August marks the start of a painful time in the lives of some mid-lifers: The Empty Nest Syndrome. It's when our kids pack up and leave our homes for college, often moving great distances from us. We bravely wave goodbye after we deposit them in dorm rooms and stifle our sobs when we return home to see their empty bedrooms. For me, it's years away.
But apparently I'm suffering from Early Stage Empty Nest Syndrome. I came down with it this summer when my 15-year-old daughter Sophie got her learner's permit to drive and I kind of veered off the good parenting road.
In what was admittedly not my finest parenting moment, I did my best to dissuade her from doing what the state of California says she is legally old enough to do: Learn to drive. I told her in no uncertain terms that cars were 3,000-pound weapons that, if given even just a nanosecond of inattention, would commit certain carnage and mayhem. I drew up a responsibility contract, forgetting that I not only already have the world's most responsible daughter but that I have always scoffed at parents who think making their kids sign these things was going to do the trick.
Eventually, I was forced to accept that Sophie was indeed going to learn to drive this summer, and that I could not be the one who taught her. It isn't that I'm not the more patient parent (because I am). It's that I'm a nervous wreck and this was way more than I could handle.
So we signed her up for 12 lessons with a driving school that specializes in teen driving instruction and her Dad takes her tooling around greater Los Angeles every day for an hour or so. You can mark this hour because I spend it pacing behind my desk with my cell phone in hand, waiting to get the call from the hospital.
Every day when I get home from the office, my husband tells me she is doing just fine and I counter by doing a walk-around the car looking for new dents and scratches. He tells me she never forgets to use her turn signal and I extract a promise that he won't take her to any intersection without a left turn lane to aid her. I commiserate with another Mom who describes how she hid in the bushes during her daughter's first behind-the-wheel lesson; she kept her fist in her mouth to repress the involuntary screams from escaping. This woman is like my new best friend.
But in reality, I know that for me this is more than just worrying about Sophie's safety as she does U-turns and freeway lane merges. It's that I know that a driver's license is her passport to adulthood and I'm not ready to let her travel away from me just yet. That's why I call it Early Stage Empty Nest Syndrome.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our kids' inability to get places on their own is one of the big things that keep us in their lives. We have to drive them to their friends' homes, which allows us to know who those friends are. We have to take them to the mall, so we know how many hours they are spending there. They can't go anywhere without us knowing about it.
Maybe it's because I live in Los Angeles where we spend an inordinate amount of time in the car, but I've come to love the hours each week that I'm alone in the car with my kids driving them places. We talk without the distractions of their friends, my job, phones ringing or TVs on in the background. We really talk, without interruptions. I cherish this time.
And it's all about to change when Sophie gets her driver's license and doesn't need me in the car with her anymore.
My daughter's learning to drive is the actual onset of her independence. I predict that sending her off to college, by comparison, will feel much less frightening. For now, I'm just hoping that she relies on both the car's GPS and what we've taught her about making smart choices for her direction.