By Heather Caliri
I attended the new playgroup with the best of intentions—intentions that included not yelling at the participants.
It started out well: Lucy, my daughter, gamboled over pillows while the two mothers who organized the Elimination Communication (or EC) group talked. They’d brought props: a plastic ice-cream bucket, a tiny white potty, articles, a book, their supportive husbands. And trump cards: their tiny, crawling, diaperless babies.
Besides the organizers, I was the only one actually practicing EC. As the two women shared with the six others how connected they felt with their babies, how much more hygienic and healthy EC was, I looked around at the wide-eyed newbies.
I wanted to yell, “Don’t believe them! Your whole life will revolve around your child’s urination! You’ll drive yourself insane!”
Instead, I stayed quiet, concentrating on keeping Lucy from choking on Mr. Potato Head’s face.
* * *
A few years ago my husband, Dyami, and I watched his brother and sister-in-law try EC with their second child, Ava. Their first child had gone the conventional route, using disposables until he potty-trained.
But Ava was diaperless from birth. My in-laws suspended her tiny bum over their sink. Sssss, they said as a cue, and presto-chango, she peed; once or twice a day, she pooped, too. They kept her on absorbent towels in bed and used a bowl in the bedroom at night. By the time she was walking at a year, she’d toddle over to her little white potty and relieve herself.
There were some chancy moments, like the time I held Ava when she was only a month old. “She’s really sweaty,” I said. Evelyn, my sister-in-law, laughed. “That’s not sweat,” she said.
And there was the time that Evelyn asked me to keep an eye on Ava in the living room. Ava made a few complaining noises. When I looked up, there was a snake trail of poo on the carpet.
Despite those misses, Dyami and I were intrigued. “Elimination Communication” sounded a little cute, but we liked the idea: learn our child’s rhythms rather than depend on diapers. We borrowed Evelyn’s EC book, Diaper Free, and read about the environmental benefits: no disposable diapers clogging landfills, no cloth diapers using water. The author pointed out that in countries like China and India, diapers are rare. And we were impressed that Ava never had to be conventionally potty-trained; instead, she grew up with a sense of her elimination needs and how to meet them.
But the clincher was what my brother-in-law Jamie told us when we asked whether it was worth the hassle. “Absolutely,” he said. “We didn’t have to scrape poop off of her butt several times a day. It was worth the few misses for that reason alone.”
So, in the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, we read a book called Diaper Free!, bought a little red potty, and prepared to try it for ourselves.
* * *
It didn’t start off as I’d visualized. Once Lucy was born, Dyami was the first to attempt to “communicate.” He stripped her diaper off, cradled her bum over the sink, and made the cuing noise, “Sssssss.”
We waited. “Sssssss,” he said again.
No pee. No poop. The only thing his attempt produced was a fussy baby.
After that, I gave up on trying for a few weeks, guiltily putting the cloth diapers on her. I had absolutely no sense about when she might soil one of them.
I reread Evelyn’s EC book like a bible, hoping for clues.
I joined an EC group online, hoping to learn by osmosis.
I e-mailed my sister-in-law. “I’m not feeling super-confident,” I said.
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” she e-mailed back. “You’re in the early days. Everything in our culture is telling you to put a diaper on her bum. Remember, you’re a maverick in the Western world.”
I’m a maverick, I told myself. I liked the sound of that.
I didn’t mention to Evelyn that we’d never actually gone without putting a diaper on Lucy’s bum. It would come with time, I thought.
Finally, I read in the forum that babies usually pee after they wake up. Aha! I thought. It made sense: After all, I peed after I woke up. After her next nap, I tried the sink again. “Sssss,” I said. Lucy went slightly cross-eyed, shifted her weight, and a tiny fountain of pee spurted from between her legs.
She was two weeks old.
I was hooked.
* * *
Elimination Communication is about trying to gauge your baby’s patterns, signals, and preferences, and facilitate her being able to pee and poop outside of a diaper—without punishments or rewards. The people who brought the EC philosophy to the U.S. had traveled abroad, or were from other cultures; diapers, they saw, weren’t necessarily synonymous with baby care. They felt that sitting in urine and feces for extended periods of time—or for any period of time—seemed pretty unhygienic. How much better would it be to eliminate the middle man (the diaper), and send the waste straight down the toilet?
Of course, for a newborn, a gigantic, noisy toilet can be scary (as I discovered the first time I held Lucy over it, only to be rewarded with instant screams). The bathroom sink, on the other hand, has a drain, a faucet to rinse off poopy bums, and a handy mirror to check progress and entertain the baby. After a few days, I got over having one of our two bathroom sinks serve as Lucy’s toilet, and kept a bottle of Windex handy when I did get grossed out.
But I’ll be honest with you: Hygienic or not, EC is a lot of work, especially at the beginning. It seemed as if every fifteen minutes, I was undoing Lucy’s diaper, taking her to the sink, and hoping I’d guessed right that time.
I caught my first pee after reading a list of “Golden Potty Rules” on the EC forum online:
1. Potty when sudden fussiness strikes.
2. Always potty before leaving anywhere.
3. Always potty upon arrival anywhere.
4. Potty on waking up from sleep.
5. Potty after an accident.
6. Potty upon getting out of the bath.
7. Always act on sudden random potty thoughts.
I’d expected all this pottying to be hard. On the forum, members likened EC to paying cash, instead of credit—pay now or pay later. I figured my hard work would pay dividends when I was through with diapers at a year and a half or earlier.
What I hadn’t expected was that I’d reap dividends on the front end. I was pleasantly surprised. The hype was real. I felt connected to my baby in a way I hadn’t imagined. She’d fuss, I’d take her to the bathroom, and she’d pee, visibly relieved. When she couldn’t fall asleep, I tried a potty break : Usually it settled her. Our laundry decreased dramatically, from a load almost every day to two a week or less.
We were mavericks. We were trailblazers.
Sometimes I felt superior. At Lucy’s first visit to the pediatrician, I took her to the bathroom several times while we were waiting. The nurse kept offering to hold her. I didn’t quite know how to explain that Lucy was the one using the toilet.
When the pediatrician came in, she noticed the cloth diaper and said, offhand, that we must be doing a lot of laundry.
“Not really,” I said. “We have her pee and poop in the sink instead of in the diaper when we can.”
She blinked a couple of times, then laughed. “Well, it’s not as if she can tell you she needs to go.”
I smiled in amusement. No, Doctor, I thought. That’s exactly what she does.
But sometimes EC got us into trouble. I decided to pee Lucy in the middle of a walk, and chose a secluded-looking half-wall outside of a local apartment building. I dropped Lucy’s trou and held her close to the stucco.
The only problem was that I hadn’t noticed that the wall faced the rental office. Apparently, the manager had a really great view of my alternative parenting technique. After a minute, said manager came out, a nicely coiffed blond woman in khakis.
“What are you doing?” she asked, sitting on the half-wall.
“Letting my daughter pee,” I said. Lucy was about three months old.
“Doesn’t she have a diaper?”
I patted the prefold on the grass beside me and used my best I’m-not-crazy voice. “See, in China and India they don’t use diapers.”
She nodded, clearly now convinced I was crazy. “Do you live around here?” she asked.
I pointed over the hill, then realized she meant in her apartment complex.
Question: Would it have been better if I were a resident ? Or better that she not know where I lived?
“I can leave if we’re bothering you,” I said, bracing myself. Suddenly it occurred to me that people get arrested for public urination.
“No, no,” she said. “I was just worried. I saw you take off her diaper and didn’t know what you were doing.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t call the cops (or Child Protective Services). She just wished us a good day and left.
It still amuses me to imagine her dinner conversation that night.
* * *
Being a trailblazer is tiring. On good days, I was a renegade, a virtuous environmentalist who could read her daughter like a book. But on those other days, the days when Lucy didn’t pee or poop in the sink, even though I spent half the day holding her over it, I wondered where my fabled connection with her had gone. I couldn’t tell: Was it her not being able to pee on-cue? Often, food allergies—or what I thought were food allergies—seemed to play a role in “bad” days. I’d eat dairy, or wheat, and the next day, Lucy would poop a foul-smelling, dark green liquid, pee every five minutes, and squirm from painful gas. Or was it me? Had I not tuned in enough or paid enough attention? What if I’d gone five minutes earlier? Or held her just a bit longer? Was it that we used diapers (unlike the true believers)? That I’d eaten wheat/dairy/soy/wine/peanut butter? Or was it just—normal?
And then there were those Golden Potty Rules. If you do the math, following the rules I’d found on the EC forum meant I was taking my daughter to the bathroom all the time. Which is one way to catch pees but is also a way to go insane. Often I’d spend five minutes holding her over the sink when she didn’t need to go. Perhaps it would have helped if I hadn’t been reading the EC forum all the time, increasing the likelihood of those “sudden random potty thoughts.”
I wish I could say that being in an online community and talking to other ECers helped. It didn’t. I never participated in my EC forum much, though I lurked. Every few hours, I tuned in, searching for clues. I read about “potty-tunities” and “nakey-butt” time. Waterproofing solutions for bedtime, travel tips, training pants, in-laws. Food allergies, aiming tips for boys, ECing through the stomach flu. “Graduating” from diapers, EC and daycare. EC full-time. EC part-time.
The posts that always riveted me were those about “potty pauses.” In the dreaded potty pause, the child would suddenly refuse to be held over the potty. No matter if they needed to go, they wanted no part in the process. Parents who didn’t keep diapers on their babies started having carpet and upholstery serve as diapers. Parents who thought their child had graduated from diapers put them back on.
I read about potty pauses like some people read the obituaries.
Two posts in particular soured me on the forum. Both were tirades (the writer’s words, not mine) by one of the most frequent posters. “There is no such thing as a Potty Pause,” she wrote. “You are failing to adequately adapt…You need to get more creative, more aware, more with the flow, and change your mind set .”
“It’s not that EC is hard,” she wrote the next day. “It’s that…you got a kink in your think.”
Some of me knew what she meant. Really, EC isn’t supposed to be about potty training. It’s not supposed to be results-oriented. EC is about better hygiene, connection, and communication.
The problem was that I am results-oriented. I like communication and connection as much as the next parent, but I also like convenience. And hygiene is all fine and good, but did I mention convenience?
Her comment about EC not being hard just pissed me off. She said all it took was a paradigm shift. Well, I hadn’t spontaneously produced one, thus far. And I refused to feel guilty about anything else.
I changed my settings so that the forum’s e-mails didn’t come directly to me—I’d have to go online to read. Which I haven’t done since.
Not reading the forum was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Turns out being a renegade makes me paranoid. I thought community was what I needed, but instead, community (for me, anyway) just turned EC into a giant pissing contest. I did EC looking over my shoulder, hearing the voices of the “successful” ECers critiquing my technique, second-guessing me, and making me feel inadequate. Perhaps if I’d participated more in the forum, put my fears and inadequacies out there, rather than just lurking, I’d have found comfort rather than judgment. Or maybe if I’d held Lucy over the sink just a few more minutes…
* * *
It wasn’t me going crazy that opened my eyes to how crazy I had gone. It wasn’t even the forum. It was Lucy.
Lucy turned eight months old and decided it was time for our very first potty pause.
Day One: Take Lucy to the bathroom. She screams. Quickly take Lucy away from the bathroom, fumble with the diaper while she screams and flails. Take Lucy back to whatever she was doing.
Three minutes later, she poops in her wool hand-washable diaper cover. Since I hadn’t invested in the more expensive fitted diapers (why would I, when we were doing EC?), the poo dribbles down her leg and stains the cover and the carpet.
Day Two: Lather, rinse, repeat. Literally: I washed those diaper covers every day, then hung them to air-dry overnight, only to have her poop in them the next morning. Crazy? Yes. But I kept thinking , Surely this is the last miss.
Up until this point, I rarely missed Lucy’s poops. Pre-potty pause, I bragged about this. “I almost never change poopy diapers.”
One thing I’ve learned as a parent: It’s not a good idea to brag about how you’ve figured out your child, unless you enjoy eating your words.
After Day Three of the pause, I realized Lucy wanted to go to the potty even less than I wanted to take her. And I didn’t want to take Lucy to the potty at all. I didn’t want to see a potty. I didn’t want to think about signals, or pauses, or communication. I wanted to keep a diaper on her and forget I’d ever heard about EC.
That’s when I decided to go to a real live EC support group I’d heard about it from a local midwife and went, figuring some community might make me feel better.
We all know what happened next: I was left choking down my screams while trying to make sure Lucy didn’t choke on Mr. Potato Head.
After the playgroup, I decided not to take Lucy to the bathroom if I didn’t feel like it. Period. At the beginning, that meant I just didn’t take her. I didn’t even change diapers unless I felt like it (until she started getting her first diaper rash).
After a break, though, I started taking her after she woke up, as long as she didn’t protest. Then it was just when we were out and she fussed but wouldn’t nurse. Dyami took her on the weekends when he was home.
Throughout these lazy days, I kept telling people how badly EC was going, how I’d pretty much given up. Until one day I realized we’d gone the whole morning without wetting a diaper.
Turns out we’d started practicing again without my noticing.
Despite what the experts, the latest parenting fad, or my own perfectionism would have me believe, I can’t control my daughter. Trying to live up to an ideal just pitted me against Lucy—and made me feel like a martyr.
But once I threw out the rules, I realized EC worked fine—when I made it work for both of us.
Today at a restaurant, Lucy kept squirming in the sling. I excused myself and took her to the restroom. The faucet was a clay pitcher set into the wall; the sink a brightly painted ceramic basin. When you moved a lever, the water poured out of the pitcher’s mouth into the sink, a never-ending stream. Lucy played happily with it, relaxed, and relieved herself.
It was as easy as that.
Believe me, we’re both relieved.
Author’s Note: After avoiding the EC playgroup for a while, I decided to go back. While I chatted with the other moms, I mentioned writing this essay. Unfortunately, I realized I was afraid of what they would think only after other moms asked to see it. A few days later, I e-mailed it out and waited nervously for responses. To my surprise, they said they could relate. It goes to show: My sense of isolation was self-inflicted.
Heather Caliri is a writer based in San Diego. Her work has appeared at Skirt! Magazine, Literary Mama, and BlogHer. She crafts essays each afternoon while her two homeschooled kids watch Disney Jr. Get her free e-book about post-perfectionist Christianity on her blog, A Little Yes.
Brain, Child (Winter 2008)