“Daddy, come here! Right away! You have to see this — NOW!”
Cole could not contain his vibrant enthusiasm as he raced down the hallway, summoning me to witness his first masterpiece, wrought of angst, yet also of the indomitable will of a toddler.
We have all heard of “black gold,” and although “brown gold” is far less heralded than its oily counterpart, in this instance, the mahogany-colored substance I discovered was beyond value to me, and even more critical to the development of my four-year old son. He’s a bright kid — maybe no Einstein — but on that particular Saturday morning following his discovery, I have no doubt he believed he was the most powerful human being on the face of the planet.
So what is this rare treasure? An unheard of dark chocolate? A scarce, nutrient-rich soil? Or perhaps a new wonder drug to cure the common cold?
I suspect you fathers of toddlers may have already unraveled this mystery; the source of my great joy was nothing more than a pile of crap. That is, Cole’s crap — heading down the toilet — instead of his leg, his pants, a diaper, his bed, our bedroom carpet….
But my blunt account of the locations of Cole’s previous failures only begins to illustrate the anguish (and thrill) this father experienced in teaching his child how to move his bowels like a modern-day, grown-up human being.
Speaking of thrill, I have never seen a purer form of ecstasy in a person’s face than the kind I witnessed on Cole’s countenance when he presented me with his first “appropriately delivered #2.”
The typical age for a young boy to learn to use the toilet is anywhere from 2 ½ to 4 years. But eighteen months is a wide range, representing a significant portion of the child’s life, and it is all but impossible to predict the precise timing of when to begin potty-training with any particular child. And after months (what seemed like years) of tireless effort and “in the trenches” warfare without a break-through, I found Cole’s ardent excitement utterly contagious.
As I reached the bathroom door, it was apparent that Cole had delivered the genuine article. The evidence of success overwhelmed me even before I laid eyes on the eighth wonder of the world. If ever Cole’s ego needs to be knocked down a peg or two, I will be quick to remind him that his “shit most certainly does stink!”
But that day, his work smelled like a rose. Tears of joy welled up in his blazing green eyes as he pointed frantically in the direction of the toilet. Choking back my own tears, I embraced Cole heartily. He was vibrating with pride, his miniature barrel-chested, muscular torso shaking fervently as he shouted to my wife and oldest daughter to join us in the celebration. Cole’s beaming eyes darted back and forth between the toilet and my face as he continued to point at his accomplishment.
Kathryn and Carter arrived, breathless from their race downstairs after being disturbed from their Saturday morning cartoons. Cole greeted them with a look of defiant achievement, one which declared, “Doubt me no longer – I have done it!” I was lost in a glorious haze of pride, oblivious to the reality that we were standing over a shockingly large stool, “oohing and aahing” over it as though we had just delivered our fourth child into this world.
The process of teaching Cole this skill had often felt akin to giving birth. (My sincere apologies to all mothers who are not quite buying this comparison!) Comparisons aside, the learning curve had been steep for Cole, leading to a multitude of failures. These failures discouraged the entire family, and Cole’s unpredictable behavior had become a seriously disruptive force in our daily routines.
We often take for granted the adult ability to control our bodily functions. And it’s easy to become wildly frustrated by a child’s inability to overcome what seem like absurd fears to those of us who can no longer remember having such fears.
But in our case, we received almost daily reminders of how real a young child’s fears can be, and just how messy our biological processes are. When well-intending friends would say, “He’ll get it soon enough, it’s just a matter of time,” I could only bite my lip and mutter inwardly, “How soon is soon, Mr. Cheerful? Do you know how long a weekend is when each hour is laced with fear, resistance, tears and foul-smelling failure?”
I wallowed in self-pity for too many of those hours, wishing that I would wake up one morning to find that my son had been potty-trained. But no one paid a heavier price for his struggles than Cole did himself. An emotional child to begin with, one prone to upsetting outbursts over seemingly trifling matters, he fought against nature and himself, while desperately wanting to please his parents – and the rest of the world – in the face of his overpowering fear of the unknown.
Cole earned this victory with a healthy dose of courage delivered in the face of doubt, which made the victory all that much sweeter. And it was almost as sweet for me, because after having taken a back seat to Kathryn for the vast majority of the early years of our parental ride, I had been the one who had exhorted, cajoled and ultimately, challenged Cole into this achievement by suggesting that he needed to overcome his version of kryptonite if he was to become the super-hero he wanted to be.
I had been the one on my knees, leaning next to him and whispering words of encouragement as he fretfully approached the moment of truth on the porcelain altar. I had watched in frustration — deliverance less than an inch away — only to witness his fears overcome him. I had listened to him plead for the chance to relieve himself anywhere but on the toilet. I had watched his fear turn to anger, and watched him relieve himself wherever he happened to be standing, defying me openly and leaving me to clean another awful mess.
And so, as Kathryn, Carter and I took turns congratulating him, a broad smile never leaving his expressive face, I was struck by a single, all-consuming thought:
As rough as this was, MAN was it worth it!
Cole will not remember the titanic battle he fought to learn a skill he will soon take for granted. But I will never forget it. And I will remind him of the absolute joy he experienced, and which I shared with him, when he pushed through his doubts and fears to emerge on the other side of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles – to a place where a person feels most alive.
Besides, even Einstein must have maddened his parents at least once by missing the toilet, believing – at least for a few moments – that he’d never figure it out.
Eric Schreibman is a writer and real estate professional living outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He and his wife Kathryn are the proud parents of three young children.