This article was originally published in the December 2017 Princeton Echo.
Our daughter celebrated her seventeen birthday this year by getting her driving license. This was not left to chance. She made the appointment for her test months in advance, at 8 a.m. sharp. The exam itself was an afterthought — a five-minute spin in a parking lot, parallel parking, turn into the highway, and finish. Soon she was home, holding her glittering license, a free ticket to a life of freedom.
“I’m going out for a little bit,” she promptly announced. She stepped into the car, pulled down her mirrored sunglasses, opened the windows, tuned up the radio, and disappeared into the wide, wide world.
Receiving your first driving license is a rite of transition more loaded with meaning than graduating, marrying, or landing your first job. My daughter practiced for months in a process that itself seemed like a good metaphor for parenting. Unlike a Dutch instructional car, which has separate brakes and clutch for the anxious parent, I had no choice but to learn to let go. Still, I often gripped my fingers so tightly around the handbrake, waiting for the inevitable crash, that they would cramp up, especially when we were slaloming onto the highway.
I often think about what my girlfriend told me about the time when her twins took their driving test on their shared birthday. Until then, the lives of the two girls had been completely parallel. But imagine the drama when one of them passed the exam and the other failed. The difference could not have been starker. The successful twin was freed at last from the chains of parental supervision. That afternoon, she breezed off for the first time alone in the car, leaving her sister pouting under her mother’s wings. There is no word to describe the intense jealousy, my girlfriend told me. The unfortunate sister who failed felt marked for life. When she finally got her own license two months later, the damage had already been done. She would never catch up with her sister because of the emotional baggage.
After my daughter had been gone for an hour, I thought to myself that her spin around the block is lasting a long time. My inner concern escalated to anxiety and, in a nanosecond, to full-fledged panic. Of course I could not reach her. Children who interrupt you with their smartphones all day do not have the habit of answering when you call them.
A few hours later, my daughter swerved into the driveway, parked the car, and sashayed into the house, flipping the keys on the table, as if it was the most common thing in the world. She could come and go when she wanted. And I did not have to take her or bring her home. “Mom, enjoy your freedom,” she said. I felt evicted from the parental perch by my own child.
The freedom to drive by yourself perfectly matches the uncertain commitments of modern life. A friend tells me about the conversation with his son just before his first solo drive. This dialogue, which could thus come from a Beckett play, summarizes it all.
Son: “Dad, I’m leaving now.”
Father: “Where are you going?”
Father: “What are you doing.”
Father: “When are you coming back?”
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in July. She can be contacted at email@example.com.