“Don’t use sledge-hammer mechanics!”

I am slowly trying to curate and migrate my writing here from the couple of different personal blogs I’ve kept over the years. There was a blog I kept to chronicle our travels when my eldest was a baby and my dissertation field research took us to live in Brazil and Spain for a few years. Many of those posts were more stream-of-consciousness journaling, and yesterday I came across this piece. We had just moved to São Paulo for six weeks and finally gotten settled after having housing arrangements fall through upon arrival:

I have had a significant amount of guilt about how the babe spent about 3 days in 2nd place, competing with our personal housing crisis for attention. It didn’t help that he fell in our hotel room and got a big bump on his forehead to remind me that we weren’t doing right by him. This has resulted in me trying extra hard to be patient and to remember to not force him onto my schedule when I don’t have to. That, in turn, has resulted in several half hour long episodes perched precariously on the edge of a bar stool scooched up as close to the closed apartment door as possible with boo on my lap while he learns to put the key in the lock and take it out again. He is remarkably good at it and has just had a couple of challenging stumbling blocks. One is that he sometimes starts out with the key upside down and on a bad day, helping him turn it right side up results in violent “mommy stop messing with my stuff” hand flapping and yelling.

The other is that he gets very frustrated that the key will not come out unless it is straight up and down in the lock. This one has been hard for him to learn. But I find that when I start out without an agenda, it’s a truly amazing experience. I watch him learn, and he IS learning. He carefully puts the key in the lock, sometimes trying several times, sometimes getting it in a little bit and then wiggling it for a while until it goes all the way. Then he turns it left and right and pulls. Nothing happens. When he seems frustrated I just explain that it has to be straight up and down to come out, and show him. Sometimes when he gets it, he’s really excited. Other times he just takes it in stride and begins again.

I’m not totally sure why, but every time it makes me think about my dad. My dad, who was unwilling to produce female offspring who didn’t know how to use basic household tools. One of the lessons I remember him gently giving me over and over again was about not forcing things. He always said “my dad always told me ‘Don’t use sledge hammer mechanics’.” His father taught him wood working and how to fix things and they would spend the summers doing repairs on their house. It has been one of the best lessons for just surviving around the house. When you get frustrated with a jar that won’t open or something that seems too difficult, make sure you have the right tool for the job and then don’t force it. You will almost always get better results if you stop, take a deep breath, and continue slowly and methodically with the proper instrument.

In retrospect, I find it amusing that this advice came from a guy who regularly did ridiculous things like chop off the end of our picnic table when he needed a piece of wood for something, instead of taking the time to find what he needed. We had a great family story (that he always denied) from when I was about 5 and we were having a picnic in the back yard. We saw a fly and he said “now don’t just go swatting around or you’ll miss it and make a mess.” Then he got the swatter and waited until it was sitting on the edge of the cream corn to thwack it, sending bits of sticky corn flying in all directions. The fly buzzed off happily.

But it was still good advice. So when my little guy flaps his hands wildly, yanking the key and grunting in frustration, he quiets down as soon as I bring my hand up to turn the key into position before slowly and gently pulling it out. I tell him, “don’t use sledge hammer mechanics angel,” and think of my dad.

When I re-read this post I can see hints of the parents we would become. The satisfaction of backing off and watching a child learn without my intervention. I am so much better now about leaving them alone and not trying to “fix” what they haven’t yet mastered.

I can also see so clearly the circumstances that led me to choose to be home with my kids after finishing my degree. These trips were the first time that we had no childcare help from family, while both trying to work full time. It was the toughest time of our lives as a family.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at myself for feeling guilty that our son had taken a back seat to the saga of finding housing, which had been an immediate and pressing need. But the unstated context was that to get my research done–which was time and place sensitive and necessary for my degree–I needed him to take a backseat nearly all the time. He was 13 months old and an only child. He didn’t like that and didn’t cooperate. Because we were moving around every few weeks to different cities, we weren’t able to make childcare arrangements. It’s why we started screens so much earlier than I had wanted. Neither my husband nor I got more than the bare minimum of work done, not to mention sleep or time with each other.

I felt guilty because it was three days of being second place…after months of being in second place, with all my instincts raging that this was the opposite of what we all wanted and needed as a family. This was when I decided I would finish my PhD (because the big sacrifices had already been made), but then I was done. When I finished, we restructured our life and housing to be more frugal so we could afford to lose my already meager graduate stipend.

I no longer stress about the times I need to put my kids second in order to deal with a crisis because they come first most of the time. I know it’s not so simple for many parents, nor what all families need or want. But it was what worked for us and it’s surreal to look back on this time of uncertainty when we had no idea what to do. I want to give myself a squeeze and say “don’t worry, you are going to figure this out.”

I also laugh at the notion of our human tendency to preach when we struggle to practice. Not using sledge hammer mechanics is not just good advice for home repair, but for raising kids, too. I fail often, but it’s still great advice. My kids work so much better when I don’t try to force them 🙂

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