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Sandy Banks

A Change in Vehicle and Self-Image

November 13, 2001|Sandy Banks

To me, it reeks of luxury, with leather seats, doors that glide open at the flick of a button, dials that monitor temperature and direction, and more cup holders than any family needs.

To my teenage daughter, however, the new vehicle sitting in our driveway screams "nerd" like high-water pants or white socks with mules. When I get behind the wheel of my minivan, she says, I advertise to the world that I've joined the ranks of the uncool.

"I'll never ride with you again," she threatened when I first mentioned that I was thinking of trading in our SUV. Even when you're away from the kids, minivans mark you as a mom, like a silk blouse soiled with spit-up stains. Her classmates have coined a nickname for the procession of women who roll through the carpool line each day, disgorging kids through sliding doors and backpacks from behind motorized tailgates: Mad Mom in a Minivan.

A woman whose life is consumed by the tasks of child-rearing--carpooling, grocery shopping, soccer practices, the daily commute. A woman who has turned her back on glamour and adventure and resigned herself to meeting her family's needs.

"Do you want to be like that?" she asks me. And I wonder how she can conjure up that picture of a mother and not recognize me.

Never mind all the grumbling about SUVs as gas-guzzling, road-hogging symbols of wretched excess. I tuned out the complaints and loved mine with a passion, not just for its power and steady performance, but for what it represented, and what it said to the world about me.

There was something about sitting up so high, with all that room and tons of steel, that gave me a sense of invincibility. It was my one concession to living large; an unapologetic display of self-indulgence in a family marked by frugality. And in a household without a man around, that giant, indomitable SUV seemed the closest we'd get to masculinity. Just looking at it parked in the garage gave me a sense of security.

But like a good-looking boyfriend whose bad habits begin to grate on your nerves, the SUV grew less attractive over the years. It took up too much space, was a hassle to park, and its fuel costs rivaled my grocery bills.

Still, it took a lot of soul-searching to accept as its replacement a car built not for off-road adventure but for hauling grocery bags and little kids. A move from SUV to minivan would mean that I'd arrived at a new juncture in my life, albeit uneasily. Because like it or not, here in L.A. the cars we drive serve as commentary on our lives. Looking back, we can probably trace the trajectory of our lives by the vehicles we've chosen to drive.

My first new car, when I was just out of college, was a Volkswagen Rabbit, with a stick-shift, sun roof and $5,500 sticker price. It was sporty yet practical and fun to drive and gave me a feeling of independence and unlimited possibilities. It carried my husband and me cross-country from Ohio, then slipped comfortably into our new California lifestyle.

Then we bought a house, and the babies started coming. I traded in my Rabbit, he sold his Corvette, and we bought a Volvo, the safest thing on four wheels.

Its image conveyed what we wanted to be--successful, responsible, worldly, wise--and we imagined it advertised to the world what conscientious parents we'd become.

Five years later I wound up pinching pennies, as a single mother of three. A Camry was the car I chose, or rather financial necessity let it choose me. Sturdy, dependable, economical. I think back on those years behind its wheel as a time of scrimping and saving; our workhorse of a car mirrored my role in our family.

As the children grew, so did our family's needs. Enter the SUV. Transporting friends, school gear, sports equipment meant we needed more room and extra seats. Yet I envisioned a social life that dictated that what I drive convey the image of hip, high-roller, not harried mother of three ... never mind the soccer balls, McDonald's bags, empty soda cans and dirty socks that would litter the back seats.

Perhaps it's a desperate quest for validation, but it seems I see minivans everywhere I look these days. I check out their drivers in the carpool line, hoping to find some signs of glamour in the mothers whose club I've just become a member of. My heart sinks; their faces look tired, their hair is disheveled, they're wearing pajamas under their coats. Then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I realize that describes me as well.

Maybe my daughter is right, and minivan equals resignation. But maybe that's OK for now. I'm not trying to land a man or impress the folks at valet parking. I've given up the illusion of invincibility. And I've realized that whatever car I drive--even the red convertible someday to come--will have a mom behind the wheel and smell like soccer shoes and old French fries.

*

Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. She is at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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