Zen and the Art of Potty Training

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This story is for all of the mamas out there still in the throes of potty training: There is hope! Someday, you will look back and laugh at all of it.  I promise.toiletScrub, scrub, scrub, scrub.

“I’m – supposed – to be – at YOGA CLASS!”

I growled these words rhythmically with the scrub-scrub of my sponge, as I attempted to remove brown footprints from the white carpet of my three-year-old’s room. Moments before, I had been looking for my car keys, thinking we might actually be on time, when my son appeared at the top of the stairs in his Spiderman underwear and declared, “I have to poop.”

His words thrilled me. It appeared he was announcing the action before it would happen this time, and I whisked him off the stairs and helped him climb onto the toilet. There was a stain in his underwear that belied we were just in time. We sat there together – he on the toilet, me on the floor – waiting patiently; a crazy, expectant smile on my face. Then, …nothing.

I sighed as I left him on the toilet and climbed the stairs to fetch a clean pair of underwear. As I approached his dresser, I felt something warm under my bare foot. At that moment, the tiny brown footprints came into focus, appearing like a treasure map leading behind the curtains. Curtain number one revealed a squished turd on the floor.

I stomped down the stairs, furious. Searching for carpet cleaner, I glared at the clock. There would be no deep cleansing breaths in my peaceful yoga class today. God dammit, we wouldn’t make it, and I NEEDED yoga to release the fury that this deceptively adorable little man had ignited with his bodily functions.

We had mastered pee at this point, although that had also come through an exploration of patience to depths I never fathomed. A creature of routine, Boy-O knew everything there was to know about how to use the bathroom. For several months, he would ask to “go” in every public place we visited. We would enter the bathroom, he would pull down his pull-up, climb on the toilet, sit for a moment, and nothing would happen. He would wipe the nothing with toilet paper, climb down, pull up his little pants, and carefully wash his hands. A lifetime of accompanying me in the bathroom had burned every detail of the routine into his little mind. The only thing missing was the actual going. That he saved for his pants during times that still remain a mystery eight years later.

“Put him in underwear,” the pediatrician told us. “He’ll figure it out when it makes him uncomfortable.”

So we tried it. But my boy just walked around the house like a cowboy, not even acknowledging the bow-legged swagger induced by his warm, wet pants.

Then, one day, as his name was called for a doctor’s appointment, he looked up at me and said, “I have to use the potty.” (He pronounced it “huse” – “I have to huse the potty.”) I clenched my teeth. My heart rate increased a little. We had been waiting almost an hour for an important appointment, and it was finally our turn. A little voice inside my head told me I should take him to the bathroom. I asked the nurse to please give us a moment. I took him to the bathroom, where he began the familiar routine. And then…the sweet sound of a tinkle in the water. I let out a cheer. I couldn’t contain the thrill of victory as we walked back down the hallway.

“He just used the potty. For the FIRST time.”

I told everyone who would give me eye contact. After that day, he peed successfully in the potty every single time. But the poop was sadly another matter entirely.

It would be months before we held our potty-party to celebrate his entrance to big-boyhood. Months of deals for the special “poop-in-the-potty-toy,” a highly coveted green dump truck that sat high on our china cabinet waiting to be played with by big boys who knew where to go. Months of sticker charts, songs, pull-ups, underpants, threats to make him clean the mess in his pants, seeing through the threats and getting some kind of masochistic joy out of it, despite the fact that it created a larger mess for me to clean afterwards. Looking back, I was a little psychotic about it all. I realize now I suffered from the irrational fear that my life would always be that way. He would never figure out how to use the potty; he would never go to school or college or get married, and I would have to wipe his behind when he was 30. And dammit, I needed him to go to pre-school so I could regain a little sanity at a yoga class every now and again.

Success finally arrived with a chart that promised a “poop-in-the-potty-party” complete with homemade chocolate chip cookies. He was two months shy of four. I am not sure if it was the promise of baked goods, or if it was just finally the right time, but stickers flew up on his chart that week. We baked cookies and sang a song about how we would never, ever need diapers again. He blew out a candle to seal the deal. Maybe it was my heartfelt wish on the candle that clinched it.

When my daughter came along, I promised I wouldn’t touch the subject of potty training until she expressed an interest. If the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing over and over while hoping for a different result, I was determined to do everything completely opposite this time. My strategic apathy paid off. She trained herself at two-and-a-half. I can’t even offer more detail, because it was so quick I don’t remember much. One day, she just started asking to use the potty, and we went out to buy pretty big-girl panties. End of story.

Potty training taught me to accept neither blame nor credit for the ways my children develop. They are their own little people, and my job is simply to guide them as they discover the ways life magically unfolds. In this case, my job was to remove any obstacles between them and the sweet freedom of life without a diaper. The pomp and circumstance of my first attempt was probably unnecessary, because the answer to this challenge proved to be the same as so many others since: surrender. Now, by “surrender,” I don’t mean, “give up.” I mean, let go of unrealistic expectations, and stay open to the way life unfolds in each moment. Know that everything is temporary, and everything is ok as soon as I am ok with everything. Realize that whenever I am engaged in an epic struggle, like potty-training, there is always new wisdom waiting on the other side, not to mention a great story to tell. Our family has since moved on to bigger and better challenges, which also require deep breaths and yoga class.

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