Confessions of a Potty Trainer

One woman's path to a breakdown.

There have been moments in my brief career as a Mom that have been so tender and beautiful, like that first sloppy, open-mouthed kiss or when my kids would trot their little Frankenstein walk into my arms, and collapse into my chest.

There have also been moments of sheer despair, and an utter exasperation that is only released by banging my head against the wall. I was having one of the desperate kinds when my husband walked in and saw me lying on the floor with my face in my hands. He asked what was wrong to which I replied, “The weekend is over and I hadn’t gotten anything accomplished.” It sounded all too real, so he gave me an encouraging pat before going out to watch his football game.

How could I tell him the truth? I knew women with real issues; children with special needs, breast cancer and infertility, which made me feel guilty for acting so devastated over something so inane. How could I tell him the real reason I was so distraught was that I had failed as a potty trainer?

It was all going so beautifully for the first month and a half. The planets aligned and though my son’s teeth were being coated with exorbitant amounts of sugar on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, he was peeing on the potty! “Mommy, I peed,” he’d say proudly, holding his hand out like Pavlov’s little dog.

I walked around smugly asking Sam in public, “Do you have to use the potty, sweetheart?” Announcing to everyone that yes, he isn’t wearing diapers anymore! My neighbor asked how I did it, and I confided to her that you have to wait until you can reason with them. What I really was saying is that you have to wait until you can bribe them, preferably with something sweet.

I’ve heard girls are easier, but with Sam I had tried on several occasions since his second birthday only to be shot down. He wasn’t ready until he could finally understand those tubs filled with multi-colored M&M’s would not be cascading down his little throat until he actually peed into the toilet.

I still cringe at the thought of taking him to his first dental appointment when the dentist shows me Sam’s x-ray with five cavities. Shaking his head in contempt, he’ll ask, “You used candy as an incentive, didn’t you?”

After a week or so I threw in some Matchbox cars and Dora stickers to spice things up. Sam was delighted, and soon he forgot to ask for anything. It becomes so automatic. He even mastered number two to our sublime. Though he was still wearing diapers to sleep at night, I told my husband our goal was to be completely done with diapers by his third birthday, which was three months away.

I should have known nothing in life is that easy, especially with Sam. He started having accidents. The first one while playing with a playdate. I told him not to feel embarrassed. He said, “I don’t Mommy.” Dr. Phil would be so proud.

The week before my mini-breakdown he started having four to five accidents a day. He was regressing badly. Was I pushing him too hard, sounding like a broken record stuck on the word potty, potty, potty? I myself was sick to death of the word.

We re-established the M&M incentive, but that wasn’t working 100 percent. I threatened him with no videos. He just shrugged and went back to playing. At one point, I was so infuriated with him, I grabbed the Matchbox cars and said they were a privilege for big boys who used the potty. He wailed and wailed, and I soon gave them back and apologized. I knew Dr. Phil wouldn’t approve of this strategy, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Heartbroken, I asked my husband, “Do we go back to diapers?”

“Definitely not,” he said. “What do your books say?” he asked.

“Not to humiliate, belittle or punish. Would you punish a child who falls down learning to walk?” I answered glumly.

My pediatrician suggested just ignoring it, but after five changes a day, I was at the end of my rope. Punishing, ignoring, bribing— I’d tried it all and nothing was working.

I finally sat him down and told him I loved him— diapers, accidents, whether or not he ever used the toilet again— I still loved him. I did throw out that if he wanted to have his birthday party at Jungle Jim’s Playland he would have to be potty trained by then. It was their rule... I had nothing to do with it. A tiny white lie that I doubted he would ever find out about

I’m still not sure why he regressed. Life is hard, even for 2 year olds, going on 3. I think he was torn between relinquishing babyhood and turning into a big boy. It was frightening and empowering for him to have this new control. I think most mothers have control issues, and it’s the first of many power struggles we have to face. I finally realized it wasn’t that earth shattering. There are more important things in life, like enjoying these special days with him before they slip away. I learned that simply loving him was more significant than any deadline I tried to set.

When I stepped back, he stepped forward and decided the time was right. My reward was two precious eyes smiling back at me.

The truth is there is nothing easy about parenting, only the loving part. There are hundreds of different approaches to everything, but only one is right for you and your child. The trick is to get the loving part right, and everything else should fall into place. And in those moments of quiet desperation, it does help to remember the joke people say, “Well, he certainly won’t be going off to college in diapers, still sucking his pacifier!” We chuckle softly and say, “Of course not.” Well, we hope not.