The rain came down so hard that night 10 years ago I couldn’t tell where one droplet ended and another began. The New Jersey Turnpike looked like a black creek. The windshield wipers were heavy and sluggish as they tried to move enormous quantities of water.
I was driving on my first solo trip with the most precious and delicate thing I had ever known, my one-year-old daughter.
The struggle to get her in the car seat (when the rain was just a gentle twilight drizzle) had been the epic event it always was with her. The screaming. The back arching. The kicking in my face. It had come after an hour or so of chaotic packing, eating, chasing. My little girl had a mind of her own since birth, and I was perpetually exhausted trying not so much to tame her, but to channel her.
But as a I stole a glance at her in the rearview mirror during that furious storm, her face was utter calm. Mine was pale and terrified. I told her we’d play a game. We’d count to three as we approached overpasses, where we’d get a brief break from the pounding rain, and there we’d yell, “Whee!” I don’t think she was actually old enough to get the counting part, but she loved the “whee!” It made me feel better, too.
About two hours later, long after the rain past and long after most good one-year-olds would have fallen asleep, she was still happily babbling and whee-ing, and so was I, chatting right along with her.
It dawned on me that strapped down in her car seat, her always-in-motion body was calmed. With me focused on the road, I couldn’t worry too much about her. It was just two beings in a bubble, on a bit more level playing field, lots of circumstance removed so we could just be, as is, together. I was happy and content, and felt like this was the mother-daughter feeling I had been longing for.
And that was the night I realized I might be a better mother when I’m in the car.
Now with two more kids who have each have had their own car moments, I’m even more convinced that’s true. Maybe it’s because we are a city family and we don’t drive much, so car trips still seem special. Or maybe it’s because it’s five of us (counting my husband) crammed into an old Saab and we have no choice but to get along.
In the car, special conversations happen. My son suddenly asks a question about a friend at school, revealing a personal problem. My daughter asks for some kind of spontaneous treat stop, and I say yes. My husband and I realize that one of our favorite parts of driving away for the weekend is sitting in Friday night traffic as the kids doze off— we get to talk uninterrupted, a bonus date night.
I recall reading somewhere that a great time to talk to kids about sex or drugs is when you are driving. You don’t need to make direct eye contact, the physical distance makes a sensitive topic seem less so, and you can easily find an excuse to stop if you need more time to think about your approach. So far, this has held true for me on any number of topics, easy or hard.
Now look, it’s not like we’re the Partridge Family, always gettin’ happy while in transit. There are periods of silence, bickering and me asking for some peace so I can listen to NPR. Car sickness strikes almost every trip over three hours, and that’s a lot of fun. Did I mention five us crammed in a small car?
Nevertheless, I’d argue that time in the car is a great time for us. To talk about anything. To sing or to laugh or to tell jokes or even have a good argument. In our 24/7 logged-on, crazy-work-and-activity scheduled, always-laundry-to-be-folded world, time in the car is stolen time. It’s OUR time and no one or nothing else can own it.
It’s getting harder now, as my first daughter hits 11 and her brother is 8. The kids want to listen to their headphones or ask if they can play on an iPhone. Sometimes I say yes. I get it. I spent an entire drive from Pennsylvania to Illinois listening to The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack on my Walkman 2 when I was 14.
Soon, we’ll probably move from the city to the suburbs, where car travel will become just another part of the daily background noise. We need a new car, and it will undoubtedly be bigger, changing our physical dynamic. And I am sure the dealership will want to throw in some screens and the kids will beg for them. I confess Wi-Fi would be convenient.
So change happens, and progress does, too. Even so, I’m not anxious to let go of our car time, bit by bit. That back seat will be empty soon enough. I’d like our car time to be full and happy — a bit “whee!” joy — as long as it can be.