What I Learned From Siri About Parenting

What I Learned From Siri About Parenting

Art Boy near car

By Beth Touchette

“Okay, you need to get in right lane…”

My seventeen year old son flipped his turn signal, which prompted the cars already in the right lane to accelerate past us.

“Do I really have to?”

The solid line of no lane changes was rapidly approaching. “Yes, unless you want to go 5 miles past our turn off.”

As I recalculated our route home if we exited one or two exits north, the right lane cleared. Bryce exited into downtown San Rafael, at a faster speed than I liked.

“Now what lane should I be in?” he demanded.

My son got his driver’s license months ago, but he lacks confidence. The latest phase of his driver education is either my husband or I taking the role of a souped up Siri on his iphone who provides directions, comments about possible unpredictable actions from other drivers, and gives lots of compliments.

Although I was tempted to chastise my son for his rude tone, I continued to talk in a calm, slow voice, just like the voice of Siri.

“You should stay towards the left. In ½ a mile, turn left on Ca-sa A-zul Road.” I mispronounced the Spanish the way Siri does, but Bryce did not laugh.

We arrived at the Safeway parking lot. A pedestrian from out of nowhere trotted into the parking slot Bryce was approaching. I gasped. Bryce, who has already stopped, glared at me. “You are not helping,” he hissed.

Siri doesn’t gasp. She never lets her emotions get the best of her, even when drivers ignore her or ask lewd questions.

She’d be a better parent for an almost adult.

Next fall, my son will be off to college. I wish I could program a Siri Mom into his phone. She would warn him that nearby drivers might suddenly merge into his lane when they realize they have to exit. At the college dining hall, she could suggest he eat some eggs at breakfast, so he doesn’t get hungry later on. On Friday nights, she would remind them that the consumption of alcohol could lead him to make poor romantic choices. On Sundays mornings, when he finally wakes up, she could suggest, in a non-guilt inducing tone, to call his family.


Mom I Need A Ride

Mom I Need A Ride

Art-Mom-I-Need-a-Ride-768x630By Francie Arenson Dickman

Back in 1998, right before we got married, my husband suggested that we trade in both our cars for a new one. And so, we did. I traded in my black two-door Honda, a tiny thing that fit nothing except for me, a death trap according to my parents, for a bigger one. A safer one. A car that could and would carry children. My husband, who loves all things auto—I assume because he’s from Detroit—was giddy with excitement. But I, who tends to love merely what’s mine, stood in my Ann Taylor suit unloading tapes of Enya and Indigo Girls from the glove compartment, maps from the side pockets and cried. I wasn’t just trading in a car, I was mourning the end of an era. I was saying goodbye to my solo passenger status and paying my respects to the concept of mine and only mine.

And with good reason. In a matter of years, the backseat was occupied with carseats and with twin backwards-facing riders. My glove compartment was filled with pacifiers. My side compartments were stuffed with toys and wipes. My CDs played Ralph, but who could hear him over the all the crying. For driving, like for mothering itself, these were tense times.

But, the reliable thing about time is that for better or worse it keeps rolling on, and with it so did we. From facing backwards to forward, from boosters to butts. From Montessori straight through middle school, I drove on. Until, suddenly, a decade and a half later, we’ve reached a marker, not a destination, but a rite of passage. As it is time, a friend just brought to my attention, to sign my passengers up for Driver’s Ed. Their classes won’t start until September. They won’t have their licenses for another year after. Nonetheless, the end of another road is in sight. A road I never imagined would end. Napping, I always knew was a phase. Just like the park, Princesses and playdates. But the carpool, like Twinkies and cockroaches, seemed like something that couldn’t possibly expire.

“When one door closes another one opens,” my mother told me that day I gave away my Honda. She tells me this often, as I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the passage of time, and she was, of course, right. Though I had no idea that when the door to the Honda shut, the next one would be opening and closing ad nauseam for the next 15 years. Had I only known that I would be blessed not only with two daughters but the job of chauffeuring them around, maybe I wouldn’t have cried so hard. Or maybe I would have cried harder.

Driving’s what I do—it’s what we all do. Working the wheel is an essential part of the parenting job. On most weekdays, I’m in and out of the car from 3:00 to 8:30 pm, and on weekends we go to dance shows out in Timbuktu. Is it tiresome? Yes. Do I complain about it? Certainly. Would I trade it in for another two-seater? Not for the world. At least not now.

Although my husband is now bugging me to do it. Once again, what is to me a momentous occasion is to him simply an opportunity to head to a dealership. “Let’s get you a new car, maybe something a little smaller,” he tells me. He wants to hand down my big old car to our daughters. The bigger, the better, he says, as far as their safety is concerned.

But I know better. As does Bessie, my first car, a Caprice Classic station wagon, the biggest car ever created. Together we crashed into fire hydrants, backed into other parents’ cars, and plowed through the dry wall of our garage. In fairness to us, Bessie didn’t give a warning beep when we got too close to objects like cars nowadays do. All I had was 3 or 4 of my backwards-facing friends to scream after the damage was done. In this regard, I suppose my kids will have technology on their side. On the flip side, I didn’t have a phone in Bessie to distract me. And so, regardless of the car they drive, I am worried. Times two.

But more than that, I’m not ready to come full circle. Although this time around, it’s not the car itself that I care about losing. I’m mourning the loss of my status as driver.

“Mom, can you give us a ride?” is the most commonly asked question in our house (next to “Mom, do you have any money?”) One would think I’d hate those words by now. Those reliable words. They ring down from upstairs. They appear as texts on my phone at random and often inconvenient times. But I say, “yes” whenever I can, not because I’m such a good sport, but because I’m selfish, as it’s now almost only the car, or more accurately, my ability to drive it, that continues to reliably bind us.

My black SUV has become the last great bastion of guaranteed togetherness—like a prison for teenagers—a place where my girls who once faced backwards and cried now sit next to me and talk, albeit reluctantly, about their days. Most of which are spent away at school or with friends. At night, of course, I lose them to their rooms. But during those afternoon hours in the car, or better yet, the weekend hour after hour going to dance shows, they are still mine and only mine.* And I love that. I always have.

*Okay, well, like 60% mine and 40% Snapchat’s.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Driver’s Training

Driver’s Training


“Where are we going, Dad?”

“I don’t know.”

*   *   *

When your mother and I brought you home from the safety of the hospital we set you on the bed, looked at you, looked at each other, and then looked at you some more. You were wrapped up in a blanket the size of a hand towel in what the nurses called a “baby burrito.” I remember thinking you ought to look a lot more stunned than you did because, after all, you were just born—very recently nothing. Wasn’t being so newly alive a shocker? Not really. You emitted a steady vibe of unimpressed composure. All you did for the moment was blink and sometimes yawn. Parenting, I thought, was going to be easy.

“What do we do with him?” your mother asked, smiling.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

So we took you to a Mexican restaurant and, bored, you watched us eat tacos.

 *   *   *


Now you have a learner’s permit and I’m in the passenger seat while you, behind the wheel, start the engine (of a car). You need to complete 10 hours of driving at night so here we are, in the car, in this thick atmosphere of metaphorical resonance. Take the wheel, son. My life is in your hands. I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and fasten your seatbelt.

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“I don’t know.”

 *   *   *

We could go anywhere. Take a right here. Take a left there. Let’s not know where we’re going. Let’s get lost. Lost, it seems to me, is the truest way to be. Aren’t we always ever lost? Think about it. Where are we going? Slow down. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is no nihilist driver’s training manifesto, depressed and meaningless, looking for a café in which to brood and read postmodern poetry. Not at all. This is about the heightened consciousness that accompanies being lost, the careful attention to the nuance of path, and the joy after joy of discovery. Take a left. What’s more of a bore than knowing where we are and where we’re going? Let’s be existentially honest. Look back over the last 10 years. How apt were your maps? Could you have ever, in your wildest imaginings, dreamed up the journey to here? I mean, really. Is there anything more off the mark than the promise of your plans? Of course there’s not. So where are we going? Who knows? Accelerate out of the turn. There you go. Don’t let that wheel in your hands fool you into a false sense of control. Oh sure, you can turn it left or right—you can speed up and slow down, too—but what you can’t do is know what’s coming down the road, where you are, or where you’re going, especially at night and it’s always, more or less, dark on either side of where you are. Slow down. Pull off, here. Easy! Easy on the brakes.

 *   *   *



“Why are we parked here?”

“I don’t know. I wanted to see that mountain. Check it out. Isn’t it spooky?”

“I guess.”

Here, we sat in the dark silence for 4 or 5 minutes, looking at the mountain. I watched my thoughts wandering around and they wondered what you were thinking. Then, they wandered around wondering about when and how we would die. The dark silence always reminds me of death. Spooky mountains, too. I wondered if you were also thinking about death, but I doubted it because you were probably still wondering about why we were there and where we were going, which, come to think of it, is probably a metaphor for death. And then I suddenly loved you. I remembered your smug nonchalance as an infant and how crookedly we arrived to here and I loved you so much that I thought I might explode from love. There was the moon and the mountain and you have grown up into such a beautiful young man. I wanted to tell you. I should have—but the silence, it seemed, was the mother of this love, and the dark. So I waited until now to write it all down and tell you.

 *   *   *

“Hey, Dad. Which way do I go to get home?”

“I don’t know, Jay. Just pick a way and start driving.”


Photo credit: Scott Akerman

When My Teen Needs a Ride

When My Teen Needs a Ride


My boy and Alisa, the new City Councilor

My boy (on far left) and Alisa, the new City Councilor 

Tuesday was Election Day. In our little city, voter turnout wasn’t high. It’s an off year—no races outside the municipal ones. The Mayor ran unopposed for his second term. There were, however, a couple of heated races for seats on the City Council. One was in our ward; another was across town. My fifteen-year-old cared about the latter more.

He is a political guy, a newspaper reader, conversant in current events—and a rabid fan of The West Wing (and Allison Janney). His extracurricular activities demonstrate this, like Model U.N. and Student Senate. He’s volunteered for campaigns and he’s raised money to save rainforests, starting in third grade. When he was in eighth grade, he asked me to take him—we went on foot—to an anti-death penalty vigil.

The city’s public schools were closed for Election Day, because the elementary and middle schools serve as polling places. My fifteen-year-old woke up, watched some television, ate some breakfast, took a bath—in other words, a lazy, cozy morning and then asked to go to the polls to help out. He needed a little help to push beyond the first email inquiry—and being a teenager, he needed a ride. I would like to be clear to anyone reading this with toddlers in the house: prepare yourself for the shuttling, endless shuttling, ahead. The small creatures you wrestle into clunky harnesses will sit next to you one day and demand to go places. Sometimes, the rides will be chatty and sweet and you’ll like the same music. Other times, adolescent sullenness will rub off on you. Sometimes, it’ll feel convenient or at least easy to give the ride; other times, driving duty will be taxing or completely inconvenient and you’ll wish you were elsewhere.

Personally, I am not a terribly eager driver. Long road trips feel more like injuries to be accrued than places to conquer. Achy neck or back or arm or hips bother me more than the reward of arrival at the other end or the music and the ribbon of road and adventure and the snacks along the way. My sense of direction is shockingly terrible. This past weekend I drove my little gal and her pal to a birthday party and took the wrong road in the suburban outskirts of our town. I’ve lived here decades and I couldn’t trust myself to get from the wrong road to the right one so I turned back and rerouted myself from the erroneous turn rather than risk becoming lost. It was pathetic and a tad bit embarrassing. While I have some fond memories of time spent in cars, and don’t mind the annual trek to the grandparents’ for Thanksgiving—Massachusetts to Philadelphia—or to camp, Massachusetts to Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, I do not seek out the open road.

And I don’t seek out the drive to school or even karate or yoyo class (true story, yoyo class), although, obviously, I dole those rides out like so much Halloween candy on the big night.

Election morning, the ride was not a hardship, merely an inconvenience. I lost ten minutes to the drive, maybe twelve from my workday. He wasn’t grumpy and neither was I. We spent some of the drive time discussing who would pick him up from the polls (short answer: not me). My feelings changed instantly when we got to the middle school-slash-polling place, where I left my tall boy with his grey sweatshirt and big green Alisa Klein button (and sign) beside the candidate to wave at voters and drivers and walkers and bikers. I felt proud of him.

Later that evening, I went to Zumba class. This particular Tuesday night class is taught by our housemate Mim, age twenty-five, and has recently become populated with loads of younger (than me) dancers, including some high school seniors. Immediately after class, I called home for election results (class ends at 8:15 PM). Alisa had won, unseating a conservative incumbent (cheer with me, feel free; it was super exciting). I told the teens—two didn’t know who Alisa Klein was, one cheered along with me and explained to her friends how fantastic and improbable (in that ward) the victory was and mentioned instantly how delighted their friend, an eleventh grader, who’d kept track of date for the campaign, must have felt.

The thing about rides and teens (and kids) is often they are the way to help your kids become involved—in politics, in the community, sure, or whatever else. I find it very difficult to remember that when I feel reduced to taxi service provider. Tuesday, it was awfully nice to be reminded of the fact that these rides aren’t given for naught. The fifteen-year-old, he’d grabbed a ride to the candidate’s victory party, as well.

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Caravan of Chaos

Caravan of Chaos

By Mandy Mays

0-11Driving is a sacred rite of passage, a privilege, but most important – it’s a chance to finally be liberated from the tyranny of parents! Ah, freedom. Who wouldn’t love the chance to leave behind the constraints of parental supervision? Learning to drive, however, is only a sacred rite of passage for teens. For parents, it would be more appropriate to call it a scary rite of passage.

Unfortunately for me, the year I started driving was the year my mother broke her decades-long habit of smoking, reducing her to a bundle of nerves in the car with me. Clutching her makeshift “pretend” cigarette of an empty Bic pen tube, she would cringe as she climbed into the passenger seat. Before I even pulled away from the curb, she would be puffing furiously on her substitute cigarette, clutching the door handle as if it would offer protection. Her nervous tic was punctuated by occasional gasps of horror as I motored down the street … both sides of the street.

I wasn’t that bad of a driver. But still, it was more than her nicotine-deprived body could endure. Needless to say, I was relieved when my mother announced that she had already taught two children to drive and would turn over my driving instruction to my father.

My father was not as nervous as my mother. However, we both had this strange idea that we were ourselves infallible, which led to some heated conversations on whether I had pulled up to the line or not. We would even get out of the car-in the middle of traffic-to prove our point. Our driving adventures came to an abrupt halt after one particularly precarious incident that resulted in many unhappy drivers behind me, horns beeping, and people cursing. After communicating with the other drivers in universally understood sign language, my father got back in the car and said, “Head home.” Side note: I really was right. Honest, my dad was wrong. That didn’t change the fact that he too had endured enough.

So my quest for freedom was temporarily brought to a standstill. Enter my brother, Nick. I thought it would be great to drive with him, my cool older brother who already possessed that coveted scrap of laminated paper proving his right to drive. Our first time together in the car, we had a bit of a falling out over a cat in the road. He wanted me to speed up; I thought making a pancake out of some child’s Fluffy would be cruel. Our ensuing argument was distracting enough that my hands temporarily left the wheel to wave around for emphasis … and our car made contact with the curb. Later, Nick declared to my parents, “It’s hopeless.”

I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to move to a city with an excellent subway system. New York? Washington? Perhaps memorizing bus routes would be a good idea. I had given up hope of ever attaining that elusive prize of a license. Until my brother Paul entered the picture. Paul was different. He was so calm, so steady and sure.

“Mandy, that is a red light. Do you see that light up there? The light above the intersection? It’s red. Okay. That was a red light. Next time we will stop at the red light.” His voice never deviated in tone, always calm and reassuring.

“Mandy, people normally drive on the right side of the road. No, the other right.”

Even when faced with imminent danger he remained a patient teacher. “That was an interesting move, Mandy. However, turning left on red is not legal. Not to mention that doing it in front of oncoming traffic is not a good idea.” How could I fail with an instructor like Paul?

It turned out that I could fail-twice actually-before passing my driver’s exam on the third attempt. But thanks to my big brother, Paul, I passed. He was the pillar of fortitude who never gave up on me.

I firmly resolved that one day, when I had children, I would be the patient instructor that Paul was. I would not scream in terror like my mother, or yell in frustration like Nick. There would be no anxious hyperventilating or whispering of prayers. No, I would be better than that. I would be just like Paul and this would result in my children becoming skilled drivers.

Ha! After the first few times my oldest child took the wheel, I stashed Dramamine in the glove compartment. The constant jerking every few feet was more than my head could take. Motion sickness ruled the car. Forward-BRAKE! Forward-SLAM! Every start and stop was punctuated by, “Sorry.”

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Sorry. The curb surprised me. Is there one of those everywhere?”

“Sorry. Uh-oh. Did I do that?” (Points at shopping cart hurling off from the impact.)

“Sorry. What’s that smell? Tires leave marks on the road? Really? Can we see?”

“Sorry. I forgot you have to put the car in park.”

A series of events prevented my daughter from obtaining her license quickly, which is how I ended up this summer with TWO drivers in training, my daughter and my son. This past week I concluded that the Dramamine was no longer serving its purpose, and moved on to anxiety medication instead.

Both children practiced their skills yesterday. Side note: cemeteries are excellent places to practice. Not only are there “roads” with very little traffic, there is less risk of harm to others. After all, you can’t kill a person who is already dead.

There we were, scooting along the roads in the cemetery, fluctuating between 2 and 30 miles per hour. (The speed limit was 10.) Maybe the anxiety medicine was too strong, because I had the brilliant idea that we should move our practice to actual streets. I gave excellent, precise instructions that my child ignored.

Pulling out of the cemetery, my son confidently sped up, immediately turning into oncoming traffic. I was a frozen statue. Should I yell BRAKES!”? No, we could NOT brake with traffic rushing toward us. Moving forward at the traffic would only escalate our certain doom. Reverse was not an option as we no longer were at the cemetery exit. I couldn’t even yell, “TURN RIGHT!” because there were cars on that side of the road.  So I sat frozen in horror. Fortunately, my son quickly evaluated his options and chose the safest route out of danger: the sidewalk. As the shock wore off, I feebly managed to say, “Next time, we will drive on the right side of the road. No, the other right.”

Sadly, it was not the only sidewalk we frequented that day. Our explorations took us from sidewalks to the left side of the road to the grass edging of yards. At the end of the day, both children came to me and privately expressed their concerns about the other’s driving aptitude. One claimed to have a bruise across his chest from the seatbelt constantly locking with the brakes being slammed. I listened all the while mulling over an epiphany that I had while trapped in the vamoosing van of demolition. (“Sorry.  Will those branches grow back?”)

My revelation was this: Maybe Paul wasn’t as calm as I had previously thought. Perhaps he was not the patient instructor I remembered. Maybe when Paul was in the car with me, he too was frozen in place, unable to use his vocal cords.

Paul, the paragon of driving, may need to brush up on his teaching skills. Because next year, my youngest child will join the ranks of his siblings in the golden age of learners permits. I suspect I will need to call in reinforcements.

Mandy Mays is the mother of three children, and teaches Junior High Language Arts.  Currently, she and her daughter are working on a book chronicling the awesome year she was a student her class.  

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