Car Pool Reflections
For One Mother, the Routine Was Both Uniter & Divider
My youngest has just achieved that most important of developmental landmarks. The one that stretches the umbilical cord way down the interstate. She has gotten her license. And I no longer have to drive anybody anywhere.
This new freedom has unearthed long-buried memories of my love- hate (mostly hate) relationship with the family automobile. Having three kids in four years made our car seem more like a mobile prison unit than your basic mode of transport. In the early days even driving to the grocery store was an ordeal.
Behind me sat a row of car seats just out of reach, occupied by combatants who, between red lights, would engage in mutual torment, including the forcible removal of each other’s pacifiers, the highly effective hair twist and pull, and the maddening rhythmic poking, perfected by my son, who would simultaneously torment his sisters on either side.
For a long time I arranged rides around mealtimes, providing food as a diversion. That worked until the morning I happened to look in the rearview mirror and noticed my daughter quietly turning purple, courtesy of an inhaled Frosted Flake. I believe the tires actually moved sideways as I maneuvered to the shoulder at 65 miles an hour. I’m fairly sure I frightened the child into clearing her own airway before bringing the vehicle to a complete stop.
The graduation from car seats to car pool was another landmark. A way to separate the men from the boys. Or more accurately, the men from the women. While there were the occasional male pinch-hitters, the hauling of offspring definitely fell on the mother’s side of labor division. Each participant brought her own style to the arrangement. And it often wasn’t pretty. Whether the connection between the drivers was merely living in the same Zip code, or a longstanding friendship, I have witnessed (all right, joined in) protracted discussions regarding car pool conduct.
Many hours of my life have been devoted to Talmudic questions such as: Should Mrs. Volvo drive more often than Mrs. Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer Model because she has more children in the car pool? (Mrs. Volvo argues no — the kids are all going to the same place. Mrs. Ford Explorer says au contraire — the seat space could be given to children from different families, thereby increasing the number of licensed participants.) How about if Mrs. Taurus Station Wagon’s vehicle is in the shop for yet another extended diagnostic session — is it ever politic to offer your car for her pickups?
Rules governing substitution also required much study. For instance, if it is your scheduled day to drive but Junior is sick and therefore staying home, are you responsible for repaying the person who has taken your turn (even though you have nobly quarantined the child instead of claiming noncontagious allergies)? If it’s chickenpox that works its way through all of your children, one after the other, can you just call a car pool timeout, pick up where you left off? Or should driving debts accumulate like single socks on top of the dryer?
In terms of family politics, what if your child really, really hates one of his seatmates — but you need his mother for Wednesday rides? Isn’t it important for children to learn to get along?
After almost two decades of co-transportation, I’ve learned a few things to pass on. Like: Always join car pools composed of people raised in religions that rely heavily on guilt for behavior management. Catholics and Jews out-drive each other while other creeds seem okay with that. My neighbor Kelly thought nothing of offering her husband to drive when someone else couldn’t. Then she wouldn’t count it as her turn. “But it wasn’t me who drove,” she’d explain when appearing for her pickup. On the other hand there are certain personality types to be avoided at all costs: The Tight Lasses (easily identified by unnaturally clean automobiles), who turn down emergency appeals for temporary switches for no reason other than steadfast commitments to oral contracts; the Shirkers, who exhibit no outward signs of remorse when canceling at the last minute; and the Tardy Makers, who are cheerfully passive-aggressive in their inability to make it anywhere on time.
One of the few benefits of chauffeuring was that it provided an excellent surveillance post, just this side of diary reading. Throughout the long, secretive middle school years, my circuit of gymnastics, soccer and Little League was basically vehicular torture. All of my attempts at conversation were met with requests to turn up the radio. So I learned to be silent and glean whatever information was being shared among my passengers, who came to think of me — not at all. Crushes, classroom injustices and parental transgressions were all discussed in the back seat. When questioned in different settings about tidbits that I had overheard, my children were stunned by my omniscience. Short of wiretapping, I’ll probably never have that kind of access again.
I guess my baby’s license really drives home my own new developmental stage. The movable nest is empty. Now when I am behind the wheel the quiet gets me worrying about what it’s going to be like when all the kids are out of the house, too. So I find myself doing the only thing that makes sense. I call them from the car.
This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.