A Mother's Featherless Fledgling

I'M going to take driver's ed as my winter sport," Matt informed me the day after his 15th birthday.

"Sport?" I said, my mind reeling. "Like Dodge-ems?"

"Extra-curricular activity, then," he amended, his assertive tone unchanged.

His assertiveness is tentative, designed as much to buttress his own wavering self-confidence as to stave off his parents' anticipated objections. The past few months, Matt has grown like bamboo - inches overnight. When he calls the dogs or answers the phone, I hear his father's voice now, surprisingly deep and resonant.

But driving. It isn't the first big step our children have taken.

Bit by bit, they have been walking away from us and into their own lives for years. Yet, certain steps seem larger than others and this one is huge - for us as well as for him. A great leap from the nest. I suddenly thought of the robin who raised three babies outside our dining-room window.

At first, she was indefatigable, expending every ounce of energy to feed and protect her charges. But as they grew, she gradually stopped feeding them at every peeped demand. Instead, she spent more time on the ground, hunting out worms in the near vicinity, occasionally chirping to her offspring who peered in fascination at the expanse of lawn and flower bed beyond their nest.

Finally, one day, she stood on the ground not far away from their perch, and called them. In answer, one youngster, three-quarters fledged, rose and staggered to the edge of the nest. He cast several backward glances at his nest mates, then looked again at his mother, who stood on the ground, chirruping for him to spread his wings and take a leap.

After long deliberation, the baby jumped, fluttering on undersized wings to a clumsy landing at her feet. Eventually, each bird made its first flight, then a second and a third, assurance and control improving each time.

I know, as the robin did, that capability can increase only with knowledge and experience, but those first, three-quarters-fledged trials are the rub. The robin urged her offspring toward their independence, whereas my children are striding away of their own volition and I must accept the changes with grace. While I see the marvelous possibilities as well as the potential perils, my children see only the exhilaration of their growth.

I remember the feeling well.

Only now that I am a parent do I realize what a gift my parents gave me and my brother, letting us go with apparent confidence in both themselves and in us. Like the robin, they did all they knew how to do, then trusted to God for the rest.

In preparation for my first solo drive, my father insisted I change a tire as he watched. Then he put tools and a few spare parts in the car. On a highway one rainy night, I learned on my own how to change a radiator hose with the tools he had given me.

In preparation for this new step in our lives, my husband, Gary, and I have been teaching Matt (and occasionally, Abby) to drive on the farm lanes of friends. But these trials are contained, both literally and figuratively. Matt's assertion about driver's ed was his announcement that he will not be contained much longer.

Although I find the thought of his first three-quarters-fledged flights unnerving, a test of my faith, I also find it exciting. In addition to his eagerness for independent privilege, he shows an increasing sense of responsibility. He willingly works for the benefit of the whole household, taking pride in taking care of business. He shows appreciation for the work his father and I both put into being parents. And, the other night, in an unplanned but convenient pre-driving reversal, he waited up for me one night when I phoned to say I had been delayed at a meeting (which taught him - I hope - that a phone call is consideration, not clinging).

His growing responsibility, despite occasional lapses, is conscious. He's becoming a young man, slowly taking his life out of our hands and into his own. The goal, as the mother robin knew, is to work ourselves out of our jobs as parents. As I listen to my children consult each other more, and us less, I hear kind counsel and a comforting amount of sense.

But driving ....

I AM, like most human parents, of two minds. Part of me would love to keep my son small forever. Those are joyous years. But the other part of me doesn't want to stand in the way of the man he is becoming. And, in truth, I will be glad of a second (capable) driver. I put 2,000 miles a month on the car.

I looked over at my son in the passenger's seat. His eyes were focused straight ahead on his anticipated freedom, his jaw set against what he feared would be my opposition to it. He waited for my objection to his taking driver's ed. I was pretty sure he couldn't get his driver's permit until he was at least within striking distance of 16, so I did not need to puncture his plans. The driving teacher would do that. (We'll discuss his on-the-road apprenticeship later.)

In two weeks, Matt glumly informed me that he was ineligible for a driver's permit until three months before his 16th birthday - now nine months away. I had been granted a reprieve. Enough time, I hope, to screw my courage - and my faith - to the sticking place.

I only hope I have the robin's grace.

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