saddle up and hit the road. Baby will be pacified and back to sleep in no time – guaranteed.
That last one in particular was a favourite of mine. I often took Adam out in the early hours of the morning during his first two years. To begin with it was a last resort, but eventually I revised my strategy and headed straight for the car if he so much as looked like he might be otherwise in for the long haul.
Over to the twenty-four hour supermarket we would go, for provisions and a magazine. Then round and round the town we drove until at last he fell asleep, whereupon I would pull up somewhere convenient to consume my impromptu rations and read my magazine. After a while, when confident that he was deeply asleep, I would head home, transferring him back to his bed and me back to mine.
Worked like a charm, and was a lot less miserable and infuriating than sitting in the dark, rocking him back and forth while he screeched and howled like I was roasting him over hot coals.
For people who have driven for several years before becoming a parent, I can imagine that the benefits of being able to drive as a parent are less pronounced. For me, approaching both at the same time, they manifested as interdependent life objectives, and so the advantages of driving for parenting have been well illuminated.
Obviously, as we’ve considered previously, having a car at your disposal is a blessing for any transportation of children that you may have to engage in. Regardless of who does the driving. But, fifteen years of experience as a non-driving adult has heightened my sensitivity to the opportunities inherent in being able to legally take a car out on the road yourself. To summarise:
- Expanding the horizons of your physical parenting landscape.
- Occasionally putting a little legitimate distance between yourself and your parental responsibilities (even if it is only the distance between the front seat and the back seat).
And, of course, being able to shoulder the burden of driving whenever your other half is disinclined or unable.
I don’t regret not being able to drive during my teenage years or my twenties. I don’t believe it would have so transformed my life that not having it stunted my adolescence and early adulthood in any way.
I would not be without the ability to drive in parenthood. A car is such a versatile and enabling tool for the daily, weekly, monthly routine of infant management.
I do regret not learning to drive sooner, though, but not for my sake. I planned to pass my test before the baby was born. Now, in hindsight, I suggest it would have been better had I planned on passing my test and getting a year of driving under my belt before Emma even became pregnant.
Practically, it would have been better if I (we) had not had to contend with my learning to drive simultaneously with our preparation to become parents. Practically, I would have preferred to be a competent driver by the time our first child became my passenger. My early journeys were haunted by the disturbing and unwelcome thought that I might endanger her in my inexperience.
But it’s not the actual mistakes behind the wheel that I regret. It’s how I reacted to those mistakes, and exposing that ugly side of myself to my wife and my daughter, in utero as well as after she was born.
I knew that I would have issues with fear. I did not appreciate how turbulent it would be.
It is something we could all have done without.
On the plus side, though, the car and my ability to drive it is not something we could do without. Being able to drive makes me feel more complete – and confident – as a parent and a husband. And while I still defer to Emma on all things automotive, and ask her to check the levels because I still have no idea what I’m doing, I hope my children see that I am just as comfortable behind the wheel as I am beside their beds.
But a hell of a lot less likely to fall asleep.