What assembling IKEA furniture taught me about fatherhood

IKEA, is the home Swedish design and lifestyle. Their products are a direct reflection of their ethos, simple, clean, efficient, and minimalist. All of this is true except for their stores. Their stores are like a rabbit warren. On each turn you see beautiful displays that are impossibly clean, and neat.

It’s easy to think that that could be your life, simple, clean, efficient and uncluttered. And all it assumes there are no children in evidence. Families wander the aisles, with looks of hope in their eyes that someday their home could look like this.

This past week we found ourselves at IKEA to buy a few things for our new house. We did well, my wife and I had a list, and for the most part we stuck to it. Our “add on” items included a new kitchen table (not planned), a lamp or two and some bathroom storage gadgets.

The biggest add on, however, was the purchase of a new dresser. Our old dresser was a hand-me-down. the drawers constantly stick, they require two hands to open or they would get jammed. The drawers were also either too shallow or two deep. As I watched her lovingly stroke the top of a impossibly clean and white dresser, I asked her “honey, should we get a new dresser?” And that’s when she fell back in love with me all over again.

I don’t know if you’ve assembled IKEA furniture. To assemble a major piece of furniture from IKEA is to be willing to take the Hero’s Journey. From despair to elation, from confusion to triumph you will always on the edge of failure. Our dresser came in three boxes, all of similar width and length, all very heavy. It included no less than 175 pieces, including bags of nuts and screws of all sizes and lengths.

There’s only one way to assemble IKEA furniture. The hard way. Every time I’ve assembled a piece of IKEA furniture, there is a point where I am sure that they got their directions and design wrong. In every case, I was the one who is mistaken. It was the craftsman blaming the tool.

Each project includes hardware you’ll recognize and hardware you’ve never seen before. There are screws that seem to take too much force to put in, and are difficult to put in straight. But don’t use too much force, or you’ll split the wood. And once the hardware is in, don’t ever think of taking it out. And make sure you use the right screw for the right piece. In this assembly alone we had a 24 mm screw and were warned that is we tried to put in the 25 mm screw it would punch through the top and become a booby trap, just waiting for someone to cut their hand on the unseen danger.

And the directions. They may have been translated from Swedish to Chinese to Cerylic to Arabic and then back to English. They shown nothing but cartoon characters, and there is something about the way they are drawn that makes them both simple and utterly confusing. You feel like you must be a certifiable idiot to not understand them, but still they are vexing to the commonsense mind.

Into this mess I throw my 13-year-old son. My wife says “wouldn’t it be a great experience for him to help you?” I couldn’t think of anything worse than sharing the torture of assembling Ikea furniture. Generally, I like to hunker down in this situation, suffering by myself as I struggle to decipher the Swedish hive mind. But, undaunted and trying to be a good dad, I said “sure!”

My son was excited, game for the challenge and ready to go. Over the next 2+ hours we worked as a team. He was at times anxious to move forward when we needed to stop and figure out what was going on. It was a picture of the 13 year-old boy brain. He was impatient, wanting to go faster; frustrated with himself when he struggled to put in parts that seem to come and easier to me; and he was easily distracted, requiring me to keep my patience and remind him what we were doing and what his next step was.

2+ hours later, that included three boxes of pressboard, counting parts over and over, staring blankly at directions and multiple backtracks, it was complete.

And here’s what I discovered: Assembling IKEA furniture is like life. There are times when it’s important to know when to press forward and apply more effort. There are times when it’s important to go carefully and with the light touch. It’s a direct reflection of how patience applied produces results and lack of patience has costs. And in everything, whether mentoring our son to help you with a project and especially assembling IKEA furniture, be mindful. We’re in this for the long-haul.

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