Leah Gallagher has this really evocative profile in her book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving (2013). She follows around a suburban mom named Diane Roseman, as she schleps her four children daily to a dizzying array of after-school activities – swimming, chess, ballet, Hebrew School, soccer, jazz, etc., etc. “I’m in my car from morning till night,” she says. “My car knows the way to gymnastics.”
This vignette was so vivid and relatable, Andy Wiese and I put it in our book The Suburb Reader, 2nd edition. This suburban car dependency, many agree, is a major failing of the suburban form itself. It’s bad for the environment, for the social freedom of kids, and it drains out parents who spend countless hours chauffeuring their kids. Roseman complained that since “kids didn’t really run around outside and play in the subdivision,” it meant she had to coordinate all of their social and extra-curricular activities herself, to places that required a drive. That car dependency fostered a distinct strain of helicopter parenting. It took autonomy away from her kids, and put oversight and more responsibility on Roseman herself.
The schlepping mother is something that’s been around for at least the past 70 years. A New York Times profile from 1955, for example, described how Mrs. Dan Donaldson of White Plains, NY, logged 300 miles a week behind the wheel as a carpool mom. It’s exhausting just reading about it.
I’ve been one of these schlepping moms myself for the past 15 years. And now, it’s stopping.
As a family, we’re doing the more responsible thing, at least from an urban-studies-regional-planning perspective. My ninth grader has started taking the Metro to school. And my schlepping has been reduced to a short drive to the station. She loves the independence. We’re curbing our contribution to LA’s smog. We’re choosing public over private transit.
And yet, I’m feeling a deep sense of loss.
See, those 20-minute morning drives to school were a consistent time when I could fully check in with my daughter. We’d go over the logistics of the day, discuss friend dilemmas, share ridiculous stories. We talked politics, school dances, social media, and the unfolding, confusing, exciting, ridiculous process of adolescence. We shared music, introducing each other to new artists and expressing total vocal freedom – with the windows rolled up most of the time. Yes, we had plenty of mornings where we drove each other crazy. And a few when an assignment, lunch, or absolutely essential change of clothes was left – we discovered halfway down the hill – on the kitchen table. So for me, it meant a double-round trip and a late start to my workday.
For us, our commute time was a time to communicate.
That routine borne of car dependency fortified the bonds between me and my kids. It was a time of day when we were necessarily forced into a common space in close proximity, a moment of easy interaction, a kind of routinized accessibility. It was the gift of my kids, in the flesh.
Maybe I’m getting a little nostalgic about all of this. I know what’s coming in the near future. With my oldest off at college, I’ve gained a fresh, intense appreciation for the physical proximity of my kids. I know their freedom is good, and that independence and self-reliance is a crucial part of their own growth.
Still, I’m appreciating in new ways those old, environmentally irresponsible routines when the face-to-face time in the car was a regular part of my day. We’ll have to carve it out in new ways.
I would have never predicted that I’d be missing my schlepping time. I know that was a life choice that worked against urban sustainability. But for me, it fostered a kind of emotional well-being that I’m just now recognizing – now that it’s disappearing from my everyday reality.
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That gorgeous photo at the top taken by Andy Wiese... it also graces the cover of our book The Suburb Reader
I migrated my blog SuburbanMe to this website... losing all of my comments in the process! I am sorry to lose those terrific insights from my readers.