Lessons in Parenting: The Rat in the Dryer

When you become a parent, no one tells you how to get the rat out from underneath the dryer.

Nothing, no amount of reading, of class-taking, caring for siblings, babysitting or owning a dog, can really prepare a person for parenthood.

I know this from personal experience. My only qualification for being the parent of an 11-year-old boy was that I gave birth to said baby boy 11 years before. But when I held his tiny form in my arms and stared into his eyes for the first time, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Sure, by the time he was 11, I had gained experience over the years in many different things. For instance, I know all the words to “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” and “On Top of Spaghetti.” I re-discovered my cheering voice, which I used vociferously at soccer and basketball games, drowning anyone within 100 yards of me in a sea of noise. I’ve sat in emergency rooms on snowy nights. I’ve rocked trembling, feverish bodies to sleep on my shoulders. Once, I explained to a teary toddler the absence of a beloved stuffed animal who was inadvertently left behind in an emergency evacuation (“Newt went skiing, honey, and he’ll be back” — and he did come back, courtesy of UPS).

But none of that, not one bit of it, prepared me for the part of parenthood where I had to extract a rat from beneath one of my appliances.

The rat in question was a temporary houseguest, living with us until the fifth-grade science fair project ended. He arrived on my doorstep with my son Emile one day, along with a mouse, in a cage that seemed sufficient at the time.

Two days later, on a lazy Sunday morning, I went into Emile’s room to check on the rodents. There was no rat in sight.

“He’s got to be in here somewhere,” I mumbled to Emile, looking under his bed, behind his desk, in his closet. “After all, we kept the door closed.”

Emile gave me a grim look and pointed silently at the door. I followed his finger with horror to the rat-sized space beneath it. The rate had not just scaled the cage wall – he had the run of the house. He could be anywhere.

“Oh,” I said to Emile. “Excuse me.” I flew to my room and tossed the covers into the air. Visions of waking up to find a rodent crawling on me danced in my head. Happily for all of us, the rat did not appear to be in my bed.

All day, the rat’s disappearance weighed on my mind as I went about the day, sporadically searching for him. I worried that one of our two cats or the dog would find him, and we would soon encounter a discarded rat part left behind by one of them. Then I worried that we would never find him, and “he” would turn out to be a “she,” and she would give birth to a rat colony that would live forever in my walls, emerging occasionally to snack on our food and gnaw on our furniture.

Then, as evening fell, at exactly the same moment my younger cat and I caught sight of movement by the dryer. The cat lunged at the movement. I lunged for the cat. As I did, I saw the rodent’s tail disappear behind the dryer. I thanked the cat and deposited him outside. Then I climbed atop the dryer. Anything that operates with gas designed to heat things to great temperatures deserves a lot of respect. And now there was a rat underneath mine.

Emile handed me a broom and climbed up on the washer. We tried to persuade the rat to come out, but he was not convinced. Suddenly we could not see or hear him under the dryer, and then I heard a terrible sound.

I heard a gnawing sound coming from inside the back of the dryer.

It was just me and Emile in the house. We needed reinforcements. I quickly called a friend with muscles. “There’s a rat chewing on the internal workings of my gas dryer and it’s too heavy for me to move. Come quickly! No, wait, we can move it. Wait, the rat’s not… Oh! Sorry. Look, I’ll call you if I need any heavy lifting, okay? Thanks!”

I hung up on my confused friend and sought out the yellowed pages of the dryer’s manual. I thought I’d shut off the gas valve so the rat can’t blow us to smithereens. As I thumbed through it, I pondered my options. I had no idea who might be helpful in this situation. Plus, it was 9 p.m. on a Sunday. The rat was noshing its way through appliance parts. And I was The Parent. This was my problem to solve, except for one minor detail – I felt totally out of my league.

I realized that the chewing noise is coming from the front of the dryer, and the aged manual showed how to open the front panel. Emile finally pried it open with some ineffectual help from me. His arm darted into the suddenly open space. His hand emerged, grasping the sneezing rat, who was covered in dust. Emile cradled him gently, then took him elsewhere to wipe the dust off while I inspected each millimeter of the dryer’s underbelly looking for frayed bits. Finding none, I put the machine back together.

As I did so, I thought about all the things no one ever tells you about parenting. No one can tell you, because no one knows it all. Sometimes, being a parent is the most intimidating thing in the world. And you wonder how you ever became qualified to be one.

But moments later, as Emile and I prepared to put the rat back in his cage under “lockdown,” I watched my son as he held the animal gently in the palm of one hand and petted it with the other, looking anxiously at the sneezing creature.

“Mom? Is he going to be okay?” he asked me, a worried look in his eyes.

And I felt a surge of love for this young person, a boy who I had raised since birth, and had come to know better every day. And I realized that, no matter how many more rats ended up under the dryer, feeling out of my depth is a small price to pay for the privilege of being a parent.

Plus, after that experience, I knew I could add “rat catcher” to my resume.

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