By Beth Strout
I used to be a toilet training expert—you know, back before I had kids. I held deep convictions that anyone whose child was not potty-trained by the age of two, maybe two-and-a-half for boys or the slow-witted, was seriously slacking as a parent. Unlike your average pompous childless person who smugly dispenses childrearing critiques, I wasn’t just a garden-variety sneering restaurant patron or irritated airline passenger. I was a Montessori-trained preschool teacher and I felt that this entitled me not only to cook up these little nuggets of genius but to mouth off about them regularly. When I had kids they were definitely going to be toilet trained by age two, at the latest. I had experience with other people’s kids—why would mine be any different?
My daughter Annika is now three years and three-and-a-half months old. She is not potty-trained. She will use the toilet at home if she is naked from the waist down and in close proximity to a toilet when the urge becomes critical, but she will go to great lengths to avoid using the toilet if said planets are not precisely aligned. Just this morning we left a horrible Pull-Up full of green sludge reeking in the sanitary napkin disposal in the ladies’ room at Barnes & Noble. I shudder to think of what my karmic punishment will be for this crime. Anyone with a working knowledge of mythology knows that hubris—pride, thinking that you know it all—is just the sort of thing to get you turned into a pig by the higher powers. The punishment usually fits the crime, so it is appropriate that I should now be the parent of the three-year-old hunkered down behind the stuffed animal display at America’s largest bookstore chain, taking a stinky dump.
“Annika, are you pooping?” I hiss in a desperate whisper as I dash past her hideout, chasing her eighteen-month-old brother. He is headed for the exit holding five or six children’s books on tape.
“No, Mommy! I’m still working on dat poo-poo!” she shouts, neatly solving the mystery for the confused shoppers who are glancing surreptitiously at the soles of their shoes or wondering if perhaps a sewer main has burst.
I dive for Sam, pry the coveted “takes” out of his chubby little fists, and stuff him into the sling. We march back to the poisoned atmosphere of the rapidly clearing children’s book section to claim the little stink bomb and drag her to the bathroom. I deserve every dirty look I get. I’ve been on the other side of that look and, karmically speaking, I have plenty more coming to me.
I am also aware that there is a sort of parental code of honor that says that when your kid makes a poopy diaper at a public venue, you seal the offensive package in the Ziploc baggie that you happen to have brought along for just this purpose and remove the foul relic from the premises. The only time I ever have Ziploc baggies ready is when they have recently been emptied of snacks. Stuffing a poop-filled diaper into a sandwich-size is a challenge, but I have done it when there’s no way to flee the scene. Unfortunately for the staff of Barnes & Noble, I was simply not equal to the task, and the book stacks provided adequate cover for me to sneak out well before some poorly compensated worker received an unpleasant surprise.
Back when it was all still theoretical, I actually had an Amateur-Day-at-the-Child-Psych-Lab theory about why some children are resistant to toilet training. It went something like this: When a caregiver changes a child’s diaper, he or she touches the child, talks to her, gives lots of eye contact. When the child sits on the big, cold, scary potty, she loses this opportunity for contact with the caregiver and reasonably balks. My solution to this problem was simple. I would squat down in front of the toilet so that I could touch her, talk to her, maintain eye contact. Then I would give her a sticker. Kids love stickers.
As half-baked ideas often do, it looked good on paper but was a total bust in real life. One evening, I sat her on the toilet at our local sandwich shop and assumed the position in front of her dangling ankles. I gazed earnestly into her eyes. Sam was back at the table with his dad, so I could give her my undivided attention. I was sort of excited to put my plan into action. I tried to mentally telegraph I’m here for you, honey. I gave her knees a reassuring little pat.
“Yes, honey?” Right here for you, babe, right here.
“Could you go away from me? I need privacy.”
“Sure, sweetie.” I went to the mirror to sulk and pretend to casually look at myself in the ghastly fluorescent light.
Never one to let well enough alone, I meandered back over to the toilet and tried a slight variation on my earlier position. I actually sat down on the floor in front of the toilet. I should mention at this point that, while this particular restaurant keeps an immaculate facility, I am positively horrified by the thought of all of the germs that one encounters in a public restroom. The idea of her hands on the toilet seat and any number of my own body parts on the floor was odious. It made me want to scream. But I didn’t, because I didn’t want her to be any more apprehensive about using public restrooms than she already was. We had recently encountered a monstrous black beetle thrashing in its death throes in the bathroom of an upscale sporting goods store and I was trying to play down the Chamber of Horrors vibe. I hoped that I looked upbeat but not pushy. Annika sighed and stared at the wall behind my head.
Suddenly her posture changed. She tilted her pelvis forward and curled her head forward to get a better view of her crotch. I looked, too. For a split second, just as the urine started to bubble forth, I felt elated. See, my theory was working after all! This was going to be a cakewalk.
Then she peed all over me. The angle of her crotch sent the piss straight up and out of the toilet and, sitting directly in front of it, I could not have been better situated for a direct hit. This did not bother Annika in the least. In fact, she announced her accomplishment loudly as we exited into the restaurant. “Daddy,” she crowed, “I made a tinkle in the potty!”
It was a humbling moment, and I couldn’t even blame it on Sam. He certainly doesn’t help and has been my mental fall guy for some time now. I like to think that if I hadn’t had my babies so close together—twenty-one months apart, not that it was planned—I could have gotten her potty-trained according to my original schedule. I could have watched her like a hawk, seen the telltale wiggling, checked my watch against her last sippy cup of juice, and sat her little bottom on the potty at regular intervals until she got the hang of it. I was going to give her stickers.
But, as soon as Sam could crawl, he was following Annika into the bathroom and pulling up on her legs every time she sat down to give it a try. “Mommy! Shammy is pinching my legs!” she would wail, indignant, and administer a stout kick to his head. This would knock him down and because our downstairs bathroom is the size of a phone booth, he would smash into me (squatting attentively in my official position in front of the toilet) domino-rally style. They cried. I poured sweat and boiled with frustration. When I tried to block the bathroom door with my body, Sam wept bitterly, heartbroken, the kid who wasn’t invited to the party. When I let him in, he unrolled bales of toilet paper and tried to cram fistfuls of it into the toilet between Annika’s legs, eager to demonstrate his understanding of the process. Annika was not impressed. More crying. More sweating. The thought of trying to wrangle both of them into a public restroom for this sort of scene makes me want to cry.
I figure that Sam will have to be about three years old before he is going to be at all manageable in a public restroom. By then Annika will be about five. Maybe she would have potty-trained naturally by this point. I mean, how long could she possibly go? What’s the record?
There’s actually something appealing about just letting her learn “naturally” at her own pace. For starters, I would be spared many of these unpleasant scenes. Friends and family could just shake their heads and chalk it up to my hippy-dippy, crunchy-granola style of parenting. That she still sleeps with us in the family bed and has only recently been weaned from breastfeeding has most of them convinced that I’m turning her into a criminal anyway. I’m more or less comfortable with being the neighborhood nut job.
I could even convince myself of this pose except that I am using disposable diapers. There, I said it. Because I am taking the low road and jamming the landfills with mountains of neatly wrapped packages of human excrement, I am foisting my guilty conscience onto my daughter in the form of forced toilet training—double bad karma.
I started using them full-time after Sam was born, and I would be wretched with remorse about the pollution if I weren’t so darned grateful for the convenience. The little story that I used to use to assuage my guilt was that, as soon as Annika was potty-trained—and, remember, that was going to be very soon—I would get Sam into cloth diapers that I would launder myself. It seemed doable with only one kid in diapers. But Annika shares neither my agenda nor my guilt over the state of the environment and is apparently in no hurry. I have honestly tried to be mellow and let her progress at her own pace, but those little jolts of guilt every time I throw another stinker into the garage trash can specially designated for this purpose are turning me into a shrew. I mean, it’s not like I want to spend all day calculating my next move in the potty wars. You’d think that, given the choice, she’d choose whichever option didn’t include regularly finding herself with a cooling loaf of poop smashed between her buns. But you’d be wrong.
It all boils down to guilt, this parenting gig. You feel guilty if you do too much and guilty if you don’t do enough. I worry that I am going to spend a good deal of my afterlife dealing with nasty diapers in some sort of purgatorial landfill. I worry that I am pushing my child into the Freudian nightmare of forced toileting. I worry that she will never be potty-trained and will have to just eventually graduate into Depends. I worry that that loaf of poop is giving her a rash. I worry that my loathsome sister-in-law will torment me with lengthy boasts of her daughter’s bowel mastery. I worry that all of my worrying is going to make my adorable little girl as neurotic as I am.
You won’t find me spouting any of my sofa-cushion-psychologist theories nowadays. I no longer roll my eyes at those exasperated-looking parents in the grocery checkout line. And I most certainly do not start sentences with the words, “Well, when I have a teenager . . . ” I’ve accepted my fate. When people shoot disgusted looks at me and my stinky offspring, I try to smile humbly. I resist the urge to sneak the reeking packages into their purses and backpacks when their backs are turned. I’ve learned my lesson. Now, can I please just pay my fine and go home?
Author’s Note: About a month after I wrote this piece, I decided, That’s it, we’re goin’ commando. I bought Annika a bunch of hip little bikini panties in psychedelic prints, put them on her, and took her out in public, armed with a complete change of clothes and a sense of impending disaster. To my utter surprise, she has been accident-free ever since. In fact, she has to use the bathroom dramatically less often than I do. True to my original pledge, I have begun working off my bad karma laundering Sam’s cloth diapers. I owe. I owe big.
Brain, Child (Winter 2003)
Beth Strout, who returned to using her maiden name in the mid-2000s, now goes by Beth Eakman. Beth lives in Austin, Texas, with her family, and teaches writing at St. Edward’s University.
Art by Jaki Wood
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