When my kids were two, I decided–based on conventional parenting wisdom–that it was time for them to be potty-trained.
I did all the things a parent was supposed to do. I bought a potty seat. I read potty books to them. I talked it up. I took the kids shopping for big boy and big girl undies. I chose a date to begin–our first day of summer vacation. We were psyched and set.
In the first 45 minutes of Operation Potty they each went through 3 pairs of big boy/big girl undies–frankly, a urine output the likes of which I’d never seen–and I deduced that something in my approach was not working for them. “Should we try again another day?” I asked. They nodded their agreement with my new plan, and I think we were all relieved to know that I still had a good supply of diapers.
I decided to wait until they told me they’d like to try again. They never did. “Well, they won’t be going to kindergarten in diapers,” I told myself as we all went back to school that year, a mantra (adaptable to any number of issues) that got me through their toddler years.
Sometime that fall, the daycare ladies took over the job of teaching my children how to use a toilet. My daughter, from the get-go a lover of feedback, extrinsic rewards, and instruction from someone other than her parents, was highly motivated by and successful with stickers on a potty chart. My son, not so much. As that school year ended, several months past their third birthday, he showed little inclination to embrace his big boy undies, no matter which super-hero adorned them. He didn’t care about stickers or M&Ms or any other kind of reward.
“How come you don’t want to wear big boy undies and use the potty?” I asked one day in May. In complete sentences, he explained that he wanted to wear Pull-Ups because they did not require him to stop playing if he felt the need to pee or poop.
“Well, you have a really good point,” I conceded. “No one likes to have to stop playing to go to the bathroom.” I then explained that even though his reasoning made sense, he was still going to need to wear regular underwear like the rest of us.
“Why?” he asked.
Why, indeed? “Well, it’s just something we’ve all decided that people do. You can’t go to kindergarten wearing Pull-Ups,” I added. “They won’t let you.” Acknowledging the necessity of kindergarten, he agreed that he could not wear Pull-Ups forever, and that he might as well begin his life in regular underwear fairly immediately.
I asked him if we could choose a day that we could give up the Pull-Ups, and we reached a mutually agreeable one–the day we were to return from a family vacation in June. On that day he put on big boy undies and never looked back (and never had an accident).
This week those toddlers–my babies–turn 21. 21!
What strikes me most when I look back over the course of their lives is how constant their core selves have been. Although the particulars of their personalities and ways of being in the world are wildly different, both of my children act from places of reason, strong conviction, and a desire to meet goals that matter to them. I understood from their earliest days that I was never going to be able to bluff, bluster, bribe, or BS my children into anything they couldn’t see an authentic reason for doing.
What also strikes me, when I look back at the potty story and so many others, is my faith in both themselves and me. I took the conventional approach to toilet training, but when their behavior told me I’d likely misjudged something, I quickly abandoned it without doubting myself or worrying about anyone’s judgement. Maybe I was simply too tired from the physical crush of early parenting to put up much of a fight, but I like to think I had enough confidence in myself and my children that I didn’t worry about doing things differently from other parents. Once they entered kindergarten, I easily shifted my mantra to the next milestone: “They won’t be _____ in middle school,” I’d mutter when something wasn’t going for us the way it seemed to for others.
Later, when my daughter was in early middle school, she shared her opinion that a friend’s parent was “too easy,” and let her do things she shouldn’t.
I thought of all the things I allowed that many other parents typically didn’t and wondered if she was trying to tell me something about myself.
“Do you think I’m too easy?” I asked, half-wary of her answer. (“She doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” my mother has often said of her, and her judgments can be sharp.)
She thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said. “You’re strict about the right things.”
“What are those?” I asked.
“Mostly safety, I guess. I know there’s some things you’ll never cave on, so I don’t even try to get you to.”
Considering that this child had told me, when she was eight, that she’d realized that I couldn’t actually make her do anything, her perception of my parenting felt like solid-enough ground upon which we could make our journey through their adolescence together.
A time came, though, when that ground opened up beneath me, leaving my son on one side of a chasm and me on the other. Floundering in shock and fear, I lost faith and confidence in both of us.
Maybe I had been all wrong, I thought. Maybe I had been strict and loose about the wrong things. Maybe I should have been more like other parents. Maybe I’d been arrogant to think I knew best. Maybe I had failed him. Maybe I was failing her. Maybe I didn’t really know my son at all, this man-child who suddenly felt like a stranger much of the time. And did I really know her, or was another invisible-to-me fissure going to split wide open, leave me scrambling and clinging to the edges of what felt like an abyss?
“He’s still in there,” my mother assured me, more than once. “He’s still him. Just hold steady. You’ll both get through this.”
I wasn’t sure. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed reflexively for the standard parenting handbook, even though much of it had never really seemed to work for my kids. Because maybe I had been wrong about that, too. Maybe I had just been too weak to do the difficult things parents need to do. I judged myself harshly and for the first time worried about the judgment of others.
My grip on him tightened, hard, as I tried to push him back into the shape of the person I’d thought him to be, the person I thought he was supposed to be. The tighter I grasped, the more he pulled away, and the harder I clutched in return. I’m guessing you can imagine how well that worked, for both of us.
It wasn’t until he was graduating from high school, when I was lamenting to a friend, a teacher at an alternative school, about how he’d completed his last class, that she gave me the first plank in a bridge to span our divide.
“It must have taken him a lot of strength to stand up to all the adults in his life,” she said, gently. “It sounds to me like he met the goals he set for himself, on his own terms, against a lot of pressure to do what others wanted of him.”
“That’s something really positive,” she added, looking straight at me. “That’s a quality that might serve him very well.”
And, suddenly, just like that, I could see him again.
I could see that the son I feared I’d lost had been there all along, and that he was not fundamentally different, really, from the pre-schooler who couldn’t see any good reason to wear big boy undies when Pull-Ups allowed him to meet a more meaningful goal than the one I’d set for him–when all he’d really needed from me was some validation of his priorities and some measure of control over his choices.
What if I’d been able to see and give that later, when the stakes were higher and the challenges more complex? What if I’d looked harder for options amenable to both of us, and allowed him some true choice in which ones to take? What if I’d stopped thrashing around in my pond of fear long enough to have seen that it was, after all, only a pond, and not an ocean, and that he wouldn’t be _____ when he was 21? How might things have been different for him, for us?
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the rear view is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. It was hard to know, at 17, where we’d be at 21. It was hard not knowing if he would be OK, if he would make it to 21. Some kids don’t. Had his story gone a different way than it has, I would probably have a different interpretation of….well, everything.
But it didn’t, and here we are.
When we birth a child, we are creating a new life not just for them, but for ourselves, too. All I really know, as I approach the 21st birthday of life as my children’s parent, is that I have been some combination of wise, foolish, and lucky. I know that the question of how we should best carry our children is a hard one to answer in the particulars, but that in general the answer is to hold on loosely–somehow both tight enough to keep them, but not so tightly that we kill the very thing we are desperate to protect.
As my children and I approach the end of our transition to adult parent-child relationships, my only true regret is that I didn’t understand sooner that my job wasn’t to make them fit into the world as I see it, but was instead to teach them how to navigate their world as the people they were born to be. I believe now that if we think we can make our kids into some image we have of who they should be, we are only fooling ourselves about our power. We are not those kinds of gods. And if we try to be, we risk missing the chance to truly know and love the complex and often confounding and profoundly gorgeous beings our children are, have been, and will always be.
Happy birthday to us, loves of my life. What a gift and privilege it’s been to mother you.