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Judith Greenberg, Ph.D.

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Learning to Drive Again

Posted: 05/24/2012 4:28 pm

Why are so many women I know -- myself included -- prone to waves of sadness these days? The sun is shining, flowers blooming and days are getting longer. Yet the springtime blues seem to be affecting people whose lives, at least from the outside, look pretty great. It turns out that there are more suicides in the glorious spring months of April and May than cold and dark December and January.

I have a theory, but I'm going to take a detour to discuss my recent forays to the DMV to get there.

I allowed my driver's license to expire. I leave it to the reader to imagine the possibilities for my foolishness. This lapse would be unlikely outside of New York City, where I live and where you can get around by walking, public transportation and taxis.

For years it didn't seem like such a big deal. Frankly, not driving had some nice benefits. Without a license, people needed to drive me around. During summer holidays on Martha's Vineyard, my 70-year old father would awaken to drive me from our secluded rental to a yoga class in Vineyard Haven. He would purchase a coffee, read his New York Times and wait to drive me back home. It was lovely; I hadn't been chauffeured around like that since childhood. There were other perks. On car rides with my husband and kids (in a rental), I could fall asleep in the passenger seat since, after all, I wasn't going to be much help at the wheel. I settled comfortably into a newfound passive role. I even bragged about my tiny environmental footprint.

It dawned on me that not driving might be connected to other factors in my life.

In the years that I had stopped driving, I was raising two children, teaching, writing, organizing a home renovation, volunteering at my kids' public schools and walking our puppy. Despite being a feminist, the expectations of a 1950s housewife have inscribed themselves upon my psyche. If my brownies aren't homemade I am cheating; if the school requests help to wrap raffle baskets, I show up; if the sink fills up with dishes, I feel my inner OCD-monster emerge.

Although these particular demands may be idiosyncratic I don't think I am alone in feeling overwhelmed with expectations; I know over-extended "stay at home" and working moms. The progress enabled by the women's movement helped us to pursue our educations and professional goals. We should be a world away from Mad Men's Betty Draper, but find ourselves packing lunches, clearing breakfast dishes and reminding kids to put their laundry in the hamper with interminable repetition. The old television advertisement for bath soap with the motto "Calgon, take me away" sounds pretty enticing. And so, the car was my area where I reverted to childlike passivity.

Sitting in the passenger's seat was almost as relaxing as a Calgon bath. Except that I didn't see the blind spot of not having a license (of course I didn't see it, you say, it's a blind spot). One morning during a terrible snowstorm in Colorado, it dawned on me. What about an emergency? It was crazy and dangerous not to be able to drive. In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving, potentially facing corporal punishment if they do so. Women drivers, Saudi authorities claim, would lead to the end of virginity, and a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce. Yet here I was in America relinquishing my right; it's like not voting.

In Paula Vogel's play, How I Learned to Drive, the pedophilic Uncle Peck tells his niece, "When you are driving your life is in your own two hands. Understand?" Granted, I am finding nuggets of truth in the words of a fictional pedophile, but how I have I let go of life being within my two hands? Peck continues, "There's something about driving -- when you're in control of the car, just you and the machine and the road -- that nobody can take from you. A power. I feel more myself in my car than anywhere else." In abandoning driving, I have given up power. Napping in the passenger seat is nice (and I do so love Betty Draper's clothing), but I have no desire to turn back the wheels of progress. Losing power is depressing. So is losing ambition -- another sense of the word "drive."

Vogel and the Saudi Arabian legislature connect driving with sexuality. When we take the wheel, we can exert powerful force. Now I am going to take a speculative leap: There may be a connection between giving up one's "drive" -- be it ambition, power, sexuality -- and these waves of depression. Perhaps its part of the aging and hormonal process for women in their forties and fifties, or maybe it's seasonal, but many of my bright and talented friends have been dancers, academics, therapists and lawyers. They are now working mothers, "doing it all". And, oh, they are all really good at being nice. In order to find the balance, to take care of others and remain pleasant, I propose that we have lost some of our drive and it's causing us to suffer. Vogel's Uncle Peck declares, "Men are taught to drive with confidence -- with aggression. The road belongs to them. They drive defensively -- always looking out for the other guy. Women tend to be polite -- to hesitate. And that can be fatal." Hesitating and being polite, if not fatal, can cause depression.

Now here's a thing about reclaiming the wheel: It takes determination.

To get a new driver's license, I had to accumulate proper identification (who at 45 still has her original Social Security Card?) -- not a quick feat. Then came the Dantesque DMV for my written exam. After waiting in lines that effectively recreate the immigrant experience at Ellis Island, I finally ended up on a wooden pew with two other test-takers. Hordes advanced ahead, while we three waited on the pew. Each of us gently tried to inquire if we were seated in the proper location only to hear: "No talking on the bench!" barked at us by a large uniformed man. It could have been a scene out of Kafka, but it was my reality. After emerging from the darkness of the DMV, I had to sit through a class that stressed three ideas (the dangers of alcohol and other drugs, the importance of defensive driving and the meaning of road signs) for a mandated five hours before receiving necessary certification. To fill the time, my teacher, a kindly retired post-office employee from Staten Island, told us his professional life history and then proudly displayed his own driver's license, exclaiming, "Boy, I'm telling you, it gets you around." The videos about drunk driving were strikingly similar to those I watched in high school in 1983. Other than teaching about the threat posed by cell phones and texting, Driver's Ed is still pretty much the same -- the truth of the matter is that you need to learn on the road.

I still have to take my road test. Scheduling it is another hurdle, but I vow to get it done before our wedding anniversary, as a gift to my husband so I can drive on our next family road trip. It turns out that my driving teacher did offer some pearls of wisdom, among them, "Scan Identify Predict Decide Execute" (although SIPDE is not much of an acronym) as a strategy for defensive but assertive driving. Perhaps that might also be a strategy for avoiding the springtime blues.

 
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