This month, I’ve been learning to knit.
It’s the second — or possibly third — time I’ve learned to knit. I’m not sure, because I’ve also learned to crochet in the past and I can’t recall when I was knitting vs. crocheting. Which gives you some idea of the problem. I imagine neuroscientists studying my brain: “Fascinating,” they say, “it all lights up, except the parts responsible for recalling card games and knitting.”
My re-learning how to knit is part service project, and part for my daughters.
It’s challenging to volunteer with young children. Many of us parents were Community-Minded Volunteers for Important Social Causes before having children. When we had children, we thought, “This is wonderful! We’ve created small volunteers! They’ll grow up being involved in their community! Our family will have such fun serving together!”
Then we tried it.
The first challenge to volunteering with young children is that there just aren’t that many kid-friendly volunteer opportunities out there. They may claim to be kid-friendly, but “they” are usually childless 20-somthing idealists who haven’t thought through the implications of having a three-year-old serve food, or pick up trash, or even garden.
The second challenge is the children themselves. Young children have short attention spans and limited skills. My husband and I learned very quickly that whenever we attempted to volunteer as a family, one of us might be able to get some actual work done; the other parent spent the entire time chasing the kids around once they got bored with whatever they were supposed to be doing.
None of this is a reason not to volunteer with your children. Sure, there will be seasons when your family is of limited usefulness — maybe even detrimental to the Important Social Cause — but the point is to model commitment for our kids. It’s like how I wince whenever one of my daughters says, “I want to help!” while picking up a plate from the table, or hoisting a grocery bag, or wielding a shovel; chances are I’ll be cleaning up the mess they create by “helping,” but it’s more important to validate their desire to help.
Despite these challenges, I’d found the ideal volunteer opportunity: Every Tuesday for the past two years, I sat at the circulation desk of the Sarah Partridge Library — our town’s teeny, three-room branch library — while the sole librarian, Mrs. Rogers, led preschool story time. Whichever daughters were with me could participate in story time while I worked, and if they got wiggly they could amuse themselves in the children’s room.
That all changed this fall, when our third daughter started preschool and her pick-up time conflicted with story time.
I called Mrs. Rogers to see if there was anything else I might do to help. She suggested I help lead the Thursday afternoon craft time, when children in grades 1 and higher learn to knit. Their knit squares become a baby blanket, which Mrs. Rogers donates to a local charity.
“Sure!” I said. Craft time was conveniently after school, and my older daughters had expressed an interest in knitting.
There were only two potential red flags in my new volunteer gig:
1. I didn’t remember how to knit.
2. My oldest child is in Grade 1. Which meant I’d be bringing along three additional children who couldn’t participate in the craft time.
But Mrs. Rogers seemed okay with everything. What could go wrong?
WEEK 1: We show up to craft time 30 minutes late, because I had to get two of my daughters up from nap and into the minivan, get the other two off the bus and into the minivan, and drive into town and back in afternoon traffic to get our dog from the groomer. When we arrive, Mrs. Rogers teaches us how to roll the amount of yarn we’ll need into a ball. It turns out that this is harder than it sounds. All of my children lose interest after 5 minutes and go play with their friends in the children’s room.
WEEK 2: We show up 15 minutes late because one of my daughters had a post-school meltdown. Mrs. Rogers has everyone sand their own pair of knitting needles. Then she teaches us to “finger knit” yarn bracelets. With a great deal of help (and frustration), my two oldest daughters are able to produce bracelets. Then Mrs. Rogers makes popcorn, which my children spill all over the floor. Over the next week, they show off their knit bracelets to all of their relatives, so I suppose it was worth it.
WEEK 3: We’re on time! The knitting needles are ready! Mrs. Rogers teaches us to cast on and we begin knitting! My daughters lose interest after 3 minutes, but I’m hooked — so hooked that I neglect to stop the baby from eating popcorn off of the floor (to the horror of several grandmothers present). Then my daughters clog the toilet. There’s no plunger, so craft time ends with me scooping an enormous ball of toilet paper out of the toilet using my bare hands.
WEEK 3.5: After spending several evenings knitting and listening to old NPR podcasts, I’m confident…and addicted. Before dinner one night, I suggest to my oldest daughter that we practice knitting together. She’s delighted. The problem? She wants to practice on my knitting, not her own. Feeling much the same as when my daughters offer to “help,” I manage to squash my proprietary feelings for my own knitting and show her how to continue what I’ve started.
And she gets it!
I’m thrilled; she’s thrilled.
Then I have to get dinner on the table. At that moment, things go awry with the knitting. What follows is one of those timeless mother-daughter exchanges:
HER: Mommy!!! Help!!! This isn’t working!!!
ME: Hang on! I can’t help right now! I’m holding a boiling pot and a fussy baby!
HER (in tears): You don’t love me! You never loved me!
Or something like that.
WEEK 4: The dog jumps the fence and goes on a joy run as we’re preparing to leave for craft time; by the time we get her back in, we’re 20 minutes late. My mother shows up to help wrangle the little ones. My oldest daughter knits happily — for about 4 minutes.
“I don’t know,” I said to Mrs. Rogers the other day, “I feel like I’m creating more chaos than I’m helping.”
“Oh no, it’s good to have you here,” she said. It sounded convincing.
So we carry on. There will be knitting.
And this time, maybe I’ll even remember how to knit next year.