Some people learn about love by observing parents who demonstrate love in ways great and small. Some people learn about love through a series of romantic relationships. A few get a crash course on what it means to love another person when they’re holding their own child for the first time. People usually learn what it means to love someone by seeing that someone’s needs met and learning to dedicate themselves to someone else’s well-being.
I grew up with parents who are decidedly undemonstrative. Being Muslim, my romantic resume could fit onto the back of a breath mint. As I prepared to welcome my son into the world, I prayed for a way to learn to love him in the way he needed to be loved. I found the answer in my knitting bag.
One of my favorite knitting projects is a newborn-sized sweater. It’s an odd thing. Many knitting patterns involve creating pieces and assembling them. These pieces make sense; the sleeves look like sleeves. If you’ve followed the directions, you know where you are. You knit the various parts, sew them together, attach buttons as needed, and oh, look, there’s a sweater for your kid to spit up on.
As much as I’ve loved looking at this type of garment, I’ve never wanted to make one. The first sweater I made for my son, however, was a very different beast.
It starts off simply enough, with knitting a flat rectangle. Baby torsos aren’t very curvy, so that’s fine. My first few months of motherhood weren’t easy, but the tasks were centered around the simple idea of keeping the offspring fed, dry, warm and safe. Once you get past the novelty of the tasks themselves, the routine of changing diapers, nursing, bathing and playtime gets to be a little monotonous–not unlike counting the rows of knitting on a piece that you swore was two inches longer four knitting hours ago.
But, before you know it, exciting things will happen. Someone is starting to smile, you realize that you’re ready to start a sleeve, or conversations about relationships starts to turn more serious. So, you adjust to the needs of the new situation and keep going. You find out what your baby likes, you start seriously considering a greater commitment, or you start forming what you think will be the first sleeve.
Or, none of these things could be happening, but you’re doing what you think the situation, or the pattern calls for until you know better. And, as the days and stitches accumulate, you start to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to take up competitive staring instead.
At this point, the sweater I love knitting does not resemble anything that belongs on a human body. It’s got holes and protrusions and would make most parents run to a shop where sweaters for children are made in faraway places. I wonder about showing my progress in knitting groups, and they know what works in progress can look like.
My relationship with this sweater is officially “complicated.” I don’t know if I can go on, but there’s no uncomplicated way to turn back. Even if I rip out all the stitches and roll the yarn back into a ball, the crimped state of the yarn will remind me that I broke up with this knitting project. And, while I can survive without hand knit items, I have a vision of lovingly adorning little people in things I made with my very own hands. I could rip it back and try again with the nice pattern a friend introduced me to. But, I soldier on, odd shape be damned.
I remember when I thought I knew what I was doing and laugh bitterly at people who suggested that this would be easy. Looking online for tips or signs of an error in the pattern only yields pictures of beautiful finished sweaters with their knitters exclaiming their delight about making something so lovely with so little in the way of yarn. After the fifth post about some knitter whipping up three of them in a long weekend while binge-watching Downton Abbey, I throw up my hands and get back to it.
Once this misshapen tangle of cotton is complete, instead of sewing on a grosgrain ribbon, I can burn it in the backyard and forget it existed.
My thoughts of barbecuing knitting mistakes power me through the next few inches. But something is happening. It’s starting to look a little less unsightly. It’s nothing like a decent sweater, but the holes start to look like a real eyelet edging. The child I first made this sweater for is going through some interesting changes, too. He’s starting to solve problems and even tell jokes, the latter a neat trick for a kid who doesn’t talk.
There are no guarantees in life, but for the first time since I mastered changing a diaper on a very wiggly child, I think I might not fail miserably.
I go into autopilot mode and knit on. Putting down my knitting to retrieve my child from someplace he ought not to be, I finally see it. There’s a sleeve and half the front of a garment one could put on a human child. This just might work out.
One stitch at a time, I tell myself, and that’s when I realize it: We love in the moments of work that accumulate in a lifetime of devotion. The infatuation that one may feel for a crush or a luxury yarn can lead to love, but it can’t substitute for the work one must put in.
As much as I admire the intricate beauty of Orenburg lace shawls, I don’t love them. I’ve never made the commitment to the weeks of complicated knitting that I’d need to turn one out. I love the sweaters, mittens, hats and socks I’ve made for my son and other children, because I chose to spend a small amount of my life ensuring that they are made with the best materials I can afford, and with the care that it takes to gently undo an inch of stitches knit in alpaca yarn because I missed the point where I will start knitting the thumb.
My son hasn’t hit puberty yet, so there is no counting him as a finished project for at least a decade. He has long outgrown the first finished projects I first made for him. They turned out to be almost everything the pattern promised they would be. The holes and protrusions settled into the shape of a garment that was practical and adorable.
I learned to give myself over to a process that I couldn’t predict for an outcome that wasn’t necessary for survival but that helped make life worth living. It won’t be in any Top 40 songs, but I learned to love with two needles and four dollars’ worth of yarn.