Learning to Drive
Our eldest son, Oscar is learning to drive. We have taught him many things over the 16 years of his life including how to talk, walk, eat, pray, go to Mass, communicate with others — pretty much everything except how to play musical instruments. But this moment in his development is giving me pause more than any of those other moments in his life.
I think it has something to do with the potentially catastrophic risks associated with driving. We are talking life and death here. Cars are big and heavy. He is just our little boy, after all!
That is how my mind starts to cycle when I think of him beginning to drive. And while all my concerns are true, it is also true that he is a particularly mature young man and a completely comfortable, surprisingly careful, and confident driver.
Thus, as I try to reconcile my “mother’s heart” and actual reality, this has really become a moment of reflection on the very nature of parenthood.
While Oscar is “ours,” he does not belong to us. He has been entrusted to us by God. His safety and care and development and growth are our responsibility. Initially, they are exclusively our responsibility. As time goes on, though, these aspects of his life and well-being slowly become increasingly his responsibility. For him to be a full and thriving and well-integrated man, he must have agency over his life and choices. That is the only way he will ever enjoy the fullness of his successes and feel the weight of shortcomings.
Intellectually, I am definitely convinced of this truth. My heart, however, is not always there. My heart wants to say: We are talking life and death here. Cars are big and heavy. He is just our little boy. It is a tension and a paradox — and that is part of the nature of parenthood too.
While these thoughts and feelings are primarily motivated by care and concern for Oscar, I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that there is also a sense of questioning: did we do enough? Did we do it right? Did we do the very best we could? What didn’t we do that we should have done?
Recently I found a poem by Sharon Olds. I found it comforting because I think it does the job of beautifully articulating just this moment in the life of each parent. If the poet can write it, then she must have felt it. I take some comfort in knowing this is a shared feeling and experience among parents. Even if the circumstances of the moment vary, the sentiment is likely universal. That means that Mary may have felt this way about Jesus, thousands of years ago; a father in France felt this way about his daughter, Joan, and indigenous parents in Mexico felt this way about their son, Juan Diego, hundreds of years ago; and my parents felt this way about me a couple of decades ago.
We are united in the humanity of our worry and concern, but also in the divinity of our confident reliance upon and faith in Providence. Our children are only “ours” for a short time.
The Summer Camp Bus Pulls away from the Curb
Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two
Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, and there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is stored
in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever is laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
- Sharon Olds