I was standing in my kitchen, cutting an onion when Luke came around the corner of the island and handed me two small Play-Doh containers to open. I dutifully dug out the half hardened contents and handed it back to him as he scampered off to return to his mission. As I watched him run back to the playroom, I noticed the edge of his white diaper sticking out over the waist of his pajama pants and felt a pang of guilt and shame. He was solidly three and a half, and nowhere near potty trained. We tried over the winter break but with Mark having accidents several times per day, and the fact that we have been potty training for years, we just couldn’t muster the energy to train Luke; not when my Grandmother had just passed. I had nothing left.
Up until that point, I kept telling myself that I didn’t see the readiness signs. I kept saying, “he’ll do it when he’s ready”, but I had begun to realize I may be waiting for a very long time, and then in a moment of weakness and doubt, I consulted Amazon. During the two-day wait for the book to arrive, I felt a sense of relief that I was at least doing something to address it. Then the book came, and it was time to crack it open. Already I felt a bit silly to be reading a toilet training book for my third child, but here we were.
Within two pages I was met with sentences about a golden window of opportunity that I had clearly missed. Then several pages about how waiting beyond that golden window could mean anguish, incontinence, and poor self-esteem. Really? We’re going to mom shame in the first chapter? A glutton for punishment, I continued to read. I read several paragraphs about a parent’s lack of discipline and failure to recognize the signs meant that the child may be in diapers for years to come and certainly at risk for bedwetting.
And with a swift thud, I was right back to the place when I read about the magical window of development that if we didn’t seize, would be gone, locked inside with our son’s words; and to a place of realization that toileting would always be hard for one of my children, and now possibly two. Everything about this book was screaming to me, “this goes against everything you believe to be true concerning children, and their development!” And certainly, it went against any shred of hope I had left.
As I continued to think about the seemingly insurmountable task of toilet training, the familiar signs of a meltdown dissipated the trance I was in as I stood in front of the stove browning mushrooms and onions. I could hear Mark begin to softly cry and moan the lyrics to “Old MacDonald.” I knew the escalation was coming. This had become his nightly ritual. As the sun would set around 5:30 pm Mark began to anxiously pace, then jog around the house loudly singing “Old MacDonald” to soothe himself. And we were suddenly plunged into the place we were in the doctor’s office years ago with the realization that life would be very different for us, and sometimes hard to bear. Ike held him, giving him the deep pressure we hoped would make the storm subside, but the crying prevailed.
Like a ball of yarn, Mark’s unraveling had been a slow degrade over the last year. Focus and desire to learn had faded away months ago, and with it went solid sleep and toileting. And now we had gone back to a place of extreme anxiety and panic; a place we lived for years when it was hard to leave the house, and even harder to stop the car at a traffic light. He needed continuous motion and if he didn’t get it, he would thrash and bang his head in his car seat. Many stops for gas included me holding his face tightly to keep him from hurting himself as I waited for the gas pump to finish. And here we were, back to a haunting place of defeat and isolation.
Mark’s sobs echoed through our house and no amount of hugging, holding, squeezing, or cajoling would coax him back to us. I frantically did everything I usually did. I yelled for Alexa to play Lumineers. I played Hamilton on TV. I made sure his iPad volume was cranked up. And as the lyrics of “Salt and the Sea” boomed through our dining room, his cries intensified. I quickly folded some towels and intricately placed several small, wooden traffic signs around them, trying to emulate a treasured past time of sign lining around laundry mountains. The desperation reminded me of when a newborn cried and I quickly needed to immerse into his world to take his hand and bring him back. Curious, he side-eyed my obviously flawed creation given that the signs weren’t evenly spaced and it was enough to distract him and direct his attention to see his favorite NPR Tiny Desk concert. It took another 45 minutes but it seemed to have been enough for the night.
The screaming jags would continue for four more days, even including waking in the middle of the night moaning his song lyrics at 3:45 am. And each night from 5:30 pm – 8 pm he would submerge back into his dark place where none of us existed or could reach him; it was an even more vacant place than he normally occupied. Then last night, I was determined to break the spell and bring my little boy back. We put him in the car and we went for a drive. This was a gamble. The cries bounced around the inside of the vehicle, and I wondered if this was a big mistake. We pulled out of the driveway and listened to “Sleep on the Floor”, and I watched him in the rear-view mirror, hoping for signs of calm. Slowly as we passed the snow-covered fields, and then lights of our small town, the furrow in his brow relaxed, his shoulders came down from under his ears, and mine did the same. I melted into my heated seat, listened to the Lumineers who have always been there to soothe and console our sweet boy, and let out a breath I had been holding for days.
If I had a label for how I’ve felt during these pandemic months, I would say failure. The normal ebb and flow of my struggles and rallying had turned into solid stretches of discouragement and self-doubt. I didn’t need a book to make me feel shame; it was already alive, rooted, and flourishing. I had watched my daughter cry during therapy as her therapist pushed her to confront deep-seated fears, I’d paced with her at night during her panic attacks, and now I watched helplessly as the waves of anxiety were winning and dragging my son out to sea with the knowledge that even toilet training my youngest eluded me.
But when we arrived home from our drive, we watched Mark happily enter the house as a result of something we did to help him. I realized that there’s no expert or book available to replace my ability to read my children, how to interpret their feelings, and know their hearts. I might not be the one to write the book about successful toilet training or five simple steps to avoid a meltdown, but I will move forward knowing that I will continue to swim beside my kids and plunge into the depths when they need me.