My Voice - 2018

Learner for Life

By Vidya Murlidhar

I do not enjoy driving. Though the writer in me does enjoy drawing parallels between a car journey and life, driving is a skill I have come to learn out of sheer need. I grew up in Mumbai, a city culturally like New York City, bustling and vibrant. A city where we were safer staying off the roads than driving. Now, as the stay-at-home parent who lives in Charlotte, I have come to spend a few good hours of my motherhood in a car.

It's not that I steer with reckless abandon, take my eyes of the road to look at the screen or brake to a screeching halt. But I do tend to annoy folks by being overly cautious. I drive with precious cargo, after all.

So, on a busy Monday morning, when you wish you had just five extra minutes to get to the meeting on time, I am probably the one on NC 16 slowing you down further by driving at 40mph at a 45mph speed zone. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, on your way back from the Harris Teeter or Costco, when all you can think of is putting your perishables away and taking a nap, I am probably the driver ahead who comes to a complete halt at the stop sign where there is no traffic and looks right, left, right – left, right, left – right, left, right again before I inch ahead. And in rare instances, I do when I am under extreme pressure, mix up my turn signals. There are no tickets on my record but judging by the honks I have earned, I think I would be doing other drivers a favor by not being on the road as much. Folks these days have little time and patience for unintended slights and that makes me nervous.

Over the summer when I visited my family in Mumbai, I could not help but marvel at the slick control my young nephew had over his car and the traffic-riddled roads of the city. The natural ease with which he veered the Hyundai in the narrow chasms of space between taxis, trucks, buses, people and the occasional cattle was remarkable. It was a gift the family genes had benevolently bestowed upon him. I did not have it. If I did, trips to Trader Joe's with the compact parking spaces would have been a lot easier.

I must admit I also had a little quirk. I would do anything to not drive on I-77 even if it meant going on a much longer route. I once saw a video of a puppy who was so afraid to climb down a flight of steps that he dove into the bushes alongside the staircase and reached the ground. I was like that.

So, when the earth shattering time came for me to sit in the passenger seat and guide my first-born to hold the reins of a vehicle, I had a tight knot in my stomach. Would I be able to pass on a skill that I did not enjoy and I had struggled with? She was bound to make a few mistakes. That was acceptable but would other drivers on the road be patient if she did? I did not care much if people chided me but I did not want her to be the target. How would she gain confidence if they honked or yelled if she slipped a little? With construction going on at so many places along the roads, things were already so chaotic. Charlotteans had little tolerance for unintended slights.

Our first few rides were uneventful. We chose only well-trodden routes and times when traffic was thin but as the destinations got longer and my instructions more complex, things were not as smooth. To her it seemed like the roads were full of drivers who had not a minute to spare. They were like angry sharks waiting to pounce. Few had the time to wait, yield or stop for another and it began to unnerve her. To make matters worse, at a few tense moments I would be panic stricken and animatedly yell this way, this way, this way! instead of to the right or to the left, leaving her befuddled and subject to more honks. We were not off to a great start.

As I wondered what I could do to put her at ease, I recalled the boards with the letter 'L' in red that we used to put up on our cars in India to let people know we were learners. I surfed the net for something similar and found an even better sign on Amazon. A neon yellow colored sticker that said,

“Student Driver. Please Be Patient."

What a difference that made! Drivers waited, yielded and stopped for her. A few even waved at me as they passed us by with a sympathetic smile. They understood exactly what transgressed an anxious mom's mind. Soon, our rides got easier and my child gained confidence. All people needed was a reminder.

And my writer's mind could not help but draw a parallel – If a sign on a car could change attitudes, how would it be if we parents hung a sign on ourselves that read – “Learner for Life. Please be Patient." In a world where we are quick to judge and blame parenting styles, if for just a moment we stopped before we judged another parent to understand that we are all learners in this bumpy journey.

Every phase of the child's life demands that we learn new skills to smoothen our ride with them. We need to give our kids space when life directs them to change lanes, we need to yield when it directs them to merge. Even though our kids are older and independent we are still learning to let go. What we, parents of teens, really needed was a little encouragement and not another's judgement.

My first born is now off to college but I have so enjoyed the friendliness of the other drivers that the neon yellow sticker still hangs on my car. Soon my younger one will be driving too and I would love for him to know there is much kindness out there.

So, if you are in Charlotte on a crazy Monday morning and you see a not so teenage looking woman driving a grey van with a student driver sticker on it and going at 40mph in a 45mph speed zone, don't honk. Instead spread a little cheer and wave. Here is a mother who needs a little love. And in case you are wondering, I have lost my quirk and now drive on I-77, too.


Vidya Murlidhar's articles have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Mothers Always Write, Grown and Flown, Life Positive and other places.