“So how's potty-training going?" It was a casual question, a simple mother-to-mother question that she asked when she learned our daughters were less than a month apart.
I hesitated, not sure how honest I should be. In this world of carefully-crafted Facebook posts and Instagram pictures, how do you respond appropriately when confronted with a question from an actual person?
So I went with complete honesty, loosely accompanied by humor. “Uh, it's not," I laughed.
To my own personal relief, the mother looked just as glad to hear it. “Same! She'll sit, but won't do anything."
I could practically finish the thought for her. My daughter had reached the point of sitting contentedly on the toilet for five seconds (which, in fairness, was an improvement over screaming in fear and wriggling like a deranged octopus) before announcing proudly, “I done," while an empty toilet lurked beneath her little bum.
Another mom, a seasoned pro with two kids as opposed to us rookies of one, overheard our conversation and smiled encouragingly. “A month after my son turned three he just figured it out one day. We tried for months, and then he suddenly got it."
It was what I'd heard before. After no interest or months of struggle, the youngster finally realized the magic of the toilet and never went back to diapers (except sometimes at night). It is one of those key milestones—like rolling over or walking—that rely so heavily upon the child's readiness that the parent can't help but freak out sometimes.
Why do we freak out when we know it's only a matter of time and that it will almost certainly happen eventually? After all, my grandmother, who had nine kids, supposedly used to abide by the philosophy that none of her kids were potty-trained by kindergarten but they all were by college. That's a pretty lax timeline that could alleviate some stress (and with nine kids, it was probably much needed).
There are a few possible reasons for our stress. First of all, the small, tightly-knit, supportive communities of yore have evolved into a vast, chaotic, and immediate internet community that has a tendency to judge first and think later. People proudly share posts of their children's accomplishments because they're too caught in the moment to consider parents struggling to have their children achieve these same goals. Rapidly sent text messages may omit key information or valuable intonations, coming across as insensitive.
As we watch the screens, our own confidence, in ourselves and in our children, diminishes. Time and again we're presented with a measuring stick, and sometimes our child simply doesn't measure up.
Sometimes the criticism is not confined to the virtual world. Sometimes well-meaning relatives try to “help" by giving advice or unhelpfully sharing that So-and-So's child actually walked out of the womb. Sometimes caregivers take the reins right out of the parents' hands, which can help but sometimes leads to more unfortunate misunderstandings.
Sometimes pediatricians prompt unnecessary concerns, either due to an insensitive slip, an overly strong emphasis on the “norm," or an extreme underestimation of the parents' levels of anxiety. Suddenly we're confronted with condemnations of our parenting styles and reminded of the existence of those who are far superior to us.
Of course, almost at all times, the fault is “not in the stars but in ourselves," although not in the way we think. We're constantly made to feel that what we're wrong in some way. We've chosen to co-sleep or not to co-sleep, to breastfeed or give formula, to stay at home or find a daycare.
No matter what choice we've made, we've somehow been made to feel that it's sometimes the wrong one, even if it's what worked best for ourselves and our children. That dangerous combination of guilt and doubt drives us to stress about our children, and in doing so, cause them to stress, too.
I don't want that to happen.
So, yes, I will continue to gaze longingly at the space lost to diaper-changing and curse the diaper disposal. I will consider my child's willingness to wear pull-ups and sit on the potty progress. I will encourage and cheer her on to the point that I'll wish I received so much credit for using the toilet, but I will not force her.
If she screams and cries to get down, I'll let her, and try another day. Because ultimately, it's not about when I'm ready. It's when she is.