If you’re a parent, you will recall the first drive you took with your baby in the car. For most of us, that will have been the drive home from the hospital. You will have travelled to the hospital as relatively sane, sensible individuals, in control of your lives (I acknowledge that one of you may also have been in advanced labour and screaming your head off). The journey home, however, is another matter.
You drive home at a snail’s pace, trembling with terror and glaring with ill-concealed violence at all other road users. Why? Because now your heart is outside of your body, and it is strapped into a brand new car-seat beside you. You may be doing everything within your power to keep it safe, but you are hyper-aware that the world is full of dangers over which you have no control: 16-wheeler trucks, demon cyclists, pianos falling from the sky. It’s a humbling, frightening experience.
I took that drive again today. Except this time, my heart wasn’t in the seat beside me, bundled in a too-big snow-white baby-gro and scratch mitts. My heart was at the wheel of the Ford Focus, fifty yards behind me. My son Matt passed his driving test two weeks ago (first time, no minor mistakes, like a boss, as he likes to remind me). At the weekend he and Tom went to look at a car and this morning we went to pay for it and collect it. The chap we bought it from was in Acton, about ten miles from our home in Mill Hill, so we travelled back in convoy. Matt had his best mate in the car with him, who is good at map reading and directions. They also had a sat nav. But it was his first proper drive since he passed his test, and I kept him in my rear-view mirror every step of the way. If a car got between us, I pulled over so that Matt could get behind me again. Even when we turned into the main road half a mile from home and Matt was caught at the roundabout behind me, I waited at the side of the road until he was through. We laughed about that when we got home. “I know my sense of direction’s terrible, Mum,” he said, “But even I knew where I was by then.”
I laughed and hugged him, but what I really wanted to say was, “Let’s give the car back. I’ll drive you anywhere you want to go. No? Okay. Well, everywhere you go, can I drive just in front of you and watch you in my rear view mirror? Please?” I didn’t say that, and I never will. Because I remember the astonishing exhilaration of passing your driving test and getting a car and the fantastic sense of freedom and autonomy that it gives you. I want him to enjoy every minute of that. And I think he is... we were home for about five minutes, and then he and his mate got together a collection of CDs and got back in the car to fulfil their long-held fantasy... a visit to the drive-through KFC. I stood at the door and waved goodbye to them with a big grin.
But let me tell you, today rates as one of the most difficult days of my life as a parent. Pregnancy’s a breeze, labour’s a doddle, nappies, broken nights, teething... all like falling off a log. But knowing how to let those reins slip through my fingers and give my child his freedom... knowing when to do it graciously, sensibly and safely, yet acknowledging the risks, and all the time smiling and waving, while my heart is playing Metallica at ear-splitting volume and driving off up the road.... that was hard.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.