“See, it’s easy. Isn’t it funny? You just pee inside this cup, and then we give it to the nurse, and then we go sit in the little room.” I was trying hard to calm his fear and offer some comic relief as I saw panic begin to well up in his face and tears start to form in his eyes. He had successfully navigated such monumental changes in our little family these past few months, yet here he was falling apart at the prospect of peeing in a cup.
We were at his six-year-old check-up, and I thought it would be easy this time. No shots to be had. No throat swab or fever or ear infection. Just a quick well visit and then out the door to head home and make the most of what remained of our afternoon together.
He wasn’t having it.
My voice began to harden as we argued in the cold and sterile pediatrician’s bathroom. My son at the toilet crying with dread about the appointment we’d had for two months now, while his three-year-old sister waited with her back against the wall and watched the battle play out between her mom and brother. I did what all parents do when pleading and gentleness no longer work: I leaned on threats and punishment to help me.
“Look. If you don’t pee in the cup, they will have to put a needle in your finger and get blood instead. It’s easy. You just pee here. And you have to do it. You just have to.”
This didn’t help, as anyone could guess. He unlocked the bathroom door himself and began to run for it. I grabbed him to prevent his sprint to the parking lot, and that’s where it got ugly. The screaming, kicking, and yelling. The red face, dripping snot, and hot tears streaming down his cheeks. My normally mild-mannered kindergartener became an uncontrollable ball of rage and fear.
The nurses were trying to calm him as best they could. Telling him in gentle tones not to kick mommy, suggesting we take a walk outside, and bending down to pick up little sister -- given that I only have two arms, and both of them were occupied holding down his flailing limbs.
Our pediatrician rounded the corner. With a quiet tone and lack of judgment, she kindly suggested we just cancel the appointment, go home, and try again another day. “You won’t be able to get anything out of him today, for sure. But maybe talk about it later. See what’s going on in his mind.”
I made it out of the office with a tiny shred of my dignity intact, doing my best to avoid the stares in the waiting room as the other parents sat with their quiet and cooperative children. But in the car, I lost it. I was broken and tired. Kids buckled and quiet, we began the drive home while I sobbed like a baby. Saying nothing, thinking everything.
Parenting is hard. Parenting a sensitive six-year-old in the aftermath of his parents’ unexpected divorce is even harder.
The last year had brought countless major changes. Everything we’d assumed would be eternal was shattered. Dad moved out and moved in with the girlfriend in the following weeks. We sold the house, and the kids and I moved into another one. Visitation schedules meant time apart that kids and mom alike were not used to. He had to make new neighborhood friends and then start kindergarten, and that alone is a major life crossroads when you are five.
All these changes happened without complete panic or catastrophe. Every time there was a big shift or a monumental moment, we were just fine. The last night in the old house felt like sleeping in an empty, haunted museum. I had everything ready for the movers. The three of us slept soundly, huddled together in a mattress on the floor, surrounded by boxes of things to take with us to a new life. But we were making it; one foot in front of the other and mostly okay. The big changes were always doable. They are never quite as bad as you expect them to be.
It’s the little things that break him, that bring out the anger and confusion and show us all the broken pieces in their harshest light. The pediatrician visit was one example of this, but there were others, too. The time we finished our hike early, and he cried hard and dug his heels in the leaves and refused to move or walk back home. The nondescript Tuesday night that he wanted to play Minecraft while I made dinner, but his iPad had a dead battery. The morning he wanted to wear a particular shirt to school, but it was in the overflowing dirty laundry basket instead.
I grow so frustrated with him, but when I pause to think, it’s the little things that break me, too. Always. The broken air conditioner. The dinner that becomes inedible because I left it in the oven too long in the face of my distractions. The sight of little neighborhood friends trick-or-treating when my own kids aren’t with me. The families dining out with two parents instead of one, a loyal dad mindlessly bending down to retrieve a kid’s dropped napkin while he smiles at his wife’s glance. It’s always the little things that bring tears down my cheeks, too. Our life as a family of three feels whole and complete most days as I’ve grown used to our rhythm together, but these little moments can pierce through when I least expect it and shatter that feeling of normalcy. It’s always in these tiny seconds that I see my reflection most clearly as a single mother, shoulders heavy with the daily grind, alone in all of it, no true partner to help me piece things back together when it all falls apart.
We arrived home from the pediatrician and the tension dissolved eventually. I made black beans and rice for dinner, and they happily sprinkled cheese on top with their own little fingers. We cuddled on the couch and unwound with Netflix for a minute before heading upstairs for the usual bath and bed routine. And after all of that, we burrowed in my bed – all three of us – while the dog snored at our feet, and we read Corduroy the Bear for the millionth time. Then we said our prayers as we always do, and I said my apologies to my son for my lack of patience in the face of his anger. The small details of our evening smoothed out our deep wrinkles, making way for another day where we’ll get to try again.
Because that’s the thing about the little details. They can break you; they can be the moment that suddenly highlights all the pain and chaos. But they can put you back together again, too. Piece by piece. Moment by moment. The dinner table chatter, the backyard play, the bedtime stories, the hugs and the holding. Those little things heal us, bit by bit, and they put us back together in a way that is somehow sturdier and more beautiful than we originated. Like glue holding pieces of fractured glass, reflecting the sunlight in all the broken places and illuminating spaces we didn’t see before.
Written by Katie Mitchell. Katie is a composition instructor and writing center director at a small liberal arts college in northern Georgia. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Sweatpants and Coffee, Role Reboot, and Scary Mommy, among others. A lifetime writer and book lover, she writes about parenting, books, and gratitude at her online home, Mama the Reader. Follow along there or on Facebook as she navigates the adventures of single motherhood.
Photo by Kate De La Rosa.