I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a huge fan of driving. So my angst about the subject I’m writing about today can’t be chalked up completely to parenthood. That’s true. As you’ll come to learn, though, becoming a mom was a turning point for me in becoming paralyzed by fear behind the wheel.
As a teenager, I was *not* the person standing in line at the DMV on my 16th birthday, not being able to wait a single minute to get my permit. My birthday was in April, and it took me a few months to bother taking the written test. I signed up for the driving lessons my high school offered during one of my summer breaks, and ultimately, I did get my license. But unlike for many of my peers, driving wasn’t ever something I described as fun. Necessary and even liberating, yes. Fun, no.
In addition to having been taught to drive by a parent with incredibly high anxiety, I also learned to drive in a pre-GPS era. My sense of direction as a pedestrian has always been amazing. But for some strange reason, that same sense of direction when I’m behind the wheel of a car becomes relatively nonexistent. All of which is to say that my early nervousness about driving had just as much to do with a fear of getting lost as it did with the mechanics of operating a large machine at terrifying speeds.
In my 20’s, I pushed through most of my driving discomfort on my own. I named the GPS as my favorite invention of the 21st century. And I drove when I needed to. My husband and I dated and then got married, all the while not owning a car. Why? Because we lived in the city and could rent one from the Avis rental location across the street from our condo as needed, for a fraction of the price of owning and paying for parking and insurance.
Then I got pregnant, and car shopping began. I test-drove the stellar safety-rated Hondas and Nissans and decided on a sedan, not yet ready for the world of the mini-van. When our little guy arrived, he hated (and I mean hated with a wrath that knew no bounds) his car seat. So I sat next to him in the back of our gold Honda Accord for the whole first year of his life trying – usually unsuccessfully – to get him to calm down so that my husband could focus on the road.
Baby #2 arrived two years later, and what little driving I was doing pretty much stopped completely. I can’t pinpoint the exact date, time, or kid stage when I just wouldn’t drive anymore, but it happened.
The story I told myself was that the risks were too high. I couldn’t be trusted behind the wheel, because two precious and innocent little lives were at stake. If I drove, I’d surely kill us all.
Avoidance is fear’s Miracle Grow, I later learned. The more I avoided driving, the more scared I became of it. And the more scared I became of it, the more I refused to drive. The more I refused to drive, the more I felt ashamed of not being able to.
While my patient husband gently encouraged me, again and again, to get back into the car, he finally reached a breaking point. One in which he just couldn’t do all of the family’s driving all on his own anymore. When we realized, together, how untenable the situation was, I wound up setting up an appointment with my primary care physician.
Dr. Kate, in whom I had already confided about being anxious about other things, steered me to an organization that has transformed my – and my family’s – life many times over: The Ross Center. When I called and told the intake folks what I was looking for, they scheduled me with a clinician who specialized in phobias. But guess what this woman does: She drives in the car with people who are scared to drive. She flies on airplanes with people who are scared to fly. Did you know such miracle workers existed? I certainly didn’t!
During my first in-the-car session, we just sat there for a while, with me in the driver’s seat. The therapist put no pressure on me even to put the car into drive. “Exposure therapy” I suppose. When I got up the courage to cruise around the neighborhood with her, she narrated out loud for me a helpful dialog I could use to replace the anxious loop running through my head. She even got me into a traffic circle during that first appointment.
Six sessions later, I still didn’t love driving. But I was okay with it once again. I could get my kids from point A to point B, and even navigate the Beltway around DC. My anxiety around driving isn’t completely gone, but it’s no longer debilitating either.
Lessons From This Fear of Driving
What’s my advice here? First, you’re not alone if having children led you to be scared to drive. (Or to be scared of anything else, for that matter!) When children come into our world, there are SO many reasons to fear for them. Their health. Their safety. How they eat, sleep, live, and breathe. All of it. So it makes perfect sense that if you tend to run a bit anxious anyway, parenthood would just ramp up that anxiety. Of course.
There’s nothing wrong with you if this happens. Also, you don’t have to let these fears lead you to limit your daily activities. Diminish your life. Leave your house. The first time I read about someone being scared to drive (which was, if I recall correctly, in Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project), I felt a huge sense of relief. Knowing I wasn’t the only one struggling made me feel less alone. Less ashamed. And that’s what I hope for anyone reading this who may face similar fears.
For what it’s worth, I think “driving avoidance” is something we all should get more familiar with, whether you suffer from it yourself or not. I’ve heard that more and more teens these days don’t want to get a license, because “why bother when I can take an Uber!” So our own kids may be facing this avoidance-fear cycle one day, too.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave