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Motherhood Has Ruined This For Me Forever

Photograph by Twenty20

Increased self-awareness comes with motherhood and age. You realize you are not always what you claimed or thought. Among the myths I've believed about myself for years is that I am a very good driver.

Despite once being called "that psycho in the Jeep," and despite doing massive damage to and later actually totalling my first car as a teen, I've always loved the freedom of being behind the wheel.

After an incident I had with his car, my father once said to me—and I think it's a great metaphor for life—that I need to "learn the difference between a scratch and an accident." My mother, on her deathbed, made a point of saying I was not to get her Volvo.

Nonetheless, I have held licenses in three countries, have been confident driving on the "wrong" side of the road in places where that's the done thing and have twice driven across America by myself—once in a 22-foot truck.

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When I moved to the Netherlands, I embraced the biking culture and availed of the amazing public transportation system. For seven years, I did not own a car, nor drive one. I did everything by bike, train or feet.

Even as the mother of two, I was able to get around on a bike with two child seats. But when pregnant for the third time, being able to drive felt urgent, necessary.

We had a car by this point—a company car, thanks to my husband's job—but I had let my U.S. license expire. Getting my Dutch one meant passing a theory exam as well as a practical one. I would have to go to driving school.

I never took drivers' ed. At 17, I was taught by my father to drive a stick shift in a field in Germany, where we lived at the time. My practical driving test involved about 15 minutes of mostly just driving straight and turning once or twice. It's fair to say, I may not have been properly vetted at the start.

Still, I've been driving since 1990 and was sure in my practice test at the Dutch driving school that I'd be told I could skip lessons and just take the test. Instead, I was told I would need to do 10 hours on the road with an instructor first.

It is not cheap, and I assumed this was just some way to get a lot of money out of me. I resented it, but I was nearly six months' pregnant and decided to make the best of it: I would use it as Dutch practice.

The instructor and I drove two hours at a time, and actually it was kind of fun. We listened to music; he taught me dirty jokes in Dutch.

The instructor and I drove two hours at a time, and actually it was kind of fun. We listened to music; he taught me dirty jokes in Dutch. Sometimes we ran little errands for him, including once picking up a package at his house: a neck brace, which he casually put on without acknowledging and which remained the elephant in the car the rest of our sessions.

"Your Dutch," he later told me, after I'd failed my practical exam, "is better than your driving." He told me I was too confident and that it was dangerous, and he dismissed my years of experience on the road as being "too American," where he said everyone drives big automatic cars on highways.

In fact, automatics bore me, and I'd mostly driven in Boston, where road maneuvers are infamously reckless and unpredictable, and in San Francisco, where I'd managed to parallel park a 1971 Karmann Ghia daily, often on 30-degree-angle streets.

When preparing for the theory exam, I decided to read the book aloud and memorize every number, fact and statistic. But the book was vague, psychological. "Learning to use the road safely is a slow process. Not because you lack the intelligence, but because traffic is made by people. People who are all very different as to nature, mood, mentality, and age."

I failed that exam the first time, too.

I signed up for a two-day test prep class designed for foreigners, mostly from non-western countries. We were taught the correct answers rather than the reasoning behind them, such as, "Never give the right of way to the left, because you never eat with your left hand," "Yield if you can see both ears of the oncoming traffic," and, "If there is a tram in the question, the answer is always tram."

Culturally, it was interesting. One man, I believe from Kenya, was asked what it means when a traffic cop holds his hand out to the left. "In my country," he said, "it means you have to give him money." I aced the test.

Driving is certainly safer these days, but it's no longer fun, no longer time alone to sing loudly and feel free.

I started 10 more driving hours with a new instructor, who taught me how many seconds to count when looking at each mirror to prepare for a turn (we once turned a square of lefts for an hour). He showed me with a paper plate where to hold my hands when operating the wheel. I was humbled, but committed.

"Driving is like football," he told me. "You have to think about offense and defense." He asked what sport I played growing up, and I said softball. "Ah!" he said. "Hit and run!"

But at last, about six weeks' before my child arrived, I had a license.

And then the first time I drove with my children in the car, I was terrified. My first experience driving into Amsterdam with a newborn, an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old was, not coincidentally, also the first time I f-bombed in front of my children ("Mommy, why did you call that man a duck?").

Today, I would say that I am actually a good driver. I stick to the speed limit and focus more. The music can't be too loud, I can't manage the distraction of a coffee cup, and I'm uncomfortable when it's raining or dark.

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And with the children in the car, I obsess about car seat straps and whether we will need a bathroom break. I concentrate on the road while keeping backseat tantrums at bay and forbidding anyone to open the windows.

Driving is certainly safer these days, but it's no longer fun, no longer time alone to sing loudly and feel free. So while my license is good for my pride, my bus pass is better for my nerves.

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