How Does Parenting Work When the Instruction Manual Fails?
Parents may never know why a strategy "clicks" into place.
Posted Jun 12, 2017
Question: What do parenting books and sewing machine manuals have in common? Answer: Both are useless to a mother who neither sews nor parents a "typical child."
Sam’s sewing machine broke. Completely disabled. Sam screamed with frustration, and I jumped. Racing to the machine, panicked at the prospect of an escalation, I thought, as I do with almost every parenting scenario that faces me, “I don’t know what I’m doing; I just want the shrieking to stop!”
I do not know how to sew. I cannot thread a machine, choose a stitch, or finish a seam. My mother sewed most of my clothing and my daughter is working on a new quilt for her bed, but I do not sew. I wish I knew how to sew, but obviously I don’t wish it enough to learn.
I also do not know mechanics or machines. When one of the burners on the stove stopped lighting, I waited four years until the refrigerator broke so I could have both repaired for the price of one service call. My philosophy is that machines work or life moves on without them. That is to say, unless I hear a child’s screams, the tremors signaling a meltdown of earthquake proportion. Then life does not move on.
But I am good at untangling knots in yarn and jewelry. Those tasks require only patience and fingernails, both of which I possess. And so it was with patience and fingernails that I tackled the sewing machine—after ordering Sam to find a cat to pet so that I could puzzle through this alone. As with parenting, fumbling for answers is best done without an audience of critics.
The most obvious issue I noticed was a missing screw. Sam explained that the screw had fallen into the machine but she could still sew. Any adult knows that a missing screw is always a bad thing, both physically and metaphorically, so I started with that. Unfortunately, I could not see the screw; I could only hear its rattle. Like many of the challenges of parenting, knowing you’ve got a screw loose does not mean you know what to do about it. So I turned the machine upside down and shook it until I heard something drop. Then something else. Then finally something that sounded like metal hitting the floor. Here was the screw! Unfortunately, the bobbin had fallen out and the spool of thread had flown off. I do not know how to replace these items. Which pin on the top is for the spool? Upending the machine may not have been such a good idea. It’s so much like some of the “consequences” I impose in child rearing. What have I wrought?
After Sam rethreaded the machine and again departed, I put the pieces back together as well as I could. Still the thread from the bobbin would not come up to complete the stitch. Either the missing screw had not been the problem, or the missing screw had been only part of the problem. I felt like I was talking to a therapist about Sam’s anxiety: Maybe x is the problem, maybe x is part of the problem, or maybe x is irrelevant to the problem. With regard to the sewing machine, much like the therapy, I will never know.
So I removed the bobbin, removed the piece of plastic housing the bobbin, put them both back in and tried the machine. It worked! For about five stitches. Kind of like keeping track of homework assignments on a whiteboard. That also works for about five stitches.
I took out the bobbin housing again and again, each time trying to replace it in a slightly different position, each time listening for the solid, definitive CLICK that never came. Eventually, however, the machine made a line of stitches. Her machine was no longer disabled.
The problem with this approach, and the reason it reminds me of parenting, is that I say with utter confidence that the machine will break again. I still don’t know how it works, and I don’t know what I did to fix it. Was the loose screw important? Who knows? How long will the machine run smoothly? Who knows? Just like my kids.
The only real difference is that I know I can bring the sewing machine to a shop, and a trained machinist will repair it. My children are not pieces of equipment, and I’ve yet to meet a therapist who understands human beings well enough to treat them as contraptions for which each part has a well-understood position, function and relationship to the other parts. Parents have no choice but to turn the kids upside down when they run into problems, shake them in the hope that a loose screw will fall out, and then throw every trick in the book at them, hoping to hear a CLICK. Usually that sound of certainty, the sound of a parenting home run, is too much to ask but at least lets the kids feel secure for the rest of the day.
“Thank you, Mom.” Sam remembered the magic words. Something must have clicked.