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How potty training my daughter is the work of resistance, on turning 30, and finding healing in a public restroom.

“I am terrified, that the living girl in me, she might have finally found the strength to call herself free.  She was buried alive but it seemed she wouldn’t die, she’s almost reached the surface and it seems it’s the end of my time.”
~from the song ‘The Weight of the Stare From Your Beautiful Face’ by Esther Sparks, on the album Orphans: Chapter 2 of the Human Experience

The other day I found myself in Target, on date night, running errands as one does in the romantic desert of parenthood.  I paused unknowingly before a mirror —somewhere between the women’s section and the diapers, struck a pose, hands akimbo, hair tossed—all in the span of less than a second.  Upon realizing what had just happened, my childless and impulsive self-blurted out “Oh my god.  I am my three year old daughter”.  There, in the mirror, (just four feet and some odd inches taller) was the blonde and blue eyed sass I see that enchants and exhausts me every second of every day since my fourth baby arrived on the scene.  I laughed, a little horrified, but mostly delighted in the noticing of two selves in two girls, becoming.

If we (my daughter and I) were together, and she’d done the same, I might have said, “settle down”, “please stand still”, or “if you don’t stay with me, I’m going to make you ride in the cart”.  Very practical, very boring, and quite reasonable.  Which is alright when there’s things to be done, but I won’t say I don’t wish for the world to turn a different way sometimes, even in my own mind.  The way we live is not built for children, and even less so for the ones still inside us.

I’ll be 30 in a few days.  I’m surprisingly anxious.  I’ve never been one to want to turn back the clock and often thought I can’t wait to age so my face will finally show the stories I’ve held far too young.  But there’s a creeping fear reaching up my throat towards my eyes, threatening to change this treasured view of time.  I’ve felt loss threaten like this before, for different reasons, and the best way I’ve learned in all my years is to face it by asking kind questions.

The fear of age is an unexpected marker to the trauma I’ve named and known.  I’ve spent primarily the last decade escaping, recovering, and then training, all in respect to living the majority of my life from a posture of survival.  My development is flip-flopped.  I went from child to adult, a primary caregiver christened actual parent, and wrestle on the regular with the isolation of never being in the same phase as any of my peers.  Talk to me and I sound like an older woman through the stories I’ll tell, look at me and I could be 45 albeit a little rounder and wrinkled carting all those kids around, be with me and I’m standing in front of a full length mirror in Target winking at myself like the three year old who just rediscovered her darling face.

So I’ll be 30 soon and looking about, I decided the best gift I could give myself would be to potty train said youngest daughter.  Thereby closing the book on more than a decade of diaper changes and blowouts and midnight laundry with a tidy savings of $80 a month (give or take).  She’s feisty and stubborn, I’m tired and busy, so there’s a chance it might not stick, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if she catches on, such newfound freedom will delight her more than the unicorn pull-ups I can’t afford.  The next moment of growing up awaits.

My needs and hers align, and I consider a life with children, not a baby and some kids, but children; feeding, dressing, bathing, bathroom-ing on their own.  This is entirely new territory.

Before making the switch, I walk through a few days with imagination, what would it be like?, do I have the time?, what will be inconvenient?, once again so practical, so reasonable, slightly boring.  I begin to notice.  I start to remember.

Bathrooms are tricky things for little ones.  I make a list.

All toilets are too high, the paper gets stuck, we’ll need a change of clothes, she can’t go alone, plan to wait in line.  Also.  Germs.  And the sinks, my word, why are they all so tall?  Must add: roll up sleeves.  Next, managing a toddler’s rage when her tiny hands won’t trigger the automatic faucet “my own” (her working term for ‘by myself’).  At home is easy enough, we have step-stools, a small potty, and toddler seats.  I walk her through the process.  She gets it.  Our faucet and soap are just fine.  Home will be easy.  The public is another matter.

I’m turning 30 and I spent 28 years with an unnamed phobia of public restrooms, or shared bathrooms of any kind.  I remember being four and on a trip and told I should eat some fruit because that’s the real trouble I was having and no one even considered I was afraid of telling them that I actually had to use the bathroom.  I remember avoiding even the word, and at the family dinner table would ask “to be excused to use the ‘restroom’” only to be corrected that it was the ‘bathroom’, and don’t even get me started on the can I vs. may I confusion of the late 90’s.  School teachers weren’t much better, you see.  Who knew that semantics mattered when it came to personal bodily functions?  So for 28 years I managed with a series of invisible rules for myself: remember, bath not rest, may not can, don’t touch handles, stand -never sit, no coffee shops first thing in the morning, bring raisins, drink less water, hold your breath, always have tissues, and make sure someone else in the car asks to go first. 

As you can imagine, long air travel was out of the question, so were roommates, and I’d always have to choose between water or a long drive. 

For awhile I just assumed everyone was also terrified.  That the whole of humanity had this secret agreement about the buildings we made for waste.  It’s the pink elephant in the room.  Don’t think about it, and whoever smelt it dealt it sort of thing.

Years go by and the evidence is clear.  Somebodies hacked the system and were free to use the loo—even joke about it, saying things like, “Oh just poopin’!” in response when I once called out, “are you in there?”  I was puzzled, but not relieved, concluding I must be really uptight.

This was until I got cornered into confessing that need was a good word.  I told a story in a safe group of people that didn’t have anything to do with bathrooms, numbers one or two, the general public, and most certainly not germs.  I told a story about none of those things and no one said anything, really, they all just looked at me.  Well not at me, I’ve seen that before.  They looked with me, within me, they brought their eyes to me.  I was given beautiful, real, and kind faces in response to a moment of my life where no one had seen my eyes, my body, my soul, or my heart.  And through the silence, I stumbled out, covered in snot and tears and breaths that shivered into a wail “I need to be cared for.”  And I guess, well, the confession was a relief for me to hear and I could see it on their faces too.  This cry with no answer or absolution, met with quiet and present gaze, spoke a little more of this girl into existence

Funny thing is, I was out of town at the time, with a longer than short flight home, a roommate, and, I’d been drinking water.  I caught my Uber to the airport and in the car felt an even stranger feeling.  When I hopped out curbside and with my carry on wheeling behind me, this body propelled me to the nearest (public) restroom.  We stopped before security.  We stopped after.  And to be clear, there was nothing wrong.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Just me and 28 years worth of a silence I’d finally allowed to speak up.  By the third bathroom, excuse me, restroom, near Gate something or other in terminal I don’t know—I was doubled over with laughter in the stall at the end.  What on earth was going on?  I was my three year old self.  Like it or no, asking to use every.single.public.restroom between me and when I’d arrive home.

I was home. 

Here was this body, given to me, telling the easiest and life affirming truth.  If you’ve cared for infants, and I’ve cradled four “my own”, you’re looking at diaper loads of 1’s, and most certainly 2’s at least six to twelve times a day.  And as the weeks and months and years have passed since that moment in the airport, I’ve slowly stopped measuring the distance from the seat to the floor and begun to look up, counting ceiling tiles from where I rest on the surface of a toilet seat instead of anxiously holding distance from thighs to the floor.  Perhaps, you might think, (and you’d be right) it’s rather like being born, again.  My stall is a confessional, of yes, I need to be cared for, she reminds me again and again.  Everyday.

And oh, my darling last begotten daughter.  I look about me, and now know.  This part is no longer imagination or question of what to do, because you and I hold these bodies who understand, quite simply, how to be.

I welcome her to a world that does not welcome her.  One built by men who praised the deeds of housewife women in churches and confine them at home, who say the raising of children is holy work and yet built a culture to crush them.  Seen, not heard—you know, and serve don’t speak, for us.  Their invisible rules have all sorts of addendums, like, don’t even shit where you’re supposed to.

I’m turning 30 in a few days.  She’s three and half.  I’ve decided the best gift I can give my daughter is the power of knowing herself.  We walk into the public restroom together.  I look in the mirror, she’s too short to be seen.  We talk through the toilets and sinks and agree the cavernous bowl with it’s ferocious roar give reason to fear.  She is afraid.  I was too.  She needs care, as I still do.  We take a deep breath as I squat down to the floor, lifting her up to reach the seat and rest.  We are at eye level.  There are tears and I offer the gaze from my face, reflecting her courage, knowing she will ask to do it “my own” so soon.  I look at her, she hesitates, still crying and afraid.  Then suddenly, giggles—a mark of success, her eyes cast upward without a care, hair tossed, her body her own, all in the span of less than a second.

And I think, “my god.  Here, is my three year old Daughter.”

“Everyone kept saying [she*] wouldn’t [wake*] up.”  ~from The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss… mostly*

Katherine SleaddComment