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Cleaning Up the Heartbreak

Written by Rachel Macy Stafford   
Thursday, 01 March 2018 00:00

We were on our way out the door, which has always been a little stressful since we had children. There’s just something about making ourselves and our kids look presentable—all at the same time—that causes tensions to run high.

On this particular evening, I’d actually put on something other than my typical Writer’s Uniform—meaning I was not wearing anything made out of Dri-FIT fabric and my hair was not in a ponytail. We were finally experiencing fall-like temperatures in the South, so it was cool enough for jeans, a sweater, and boots.


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I was actually feeling pretty good at this departure. My kids were in Dri-FIT material from head to toe, but their hair was combed, so we were good to go.


“In some families, please is described as the magic word. In our house, however, it was sorry.” —Margaret Laurence


My older daughter decided to use the restroom one last time before we headed out to meet friends. That’s when I heard: “Mom, the toilet is clogged!”

I quickly ran to assess the situation, desperately hoping she was mistaken, since the Official Toilet Plunger of the family—my husband—wasn’t home.

Much to my dismay, my daughter’s assessment was accurate. Someone had used the bathroom, and apparently it required an entire roll of toilet paper to do the job. The muddy water was scarily close to the top of the bowl.

Although it was tempting to get upset, I swallowed an “are you serious?” and stifled an exasperated sigh. I didn’t even ask, “Which one of you did this?” although I had my suspicions, based on the fact that Little Sister was now cautiously peering from around the corner.

With clenched teeth, I said, “I’ll get the plunger.”

I searched every bathroom and even the garage, and yet the plunger was nowhere to be found. By now, I was getting sweaty. The stylish boots were not made for running around the house, and neither was the sweater. I was suddenly irritated that I had abandoned my comfy Dri-FIT.

“I can’t find the plunger!” I hollered as I came down the stairs. “Everyone look for it!” I demanded.

The girls slowly meandered around the house as if the plunger would be sitting in plain sight on the kitchen counter beside the coffee pot, or propped up in the recliner.


“In some families, please is described as the magic word. In our house, however, it was sorry.” —Margaret Laurence


“I’ll go upstairs and look once more,” I grumped.

Finally, I discovered the oddly shaped yet highly effective tool. It was hidden behind the stool in the girls’ bathroom. “I found it!” I announced, as if anyone cared.

I carefully made my way down the stairs because boots and stairs have been known to be a dangerous combination for me. That’s when I heard it—the sound of a flushing toilet, followed by the unmistakable sound of rushing water hitting a tile floor.

“NOOOOO!!!!!” I cried out, practically tumbling down the stairs in the hope that I could somehow stop the catastrophe.

I rushed into the bathroom to see my younger child standing in the middle of a nasty pool of liquid that was growing larger by the minute. She was literally paralyzed.

I felt steam coming off my forehead, which was now officially in need of a sweatband.

“Why did you flush it?” I yelled, feeling my eyes bulging much too far out of their sockets. I must have looked quite frightening—my child burst into tears. “Why, why, why would you flush it?” I repeated angrily, knowing this was an incredibly stupid question. My child thought she was helping. If she knew this action would result in an exploding toilet, she never would have flushed it.

She explained what I already knew between dramatic sobs. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know!”

My lovely boots were now in toilet water. I felt sweat dripping down my back, onto my best pair of jeans. Things could get very, very bad, I thought to myself. I could keep yelling and even throw out a few profane words…

…I could remember to breathe, and spare us both some pain. Instead of yelling one more word, I miraculously released a mammoth exhalation. Apparently, I’d been holding my breath in anger, and I needed this release quite badly.

My child did not know how to interpret the exhalation. She looked at me nervously—is Mom gearing up for a major meltdown? Just then Big Sister ran in, armed with two spray bottles of disinfectant and a stack of old cleaning towels. She even had her shoes off, prepared to go to battle.

This small but incredibly kind, sisterly gesture helped me take another deep breath. My older daughter—who is usually quick to note when a mess does not belong to her—said nothing of the sort. She was attempting to spare her younger sister from further anguish. Perhaps she remembered more clearly than her sister the wrath of their perfectionist mother who, just a few years ago, completely lost it when things went awry.

But things are different now. Thank goodness, things are different now.

I calmly took off my boots, set them in the sink, and joined my older daughter in sopping up the putrid mess. Little Sister handed paper towels to Big Sister when they were needed, but she did not mutter a single word.

Fifteen minutes and one overly disinfected floor later, I discovered my child sitting outside the door with her knees tucked into her chest. Her little pink glasses had slipped to the tip of her nose, and her tearful eyes were shining. With her head slumped down, my usually cheerful child appeared heartbroken.

Her brokenheartedness hurt my own heart.

“I’m sorry I yelled,” I said quietly, the words feeling awkward coming out of my mouth. Even now, admitting any wrongdoing feels clumsy, like I am speaking a foreign language. “I’m sorry I blew up,” I continued, a little louder. “Next time you see a clogged toilet, please don’t flush it,” I added gently.

“I promise. I won’t, Mama,” she vowed, looking up at me with hopeful eyes. I could tell she wouldn’t make that mistake again.

I sat down next to her and wrapped one arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Embarrassed by her tears, she buried her face in my sweater that I hoped didn’t smell too bad after the extensive cleaning job.

As I sat there just holding my child, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to cry. The timing of this experience was truly providential. Just six hours earlier, I’d been interviewed by a popular women’s magazine about overcoming yelling. What are the chances, right? And while I was describing a painful yelling memory from my highly distracted years to the reporter, I unexpectedly got choked up. As I held my child, I replayed the conversation in my mind.

“Why are you crying?” the reporter had asked.

“My daughter remembers that particular incident. She recounted the whole event to me years after it happened. She remembered how angry I was, and how scared she was. It hurts to think about it today,” I explained, my voice catching. “But you’ve worked on it, and you have really changed,” she reminded me.

“Yes,” I said, “I handle things much better now. I’ve learned to accept that things can’t be perfect, and my expectations are more realistic. I stopped overcommitting myself and quit rushing myself and my family through life. I’m not under so much pressure now,” I said, finding my voice again.

“You know what?” the reporter began, preparing to give me an unexpected gift. “I think showing emotion is OK. It is healthy. I lived in a family that didn’t. My parents kept feelings bottled up so everything would appear perfect. I never learned how to express disappointment, anger, or fear. I never learned to say I’m sorry. I never learned how to ask for help or just let my feelings out.” After a slight pause she said, “Give yourself a break. Let it go.”

Let it go.

I am a big fan of those healing, hopeful words.

And that is what I decided to do—because the old me would have never gotten past the soiled floors and the stained boots. The old me would have yelled, “Forget it! We’re not going to see our friends now!” The old me would have sulked for hours and probably ruined a perfectly good evening. The old me would have handed out a mighty dose of blame and shame, but never an apology.

But things are different now. Thank goodness, things are different now.

The me I am now stood up from the spot next to my child and said, “Well, we better go. Our friends are waiting on us, and rarely do I ever get this dressed up!”

My daughter, who has always been quick to forgive, gave me a relieved smile and took my outstretched hand.

As we walked out the door, I had a thought: Maybe my daughter will remember this experience one day. Perhaps her child will overflow the toilet and she will get a little mad at first. But then she will remember that it is just water (mostly), and that it can be cleaned up. And perhaps she’ll remember that we all make mistakes, because even her mom did. And it’s what we do with those mistakes that makes or breaks the chance to salvage a broken heart.


Pathways Issue 57 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #57.

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