I am the worst potty-trainer in the world. It’s true. I no longer deny it and in some ways I embrace it. I must have been on a chocolate hunt the day they gave out the patience and skill for this important part of motherhood, ‘cause it missed me completely.
I was raised in a home where cloth diapers were the norm. There were nine kids, I was the third, so there were six cloth-diapered bottoms behind me. Potty training was an event much celebrated by all of us. There was no motivation like a week’s worth of soiled diapers needing to be rinsed before going into the washer. And perhaps my disparaging failure would have been avoided if I too had used cloth—perhaps the mess and smell would have given me the commitment my mother had. But I was a modern woman. ‘Pampers’ was one of my favorite words.
Now don’t get me wrong. I, like most young mothers, got caught up in the rapture of diaper-less-baby-bums and expected success like anyone else. When my first child was a year and a half, I made my first attempt. All the other kids in the play group were potty-trained, so I was feeling the peer pressure to keep up. The mothers of these pantied-children posed and bragged until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I found a book called How to Potty Train in One Day. The plan was elaborate, but I pressed on. It required all kinds of charts and graphs to track progress. But it seemed very scientific and I was impressed. I bought special training pants, salty chips, and lots of fun drinks to increase the urge. And of course we had to have the dolly that wets. My husband questioned me, first about the week preparation I put into this, and then about the increasing costs, but I convinced him that it would all pay off in the end. He smiled and dropped it like any good husband should.
The big day arrived and we had scrambled eggs for breakfast, with salt and a big glass of apple juice. This was followed by potty reminders every ten minutes, salty pretzels and more drinks. Half an hour after breakfast, she wet her pants. I had known we would have a couple setbacks and was not deterred. We tried again. Half an hour later she wet her pants again. Part of the program is making a list of people that will be so proud of my little girl. So I discussed how proud her daddy would be, Grandma, Mr. Bills across the street, Mr. Bills’ dog, and of course, Barney. She didn’t seem to care at all, but I kept pushing the Pringles and juice boxes.
By one o’clock she’d cleaned me out of snacks and juice boxes with seven accidents to show for it. I’d followed the graphs, I’d gone over her “Proud People” chart and she wasn’t getting it. I called my husband in frustration. He said she might be too young, that maybe she wasn’t ready.
What did he know?
We kept trying. By three o’clock she was in wet pants crying in the corner, again. I was on the phone to my husband, crying about what a horrible mother I was. We stopped for the day. I daren’t tell the other play group moms about my failure. I simply smiled when the subject came up and acted like I knew exactly what I was doing. I like to think they thought I’d found some secret knowledge about potty-training that gave me no reason to worry.
Six months later I tried the exact same thing again, with the exact result, except that I didn’t cry to my husband until he came home. I had failed. I was also seven months’ pregnant. This had been my last chance to have an entire month of no diapers for the next few years and I had blown it.
Two years later, I’m the mother of two girls. My oldest was now four and still in diapers. One day she brought me a pair of those ill-fated training pants I’d bought years earlier and asked if she could wear them. I cringed, but said she could. That afternoon she had an accident—I felt sure we were doomed and told her we needed to go back to diapers. She insisted on wearing another pair and promised she wouldn’t wet them. I wavered, but finally gave in. She never wet her pants again, but she was four years old and had done it herself, so there was no pride in my achievement.
No less than two months later, I began regarding my second daughter with new eyes. This little girl was two and had the verbal skills of her older sister, with more comprehension. We had complete conversations on a regular basis. It was weird, but I knew in my heart that this child was a prodigy. I was still suffering from my failures with child one and in child two I saw redemption. If I could have her potty trained at twenty-two months, surely that could prove that I was not completely worthless.
I sat my little girl down and we had a very deep discussion about going potty in the toilet. We talked about how much cleaner it was to use the toilet and how yucky diapers were. She was mesmerized by this information and promised me right then and there that she would never use a diaper again. I gloated to my husband about it—for about three hours.
Although she took to heart every word I said, she was very petite. Most people thought she was almost a year younger than she really was until she opened her mouth. She was so small that she couldn’t get on the toilet herself and she refused to use the child potty, which she had deemed only for babies. When she had those first few accidents, she howled as if she’d just inadvertently killed a small animal. She was so disappointed in herself. So she started to hold it. And hold it and hold it and hold it. She would hold it even if I put her on the potty and begged her to go. She would hold it until she began shrieking in pain, then, unable to run to the bathroom with her legs so tightly pressed together, I had to run to her and try and get her to the toilet in time. If I didn’t get her there, she bawled for the next half an hour.
After a week of this, I knew it couldn’t be good for her emotional development to have this kind of trauma, and explained that maybe we should just go back to diapers. She refused. I had convinced her they were dirty, I had told her only babies wore them, and she’d believed me. She wouldn’t even wear Pull-Ups because she knew they were really just diapers trying to look like panties.
For the next year (yes, really) I had to grab her when she reached the shrieking stage and run her to the bathroom. I tried everything to get her to stop holding it. I put her on the toilet hourly, I got a step-stool—and nothing worked. I had created this trauma for her and we went through it four times a day. She was expert at holding it through the night, but on the rare occasion when she drank too much too close to bedtime, I was running down the hall in my underwear, knowing that if I didn’t get to her in time I would have a hysterical child on my hands. She could work herself up to such a pitch that she sometimes threw up—then I had pee and vomit to clean up at one o’clock in the morning. It was honestly the longest year of my life.
At three and a half, she finally went one whole week without the shrieking. I know how old she was ‘cause I wrote it in my journal. She’d stopped holding it quite so much and we all breathed a sigh of relief. By the time she was four, she was doing pretty well. But my potty-training-trauma was not over. I’d had another baby during this year of jump and run—a boy. And we all know what that means.
From the day of the tell-all sonogram, I’d heard how hard boys were to potty-train. I couldn’t imagine it being worse than my girls and I dreaded it. At two and a half, he looked four and people started asking THE question. I hadn’t even considered starting the melee and blew off the judgments of everyone around me. Because he was so big, his diapers, and what went into them, were…well, big. They were awful, in fact, but I wasn’t really tempted. When he was three and a half, I decided to give it a shot and put him in training pants for a day. He had an accident and it was all I needed to convince myself that he wasn’t ready. At four, he started wanting Batman underpants like his friends, and I wanted preschool. So we gave it another try. He did okay for a few hours, enough to send him to preschool. But within minutes of getting home, he’d have an accident and I’d diaper him. Nighttime wasn’t even a question. Pull-Ups—no questions asked. His birthday was in December, so he turned five a good nine months before kindergarten. At this point he was in big-boy-pants all day and averaged an accident every other day. I can’t tell you when he started going all day without and accident because I have a mental block about it, but it was sometime during the summer before Kindergarten. He turned six a couple months ago and he remained in Pull-Ups at night until he was eight. I really didn’t care if he was in Pull-Ups forever—have you seen how many sizes they come in these days?
And so I’m left with one last child. Some would say that after my wealth of experience I should know just what to do and what not to do. Whatever. I have only one philosophy left and that is not to even consider potty-training until she begs me for it. Her cousin of the same age was potty-trained at two. I call that abusive—and why not? There is nothing wrong with babies having extra padding to protect their little bottoms when puddle jumping or going down the slide. There is no shame in keeping a diaper in your purse or taking extra precautions at the community pool. You can hardly see them in her dance outfit and let’s face it, at least I know her bum is clean at least three time a day. Now and then she asks me, but I tell her she’s not ready. Not until she begs me on her hands and knees will I even consider scratching diapers off my grocery list. Not until she can count to twenty and knows her grandparents’ first names. It’s just not going to happen. Quite frankly, I just don’t have it in me.
It’s her body, and to pee or not to pee is a question only she can answer. When she’s ready, and she wants it—I mean really wants it, I have faith that it will happen. But I will not decide this for her. Not this time, not again.
*I wrote this a few years ago, so as an update--KB potty-trained at 3 1/2 much like her oldest sister--I put Dora underpants in her drawer and threw them away if she wet them, which she found devastating enough that by the time we'd worked through four of the six-pack of panties, she had it all figured out. Even at night--Go me!