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Mom without wheels

My daughter's friend asks why I don't drive. How do you explain phobias and anxiety to a five-year-old?

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

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Another day, another parking lot. I watch other mothers wave to each other with cellphones and key chains dangling from their hands, blissfully free of groceries and purses that are safely stowed in their behemoth vehicles.

They don't realize how lucky they are, hopping into and out of the steel machines. To them it's second nature. Not for me.

I stand in the schoolyard weighted down with shopping bags and a briefcase. For a few seconds each afternoon, I feel the pricks of hot shame rise above my collar. I have to shake it off and get the kids, careful not to reveal my embarrassment. It's not just that I don't have a car. I am the only mother who doesn't drive.

I am the only mother who will walk her kids home today, not just willingly but out of necessity.

I watch with envy as the kids pile into other moms' cars for play dates and lessons. I can't reciprocate.

Technically, I can drive, but I choose not to. Long ago, I decided that my sanity and public safety trump the convenience of four wheels and a carpool.

And yet, at the dinner table the other night, my five-year-old daughter's friend tries to ferret out the meaning of what she has overhead: "My mom says you don't drive. Why?"

How can I explain phobias and anxiety to a five-year-old? I smile cheerily, say, "Because I don't," and pass the French fries.

The undeniable fact is that my five-year-old and her nine-year-old sister often question my "choice." For their sake, I prefer to call it a choice rather than a fear.

But I think they sense the fabrication. How can I possibly encourage them to try to skate, learn to dive, taste a new food, when I won't try to conquer my own fear?

It wasn't always this way. I had the best of intentions. I tried driving school when I was young but the instructor yelled at me. Even back then my inability to remember which one was the brake and which one was the gas presented a serious impediment to my progress.

In my outspoken feminist phase during law school, I tried a women's-only driving school, certain that my fears were somehow related to male dominance and gendered politics. This course got me my licence, but my unwillingness to make left turns soon meant it became just another piece of unused plastic in my wallet, alongside dozens of out-of-date loyalty cards.

I tried again when my first child was born. The idea of driving my infant daughter around town — without a care in the world, free to roam Costco and the grocery store alone and uninhibited — initially appealed to me. That is, until I got into the car and turned on the ignition. The fear would envelop me and I would scurry back into the house, ashamed and shaking. So now I am simply a mother who doesn't drive.

On the hot asphalt of the school parking lot, one of the moms asks if her daughter can come home with us today.

I dread this moment. "Sure, if she wants to walk. I don't have a car."

The mom appears not to comprehend me, so I spell it out for her.

"You're kidding! I have never heard of a mom who doesn't drive," she says. She regards me quizzically as if confronted by a mom with two heads. "That is so weird. How do you manage?"

I want to say with great difficulty, a husband who loves me for my brain, not my road skills, tons of help from grandparents and friends, and a heaping daily dose of stress. But I don't. I grit my teeth and say, "Oh, you know, we manage."

But I know this isn't true. While mothers around the world can't afford cars, and we live in a city blessed with great public transportation, the sad reality of an urban, middle-class existence with two active and athletic children practically demands access to a car.

"Can your daughter come over on Saturday?"

My response: "Only if you can pick her up and drive her back home, as my husband is at a conference."

"Can your daughter do gymnastics with mine on Thursdays?"

I reply, "Only if it is walking distance since I don't drive."

Unlike other phobics, the hodophobic mother must state and confront her fear every day, several times a day.

But perhaps there is a message in all this that I can impart to my girls. I pause as I tell my younger daughter not to complain about her suspected lactose intolerance. I patiently explain this is just one more attribute that makes her unique.

As I look into her warm chestnut eyes and then meet the intense blue eyes of her older sister, I too am reminded that it's our differences that make us special. One daughter's blond hair, the other's curly ringlets; one daughter's great voice, the other's ability to skate — this makes them who they are.

So I take a moment to remind them that I too am special. I'm their raven-haired, brown-eyed, voracious-reader, law-school-educated, non-driving mom.

Bonnie Goldberg lives in Toronto.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu.

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