This letter is about 29 years overdue, but it took me this long to realize I needed to write it. It turns out you were right all along. It really is hard to ride in the passenger seat while your teenage kid is driving. And you weren’t overreacting to every little thing I did behind the wheel. You were just trying to make sure we both survived the whole terrifying ordeal. I get it now. Boy, do I get it.
As you know, I’ve taken your place as the nervous mother in the passenger seat. The baby boy who I once swaddled and cooed at while he smiled up at me from his crib is now a gangly teenager who needs to shave. He rolls his eyes when I ask if he’s planning to stop the car before we’re in the middle of the intersection. Sound familiar?
I had the strongest sense of déjà vu the other day during a practice session with your grandson. We were approaching a stoplight. The light was red, and it was time to stop. But we didn’t stop. We kept going at a rate of speed I would describe as “swift,” even though it wasn’t technically over the speed limit.
I was fairly sure he noticed that the light was red, but the car wasn’t slowing down. I internally argued with myself as I decided whether or not to say something:
Cool me: It’s probably fine. I’m sure he’s going to stop.
Nervous me: But what if he doesn’t? It sure doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop. What if he doesn’t stop and we collide with a dump truck? I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t remind him to stop.
Cool me: He’s still got time to stop. Just give it a sec.
Nervous me: Brake, brake, brake, brake, BRAKE.
Cool me: He’ll stop. Any second now…
Nervous me: GOOD LORD, SAVE US! WE’RE GOING TO DIE!
Even though I was pressing my own foot into the passenger side floorboard as hard as possible in hopes that an imaginary brake pedal might somehow save us, we still weren’t slowing down. So, I caved to the internal demands of my inner “Nervous Mom,” who is louder and bossier than the cool version.
Me: “It’s red! Use the brake.”
Teenager: “Mom, I know it’s red. I see it! I’m stopping. Geez, calm down.” (He applies brake at last possible second and we lurch to a stop. He then acts like that’s a perfectly good way to apply the brake at a major intersection.)
Me: “Well, it didn’t seem like you were stopping! I had to make sure.”
Him: (Signs heavily and rolls his eyes at the old lady who gave birth to him.)
It was at that exact moment, Mom, that I remembered my teenage self and how she used to drive. Just like your grandson, I, too, favored the accelerator and used it as often as possible. I didn’t hit the brake until the last possible moment, and I honestly didn’t see the problem with that method. I remember that it used to annoy me when I looked over to see you gripping the arm rest as if you were on a ride at Six Flags. It drove me crazy when you’d suck all the air out of the car as we careened perilously close to the glowing red stoplight.
But now, Mom, I understand what I had no way of comprehending back then. You weren’t nervous because you were in the passenger seat and therefore not in control of the car and me and everything else. You were scared because your baby was behind the wheel – the baby you’d spent your whole life trying to protect. There’s no “off” switch for that feeling, no matter how tall or hairy or smart your baby becomes by age 16. It all makes sense now.
So, I’m officially apologizing for being a pain in the rearview mirror all those years ago. I’m sorry for the eye-rolling and being hyper-sensitive to any little critique you gave me. I’m sorry for accelerating into turns, forgetting to check my blind spot before changing lanes, driving too fast in the rain, and for repeatedly scaring the daylights out of the one woman who was (and still is) most invested in keeping me alive and safe. No wonder your hair turned gray that year.
Your loving and repentant daughter,
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. You can read more of Gwen’s work by clicking here to visit The Rockwood Files.