While I have written many articles on what it feels like to leave my three year old twins to go to work or the challenges I’ve faced in helping them to sleep on their own during the night, I have been avoiding one particular subject that is a major part of our lives. The main reason I have avoided the subject is that I am so uncomfortable by the whole discussion. I have actually handled helping our twin 3-year olds learn to use the potty better than I thought I would – especially considering the issues and major levels of discomfort I feel, but that doesn’t mean I like talking about it.
In my family, no one ever went to the bathroom. In fact, in my own mind, if people knew that I went to the bathroom (as if they don’t already), they would see me as less of a person, as if going to the bathroom is a weakness, a flaw in my being, as if the whole world doesn’t do it every single day, too. I have worked hard to get comfortable actually going to the bathroom and trying not to care whether other people know or not. But talking about it with other people, well, that’s a whole other issue.
If it wasn’t for my wife, I would probably have made essentially no progress on this issue. Ironically (or maybe, fortunately), I married a sexuality educator and she has no issues about this stuff whatsoever. In fact, she has the opposite of issues in this area, she has strengths and skills that she is (unknowingly) teaching me. Of course, there is also something about changing diapers every day that is like trial by fire – you either get used to dealing with poop and pee or you crack under the pressure running and screaming to the nearest mental institution. In the early days we were always feeding and changing diapers, about every three hours or so (yes, that was about 12-14 diaper changes a day). The only way to stop changing diapers was to stop feeding them and, as you can imagine, we didn’t think that was a good approach to the problem.
Of course, as our children get older I am constantly challenged to grow as well. Once I got used to changing diapers and talking about pee and poop, then we had to talk about what kinds of poops they were. How many times a day is it happening? Then we started with helping our kids understand that we don’t use diapers, we use the…toilet. Ugh, I hate the whole terminology of this. Really. I am cringing as I write this – my fingers are afraid to touch the keyboard since I wrote that word.
The women in our family, their mother, Tia, Nana, and Abuelita, all would let our children into the bathroom with them to help show them how people use a toilet. It took me a long time to be able to do that. Long time like months and months, not weeks. I’ve tried to never let anyone know I actually go to the bathroom, to let someone (really two someones) come with me and watch was so far beyond my comfort level it made me anxious just thinking about it.
As in all of these situations, what helped me was the idea that my role as father is more important than anything I feel as a person. My children need to see their father go to the bathroom, too, that both men and women use the bathroom and that men use it differently than women. Who else is going to show that to my son if not me? I have to rise to that challenge even if it makes me terribly uncomfortable, because it is not about me, it is about them.
Interestingly, despite our best efforts, our children had refused to participate in toilet education. They didn’t really mind diapers (though they hated having them changed – if it was up to them, they would just wear them all day regardless of whether they were wet or dry, empty or full), they didn’t care about how they looked in them, they didn’t have much interest in being like us. We tried so many different techniques, including flat-out bribery and nothing was working. Finally, on the same day, but separately, my wife and I concocted a new plan (in case you haven’t noticed, parenting is so much about problem solving – one of the things I actually like about it). We were going to let Elijah off the hook since he often doesn’t respond well to pressure and focused on Jordyn since she does and she likes the limelight, likes challenges and rewards. This approach worked and once Jordyn got it, Elijah came along shortly thereafter.
Of course, with Jordyn using the potty, I find myself sitting next to my little girl while she is peeing and/or pooping, encouraging her, congratulating her, helping her to clean herself, and even cleaning out the potty (more cringing) after she is done. How did this happen? What have I become?
I have become a man who understands that to be the kind of father I want to be, I need to be more than I am, I need to be what they need me to be. It is even more important because I don’t want them to carry my issues about this subject. I don’t want them cringing or uncomfortable about something that they will do several times a day. My children need their father to help show them how to use the toilet, they need both of their parents to show that using the bathroom, talking about pee and poop and toilet are okay, they are just words like any other.
What’s amazing is the more I say them, the more that becomes true.
Jeremy Schneider is a fatherhood expert, syndicated columnist, and therapist specializing in parenting, relationships, and helping people overcome depression. Learn more about Jeremy at jgs.net.