"Mommy, my ear hurts!"
Crap. I can feel the fever emanating from Simon's skin. Our family is in Boulder, Colorado visiting my Aunt Meridith. It never fails. Every vacation longer than a week ends up with the need for a pediatrician. Jack is on a business trip in Denver, so I'm alone with the kids and Meridith for a few days. Meridith's neighbor knows a pediatrician, but I realize that I'm going to have to ask Meridith to drive us there. I hate anything that calls attention to my driving phobia.
When I ask, I try to be as casual as possible: "I got an appointment, but it's kind of far away and perhaps you could drive us?" She is very gracious - it is no problem. She even keeps Gus busy in the waiting room. On the way home, armed with a prescription for Simon's double ear infection, we head for a pharmacy.
"Thanks, Mer, I really appreciate your taking us. I'm not really used to driving around here." I can't bring myself to say the word: phobia. The truth is I'm not "used" to driving anywhere, anytime.
Her response: "Oh I know you don't drive. But, now that you brought it up, why don't you?"
I don't want to answer. It's my most dreaded question, right up there with "How come you never talk about your father?" -- though I have become more and more comfortable with the latter.
"It's something I'm working on. But I really don't want to talk about it." I pray for the pharmacy to be close, to get me out of this car. I don't want to have this conversation, especially in front of my children.
Meridith goes on, oblivious. "Well, it's just that I've been thinking, you, of all people, a feminist. . ." Her voice takes on a smug tone, like she's really hit on the right argument. "I mean, driving is really a feminist issue, for women. . . being able to be free, go where you want. . ." I've never heard her use the word "feminist" before.
I cut in "That is true; it's a bit more complicated than that. One's fears and one's beliefs don't always perfectly match up." I don't know why I engage her; it's none of her business. I love Meridith, but I don't feel close enough to her to have this conversation. I want to put up a boundary, but I hate confrontations.
"Yes, but really, you of all people, being that you're such a feminist," she repeats.
I hate her self-righteousness, and how when we end this conversation she's going to think she's right. But I don't want to talk to her about my steps towards driving. That struggle is mine and no one else's. I don't want her to think she's "helping" me. I need to end this conversation.
"Meridith, I'm done talking about this. Oh, here's the pharmacy!"
"Just please, dear, think about what I said." She gives my shoulder a little tap.
Inside, I flinch. But I don't say anything. I'm just going to let it go. Driving is my thing. Whether I make progress or not is my thing. The most infuriating thing, though, is that if I do make progress she's going to think she influenced it with our little chat. That she loves me and means well only makes it more difficult to hear.
The truth is her words hit home. But not in the way that she thinks. I know perfectly well the significance driving has, its connection with feminism. In countries with oppressive patriarchies, women aren't allowed to drive. In America, driving symbolizes freedom. I spent hours in my previous life as an academic and activist exploring all sorts of ideologies and their implications for "real life." Hearing those words coming from her mouth sets my stomach ablaze. She has no idea of the significance of the connections she was making. No idea how often I've beat myself up over them, told myself I should be stronger. The hours I've spent talking about this with my therapist, my husband, and more recently, my close friends. Does she think the idea that driving is a feminist issue hasn't occurred to me?
We go into the pharmacy and she doesn't bring up the subject again for the rest of the trip.
Weeks later, Simon asks me: "Mommy, why don't you know how to drive?"
I wonder how much of that conversation with Meridith he took in. We are alone in our backyard, lying on the hammock and playing the "cloud shape" game.
"I don't like it very much. Do you think that cloud looks like a car?" I'm hoping he changes the subject.
"But why don't you like it?" He's not getting distracted. I don't want to lie to him, and I don't want to set a bad example. So I don't know what to say.
"It scares me." I go with my gut.
"Because you go so fast?" he asks.
"Yes, it feels out of control to me."
"I think I'll love it. When I grow up, I'll drive you places, Mommy!"
Man. I picture a teenaged Simon saying to his friends "Sorry, I can't go to the movies, I have to drive my mommy to the grocery store." What a sweet guy. I don't know what to say or how to say it. I think for a while.
"Thank you, Simon, that's really nice. But even though it's scary, I'd like to try to do it myself."
At least I think I would. I'd like to show him that it's important to overcome fears, especially irrational ones. It has been easy all these years because no one was watching me. Or so I thought. Despite everything I've been through with postpartum depression, I've at least been able to say my children haven't been damaged. I know that luck has played a huge part in that, but now Simon is becoming cognizant. He can tell me what affects him and I can't look the other way.