The Road Not Taken: A Suburban Mom’s Secret Fear of Highway Driving
Years ago, I watched a sports interview on television featuring a professional football player. “My mama ain’t afraid of nothing, and neither am I,” the burly athlete crowed. “Not afraid of nothing.” I remember thinking how I wished I could be more like that fearless player, unfazed by all of the terrible and life-altering tragedies that could befall a person. Indeed, my mama is afraid of so many things, and so am I.
Although my worry index is high, I have dodged the most common fears afflicting Americans today: long legged spiders running through one’s hair, coiled snakes, suffocating closed spaces, and diabolical germs, not to mention thunder and lightning, the sight of blood, and even public speaking. Yet, there is one fear that I have kept to myself. Until today, only a handful of my closest friends have known about it. In fact, there’s a small group of moms in my neighborhood who share this fear, as well. We suffer from vehophobia, an irrational fear of driving a car.
For me and my friends who share this potentially isolating and disruptive fear, we have conditioned ourselves to sit in the driver’s seat of our suburban minivans and transport ourselves, our children, and even other people’s children to school, afternoon activities, sporting events and practices, lessons, birthday parties, doctor’s appointments, and jobs. We may require that passengers in our cars remain quieter than other drivers might request. We may grasp the steering wheel with a tighter grip. Yet, we manage to move everyone from Point A to Point B because that’s part of our job description, and we have no choice in the matter.
The one piece of vehophobia I have not yet conquered, however, is my fear of driving on a highway. Maybe I intuitively understand that my reaction time is slow and that my ability to make life-altering decisions while driving at 70 miles per hour may not be the sharpest. I’m no cheetah or peregrine falcon, and if a neighboring driver refuses to let me pass ahead into the exit lane, I don’t want to have to maneuver my car in front of a vehicle hurtling by at raceway speeds.
I didn’t always have this driving problem. On my sixteenth birthday, I earned my driver’s license without any fanfare, although my daughter reminds me that every milestone for teenagers was easier to achieve back in the 1980’s. My older brother gladly served as my chauffeur in high school, as we participated in many of the same extracurricular activities. In twelfth grade, my best friend bought a green, Dodge Dart, and while I rode shotgun, she happily drove us on our adventures. After college, I lived in New York City for almost two decades. Driving a car was not part of my arsenal of skills anymore. When my family moved to the suburbs more than ten years ago, I had to teach myself to drive all over again. While I gradually overcame my aversion to driving on local roads, the highways, however, remained daunting, my own enchanted forest of fear.
Maybe I nursed my children for so long that high levels of the hormone prolactin inhibited my previously more aggressive instincts and left me unable to merge confidently onto the Sprain Brook Parkway. I’ve managed to brave I-287 a few times when no other options were available. I breathe deeply, assure myself that in many respects highway driving is safer than navigating a stretch of a local 30 mile per hour road in which cars are darting out of shops and gas stations with wild abandon and stopping in the middle of the double yellow line lanes waiting to make hasty left turns. I white knuckle it down the narrow Bronx River Parkway like a new pilot landing an aircraft in a storm on a short landing strip. I refuse to be paralyzed by my anxiety, but I can’t seem to push through the fear of highways.
Today, a mom I admire and respect asked me to help shepherd some teenagers to a birthday dinner in New York City, which is about twenty miles south of our town. If I could drive my car, she would be able to provide transportation for all of her daughter’s guests. I wanted to help her so much, but the thought of driving a car full of young people into New York City made me burst out in a cold sweat. For a second, I thought about blaming my son’s summer baseball game for my inability to help with the carpool. Then, I just owned it. “I’ve never told you before, but I’m afraid of driving on highways. I’m even more skittish about dealing with aggressive New York City drivers. I’m sorry I’m useless to you. I could take a bunch of kids on the train if you’d like.” I said it. For years, we shared carpools to ballet class and religious school, and I never revealed this fear. I was so embarrassed on the phone I wanted to cry.
“No worries,” she responded immediately. “I never knew, or I never would have bothered you with this.” She was so understanding. And she wasn’t afraid to drive on unlit highways at night, to boot. I wanted to kick myself for my incompetence.
I wish I could end this story by sharing a brave postscript- that I called her back, pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, and drove a car filled with singing, giggling kids into the City for a wonderful celebration. What really will take place is that my daughter will be taking a train to the party, and the birthday girl’s dad will be driving her home.
This year, though, I’m going to tackle this fear with incrementally increased exposure to highway driving, and I’m going to try not to beat myself up for not being perfect at everything. I may cringe at the thought of driving on the highway, but I have other qualities that make me a valuable human being. Psychologists note that people fear driving on highways not simply because of the high speeds, but also because of the inability to exit the roads at whim. If I’m afraid of being stuck, I know I need to conquer this limited version of vehophobia because it’s getting in my way. I’ve been taking some picturesque and winding side roads to reach my destinations. But maybe now it’s time to take the wide and fast road not taken.
Sharon Forman is a mom, wife, reform rabbi, bar and bat mitzvah teacher, and owner of a mischievous, but loving dog. The author of The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings and numerous essays on motherhood, she is currently driving little league carpools on local roads.