This is what single-motherhood looks like: 8-year-old in the back seat, bleeding profusely from a bone-deep gash on her knee, paper towels soaked in her blood beneath a dish towel I tied in a hasty knot around her leg. Her 6-year-old sister, so queasy from the sight of the wound that her face is not green but grey, holding a mixing bowl in her lap and a wad of napkins in her hand. It's nearing their bedtime, we never got to eat the dinner I made, I'm nursing a burn on my forearm from my haste to get the dinner out of the oven, the sleepover guest was sent home in a tearful, frightened rush, and I'm racing toward the clinic that will stitch my daughter up, all the while reassuring her that she's fine, it isn't that bad, it won't hurt much. I'm lying. The wound looked horrible. A half-dollar sized hole that showed her nice white bone beneath. I know it will hurt like hell. But I'm all she's got, and so I'm building her up as best I can as I speed down the street. That's single motherhood. It's not pretty. But it's reality.
We've had our share of illnesses, injuries, late-night rushes to after-hours urgent care clinics and it's always been this way. The three of us. One injured kid, one focused mom, one kid dragged along for the ride because that's just how it is. We rise and fall together. We see each other through the highs and lows. We are a united front.
Once the wound was cleaned, stitched up, bandaged, and we were on our way home, then I got my bonus mommy-points. The queasy kid felt better the moment her sister was up and walking without tears. The injured kid loved how numb her whole leg felt. And they both loved me. "You're the best mommy ever," the wounded one said. "I would've been so scared if you weren't there." She'd already forgotten that I had to sit on her while the doctor injected the wound over and over to numb it. She was in relief mode. "You always know exactly what to do," the no-longer queasy one said. Her clean, unused bowl was upside down on her head, a large blue hat, and her complexion was pink again. We were all giggling about the mixing-bowl hat. "I really like our family," one kid said, and the other agreed, and I concurred. We arrived home, responded to the concerned messages that had come in, warmed up our dinner, and ate and laughed and sang and did all that we could to forget those frightening moments after my daughter came running in from the back yard, blood everywhere, to tell me she fell down and it was bad.
When my marriage was failing, this was exactly the kind of scenario that I feared the most. How would I handle all of it, every bad thing, alone? Not even alone, but with two kids in tow? But the answer is, I just would. Because that's what you do. Some nights there will be emergencies and no back-up. Those nights you put your fear aside and get the job done. And in those moments you realize that you had nothing to fear, because you're a hell of a lot stronger than you thought you were.
My 8-year-old daughter is the emotional one, the sensitive one, the worrier. She rarely gets hurt, because she's my careful one. Seeing her injured and frightened was hard. But it was also an opportunity to pass along some of my hard-earned wisdom. "You've got this," I told her as she cried, bracing for the pain of the lidocaine shots. "You're so much stronger than you know." And after it was all over, as she cradled the toys they'd given her from the treasure box and admired her new blue bandage, she smiled up at me. "You're right," she said. "I am stronger than I thought." Later she tried to convince me that her sister, the fearless one, my usually-injured child, is actually stronger, and I wouldn't let her get away with that. "You're equally strong," I told her. "The only difference is that your sister knows she's strong, and you don't believe it about yourself yet." She let that sit for a few minutes, then she raised her head and stuck out her chin, just a little. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe I am strong. Maybe I'm as strong as you."
And that's what single motherhood looks like, too. Having those moments, when you first see that fight in your daughter's eyes, first see her begin to believe in her own bottomless well of strength, and you get to keep those powerful moments all to yourself, because you were the one who was there when it happened.