No Babies on Board

Why the inside of your ride seems suddenly cavernous

To everything, there is a season, and to every season here, there is a car.

Not that this isn’t the case in a lot of America, but in Orange County, life takes place in transit. Meals, naps, bad-hair days, proposals, births, deaths, divorces—more stuff than you would expect takes place on the freeway. After a few years, your whole history sorts itself into makes and models. Your old boyfriend’s motorcycle becomes mental shorthand for high school; your first job turns into an extended montage of you in a dinged-up Fiat.

I was driving a ’66 Mustang with a pony interior and bad brakes when I met my husband, a single father. That meeting was the beginning and end of a season; in the time it takes to say “U-turn,” this single woman became a parent. You could almost hear life turn, turn, turn, as the song goes. Or maybe that was just my brakes screeching. In any case, I got a Volvo and from then on, it was baby-on-board season. Never again would I imagine the road of life without kids in the back seat.

Until now.

This year, for the first time in a quarter-century, no one in my family needs me to drive them anywhere. I have officially been terminated as an unofficial chauffeur.

No more getting up at dawn to take somebody to sports practice. No more rising at midnight to retrieve somebody from an aborted sleepover. No more listening to people bicker about who gets to ride shotgun, or fielding complaints about how lame our car is compared to the cup-holder-rich SUVs of the other parents. No more hauling this one to this doctor appointment and that one to that music lesson while loose socks and backpacks pile up like a traveling episode of “Hoarders.”

Just the jangle of keys and a cheerful, “See ya!” as the last 16-year-old in the house slams the door.

This is a big deal, the moment when all your children are licensed, and it doesn’t get talked about much, not even here. It sneaks up on you in a way that doesn’t happen with life’s other game-changers. Pregnancy, retirement—everyone knows those will be adjustments. But parents always seem shell-shocked when they find themselves alone again in the car for the first time. My theory is that when you’re down in the trenches of child-rearing, your horizon narrows until you simply can’t see a day when you’ll ever stop carpooling. You go into a fugue state. It’s just you and the road and Radio Disney, forever. Then, a decade and a half passes and you’re there.

Suddenly, adolescents no longer are gossiping in the back seat, and you can’t say for sure what music your children are listening to. Those moments on the way here or there, where you could chat or nag or joke or sit quietly, just another parent and child trapped together in a moving vehicle—that season is over. Now they’re separate people, driving themselves.

And you’re alone at the steering wheel, remembering how you did Lamaze breathing for this one all the way down the Santa Monica Freeway. And how that one used to fall asleep in her car seat the minute the SUV started to move. And how the other one smiled as if you were an old friend when she realized that you, too, knew that the obscure song on the radio was by Joy Division. Remembering when everyone you cherished could be safely buckled into one, big, mobile unit. Wondering what you’re going to do with all this leftover legroom.

Now, for better and worse, it’s a new season. Time to start the engine. Time to get in gear. Time to merge with the generation of solo commuters asking: What’s the best make and model for empty-nesting season? Because that’s how we roll here—we remember our road rules: No stopping. Objects will always be closer than they appear.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.