Parenthood, summed up in one horrible bathroom incident

My four-year-old is my youngest of nine children. You’d think that after 25 years of being a mom, I’d be an expert, but you’re never an expert, I’ve decided.

Especially when it comes to potty-training.

With our first child, I took the excellent advice to “not rush it.” This was the early 90s when having your barely-know-how-to-walk one-year-old potty trained was the rage.

It was actually the mom who was trained, to rush her tiny charge to the bathroom every two hours and plop the toddler on the toilet with great hope. Never being that disciplined, I instead encouraged and suggested, and finally had a trained daughter when she was three.

I followed that same laissez faire approach with my other kids, too, but my sons took a bit longer.

Ohhh . . . my sons and potty training.

Boys are the worst, and I have five of them.

I won’t name names, but one son had a propensity for “forgetting,” and he was well into preschool age before accidents weren’t a weekly—or daily—affair.

Another son would, in a half-asleep stupor, mistake his closet for the bathroom every night. It took us weeks to figure out where the smell was coming from, and why. Once we did, we had to replace the carpet and pad in there, along with a few toys.

Another son simply refused to use the toilet, afraid of it. One of his first public potty encounters was with a toilet which automatically, and noisily, flushed itself. He was sure that all toilets were ready to swallow him whole.

Another child was perfectly easy to potty train, leaving me to believe I’d finally figured things out and was a fantastic mother.

Nope. He was just an easy kid.

And we’re not going to talk about the years of bed wetting. Which were years. (I wept with joy when Febreeze was invented.)

So when it came to potty training Boy #5, I didn’t have any illusions that I knew how to do it within 48 hours, or tear-free, or bribery-free. We just went for it.

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(We’ll allow #5 to retain his dignity and remain anonymous.)

(If you’re a bit squeamish, perhaps you don’t want to continue reading. But if you’re a parent, none of this will be new to you.)

Fortunately #5 had no problem with #1. Watching his older brothers (who were happy to show off their skills) encouraged him that he wanted to be as big as the teenagers he adored.

It’s #2 that’s been the horror.

He won’t do it on a toilet. We don’t know why. It’s not as if toddlers are good at articulating their reticence about certain activities.

We started trying waaaay back before his third birthday, and while he’s been an expert at shooting the water for over a year (we won’t discuss aim, which even my bigger boys seem to struggle with until they leave high school), the idea of sitting and plopping was a no-go.

Instead, he grabs a pull-up, puts it on himself, hides in the privacy of his bedroom, then comes out ten minutes later with a coy smile and says to me sweetly, “Mommy? Can you please change me? I love you.” Batting his lashes is the crowning touch.

“But I don’t love doing this,” I tell him each time he assumes the position and I pull out the baby wipes.

“Yes, you do. Because you love me. But don’t tell Daddy I do this.”

It always makes me feel dirty when he says that. But Daddy knows.

Daddy frowns at Pull-up Boy, and promises greater things, like setting off smoke bombs or exploding fireworks tanks, if #5 puts #2 in the potty.

We had success after Christmas, when we promised him a shiny new fire engine that makes noise if he went. (Go ahead, judge me for bribing my child. I don’t care what anyone thinks anymore.)

He did it once, and we immediately took him to Walmart, and he loved his fire engine . . . and he never went #2 again because he got his reward.

I hate it when the kids are cleverer than me.

But yesterday, something changed.

I was in the kitchen making dinner when suddenly my 4-year-old stood there, beaming. The fact that he wore only a t-shirt, and nothing below, gave me a hint as to what he was going to exclaim.

“Mom! Mom! I did it! I put stinkies in the potty!”

“Really?!” I don’t know who was happier.

“Come see!” and he took off running to the bathroom.

That’s when I realized that not all of the stinky got into the toilet. A lot of it was smeared down the back of his legs.

As a parent, there are times that you brace yourself for what you’re about to find, and you recite in your head, No matter what, I’ll be cheerful. No matter what, I’ll be cheerful . . .

When I arrived at the bathroom, the story was waiting for me.

First were his pants and underwear, tossed on my bedroom floor as if he were in a hurry.

Then, the pull-ups, left sadly next to the door, because there wasn’t enough time.

Then . . .

The bathroom.

I steeled myself, because sometimes, no matter how often you tackle a mess, it’s shocking when you first encounter it.

But #5 stood next to the toilet, beaming in joy. “Look! Some of it got in!”

It did, along with half a roll of toilet paper.

The rest was on the seat, the floor, and the bath mat.

Boys struggle with having two outlets, and sometimes they don’t have full control of either. My son stood in a yellow puddle, grinning madly.

There was only one option for me as his mother.

“I’m so proud of you!” I cheered and clapped.

Full of praise and happiness, I suggested we finish wiping him up, waist to toe, and I sent him to tell his siblings the good news so I could tidy up the bathroom.

That’s where my 15-year-old found me a few minutes later. “He actually went stinky in the toilet? Whoa . . .” and he backed up when he saw how I straddled one mess to wipe up another. “I was about to say, Bet you’re glad he didn’t give you a mess in a pull-up, but—”

“But say nothing to him,” I warned Big Brother. “This is a huge step for him—”

You’ll have to take a few huge steps just to get out of there—”

I pointed at him. “The mess isn’t important,” I said. “Nor is it important that I had to use five baby wipes on him, and that I’ll use about a dozen Clorox wipes in here. What’s important is that he finally did something hard for him. We cheer and praise, and clean up the mess quietly later, without making him feel anything but joy for his accomplishment, which has been years in the making.”

And that, I realized, summed up parenthood.

Along with this request to Big Brother, “And bring me another trash bag, please.”

Oh yes, being their mother was by far the most difficult work she’d ever undertaken. And it also was, by far, the most satisfying. At the end of the day she knew she’d accomplished an enormous amount of work, even if the house looked as messy as it had in the morning. But at this point of her life, messy meant success. Things happened.

~Book 2, Soldier at the Door

Don’t judge me=I’m already feeling guilty

Some time ago I came to the realization that whenever someone throws out the “Don’t judge me!” line, it’s because at some level they suspect that they’re in the wrong, but they’re not ready to admit it, and certainly not ready to resolve it, and would rather that everyone STOP REMINDING THEM about it.

It’s called GUILT, and for some reason we often think we shouldn’t have to deal with that emotion.

My most amoral character agrees:

“Man’s greatest weakness! Guilt, regret, feeling bad about behavior . . . It’s a forced condition, you know, shame about a misdeed. A behavior taught to humans that can, and must, be overcome. Ignore it long enough, it dies away as simple as that . . . Humans abuse themselves. With guilt. With regret. It holds them back, makes them feel as if they owe some duty to others, as if there should be some level of behavior all should aspire to. Well, there isn’t! 
~Chairman Nicko Mal, Soldier at the Door

Well, there is!

And my, do we hate it when someone tries to remind us that the purpose of our lives isn’t to indulge ourselves and hope there aren’t any consequences.

I first encountered this very weak logic back in high school in the 1980s, when punk music hit the US. I had a few friends embrace the culture, dyeing their hair black and using a bottle of mousse each morning to make it stand up straight, putting spikes on every inch of clothing, then scowling when people stared at them.

“Don’t judge me!” I never understood that; they purposely put themselves on display, then didn’t expect people to look?

As a senior in high school I became grunge before Kurt Cobain made a name for himself. I wore holey jeans, didn’t bother with make-up, spent only 5 minutes on my hair (and yes, a few boys commented that I needed to “do something with it”—which pronouncement meant they weren’t boys I’d ever be interested in) and I did so for a purpose. I wanted to prove that I didn’t care about my appearance, but wanted to focus only on trying to get a scholarship (since I hadn’t been the best student for the first 11 years of schooling). Yes, people looked at me–this was the height of preppiness; watch “The Cosby Show” to see how I should have been dressing–and I rather enjoyed it. It was also a good test for my vanity; am I still worthy, even though I don’t “look worthy.” I was trying to make a point, and I made it. Judge me! Go ahead!

Social media has given us even more ways to stand up and be judged, or to scream, “Stop judging me!” Today I read Matt Walsh’s blog on why Christian women should hate Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ll state right now that I think the novel is women’s porn, so I agreed completely with his position.

However, the real lesson is in the comments, as it always is; scattered among the remarks of “Thanks for stating what I always suspected about that horrible book,” were phrases such as, “Hey, nothing wrong with reading about a little sex,” or “So what if I like a little excitement in my books?” and, most common among the dissenters: “Don’t judge me based on what I read! How can you be a Christian and be so judgmental?”

Ah-ha . . . someone’s conscious has been pricked, yet again. If they didn’t feel any guilt, they wouldn’t be justifying themselves, and in the huge social media presence of Matt Walsh, no less. There, for thousands of readers to see, they declare their stance yet demand that no one judge them. How very odd.

Weird Al, Mandatory Fun, Word Crimes, Grammarly

I have no doubt a few grammar Nazis wished they could find a similar uniform.

I see pricks of guilt and judgment everywhere on the Internet, and it always tells much more about the responder than what they respond to. For example, Weird Al Yankovic just came out with a brilliant parody about common grammatical errors, and Grammarly interviewed him about it. Again, the great lesson was in the responses to the interview, because poor Al accidentally used the pronoun “that” instead of “who.”

Oh, there’s no group more self-righteous and unforgiving than Grammar Nazis. (I’ve ranted about them here. Grammar snobs put the Pharisees of Christ’s time to shame.) These responders, instead of appreciating the incredible work of Weird Al, which he shares freely on YouTube so that all of us English teachers can kill another five minutes of class time; instead of being grateful that someone with a greater sense of humor has taken up the grammar cause; no, instead of applauding him, Grammar Nazis vilified him:

“People that know me … people that still haven’t figured out” 😦 And he thinks he’s a grammar nerd. <shaking my head>
[As of this is some kind of special club, and he just violated its most sacred rule.]

I, too, was shocked to see that he used that instead of who. 
[Yes, she actually wrote “shocked.”]

Fortunately there was some reason among the rabble:

Alright, everybody caught the “that/who” error. He’s still a satirical genius. Disagreement with that proposition is dissent up with which I shall not put.

Judgment is everywhere on the Internet, and just as we’re quick to not have people point out our faults, we’re even quicker to point them out in others. I think that’s because when we’re feeling guilty, the fastest way to assuage that guilt is to point out how someone is guiltier than us.

For example, I read an article about a woman who recycles clothing from a thrift store, updates it, then donates it back. I was amazed and humbled to realize she’d done over 700 pieces. I can sew (sort of), but it never occurred to me to use that minimal talent in such a generous and creative way.

Again, the lesson was in the comments. There were plenty of judgments which, I suspect, arose out of guilt.

“Look at the photos—she’s just shortening the hems and sleeves. That’s nothing too special.”
[And yet, still likely more than you did.]

“She’s only taking fat clothes and turning them skinny.”
[And what have you done?]

“As a plus-size woman, I take offense that she’s reducing the amount of clothing that would fit me, making it for skinnier girls. They already have plenty of clothes . . .”
[Seriously, she wrote, “I take offense.”]

And on, and on.

What I don’t think people realize is how transparent they are, how they give the world a telling image of themselves through their comments. Invariably, the more defensive people become, the guiltier they demonstrate themselves to be. I find myself cringing at their responses, pitying them that they’d expose themselves so freely and easily, showing the world their self-centeredness and pettiness.

Oh, he’s not getting out. Trust me.

It’s the old crabs in a bucket. If any tries to climb out, the rest drag it down, until eventually the crabs have torn each other into pieces. We envy others who dare to climb higher, feel guilty that we’re not doing likewise, don’t want them looking down at us from above in judgment, so we drag them back down and tear them apart with our criticism.

Now, I realize that what I’m doing here is also criticizing, on the Internet, and demonstrating my own transparency. I’m judging and doing all of the same things I’m nagging about here. I’m not going to rationalize away my post, but I will draw a distinction: our society is very loath to declare something “moral” or “immoral.” You want to see declarations of “Don’t judge me!” fly? Then make a declaration of what’s right or what’s wrong. Oh, they’ll be coming out of the woodwork like termites exposed to sunshine to come after you.

Yet, this is what we must do:  make evaluations—of products, of ideas, of media, of people—in order to recognize the strengths and weaknesses, the logic and fallacies, the truth and errors, and publicly declare what we have recognized.

And then, this is very important, then do NOT be offended at what comes back at us. If we’re going to be brave enough to take a stand, we have to remain brave enough to let people see us standing there.

As a practicing Christian, I believe wholeheartedly in the Judeo-Christian beliefs of accountability to a higher Being, in following the 10 Commandments, in realizing that life isn’t about getting what I want and when I want it, but in serving others first. It’s crucial for me to recognize what elements in society detract me from pursuing my chosen lifestyle, therefore I not only read about but also comment on those elements.

However—and this is a BIG “however”—we must also be honest with ourselves as to WHY we are making these public evaluations, these statements of “this is bad, and this is good.”

  • Are we doing so because we are truly concerned about the direction of our society, and we want to point out the slippery slopes to help our friends and family avoid them?
  • Or are we critical online because it gives us a sense of superiority?
  • Because we displace our guilt when we shame others?
  • Because we’re merely crabs in a bucket, unwilling to let anyone else rise higher?

And when we decide–and it is a decision–that we are “offended,” we also need to be honest as to why.

  • Has someone pricked our conscience?
  • Demonstrated where we’ve strayed from our personal yardstick of acceptable behavior?
  • Were we looking for a reason to hate “X” or shun “Y” and so we’ve chosen to be offended?

Sometimes we swing that word around proudly, as if being “offended” is some kind of virtue.

Personally, I think it’s a weakness. Years ago I heard someone state this philosophy, and I’ve taken it as my own: “You cannot offend me, for I simply refuse to take your criticism, to see your opinion as overriding my own, to give your hurtful words any room in my mind. If I am right with God, then I needn’t worry about where you think I am wrong.”

(Yeah, it’s a lot like, “I’m rubber, you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you,” but a bit more eloquent.)

I’m not saying I live this philosophy perfectly—I took a beating from trolls not too long ago that really tested my resolve—but I’ve found that when someone says something that threatens to offend me, it’s usually because they’ve knocked something inside of me that I’ve tried to hide, like C.S. Lewis’s proverbial rats in the attic that we’re shocked to discover, but were always there, hiding despite our attempts to ignore them.

Over the years I’ve learned to not blast those “stupid people!” in online forums, but I instead I retreat to my closet, get on my knees, and ask where I should be doing better.

And I’ve also realized that God’s criticism is much gentler, more instructive, and more uplifting than any arguments I engage in on the Internet.

In the meantime, I appreciate those who state boldly their opinions on issues that concern me. Even if they declare, “There’s really nothing wrong with a little bit of porn,” I’m grateful, because then I know who I need to distance myself from in the future.

My 10th child

Yesterday a delivery arrived–one that I’d been waiting for, for more than four years now–and once I lugged it into the house I couldn’t bear to open it.

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It was, what I’m now starting to think of it as, my 10th baby.
I have nine children (yeah, really–all birthed by me, no twins), but the amount of effort and sleepless nights I’ve put into the Forest at the Edge book series feels very much like another child.
And yesterday it arrived. And, just like my human babies, I happily cradled the bundle handed to me, but didn’t dare inspect it. Because . . . what if something is seriously wrong?
What if this amazing little thing isn’t as perfect as the doctor proclaimed, but has three nostrils?
Or a large birthmark on its neck like I do?
Or . . . looks more like me than like my hunky husband?

And it’d always be my husband who’d take our newborn out of my arms and start to unwrap the impossible blankets. “Let’s see what we have here!” he’d say cheerily, while I clenched my hands by my face and worried that my sweet darling would have some defect that would cause him or her heartache, and that I wouldn’t know how to alleviate that pain.

Yes there were birthmarks–cute ones, on the tuchus or the bottom of a foot–and there were minor oddities and bizarre flexibility that, as my children grow older, proudly demonstrate to squeamish by-standers. But all in all the baby was pretty darned good.

I needed my husband again yesterday.
He saw the box on our bed and, always eager to open a package, asked, “Ooh–what’s this?”
“My books,” I whimpered.
“Open it!”
“I can’t!”
What if something was horribly wrong with them? I already knew of a couple formatting glitches I can’t seem to work out, and a few typos despite my going through it 30+ times . . . but what if there was something far worse?
I couldn’t bear it.
“I’ll open it,” my husband decided.
“No! Yes! I don’t know–”
He already had out his keys and slashed the tape. Then he opened the box and looked.

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Cringing so hard my cheeks hurt, I asked, “Well?!”
Slowly he nodded. “Look pretty good to me.” He was reading the back cover of one of the books, still nodding. “Do you want it?”

Do I want my 10th baby? The actual paper copies of the books I’ve been writing since early 2009? (Actually, since it’s two books, maybe my 10th and 11th?)

I held out my hand nervously . . . then sighed in relief as he gave me Forest and Soldier. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Then, just as I did with my babies, I suddenly wanted to show them everything in the world. And, just like my babies, I started taking pictures.

First, I introduced them to my hero and mentor, Terry Pratchett. Don’t they look cute on the shelf together?

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Then I introduced them to the bathroom, which is always a good place to know in a new house. Top of the tank, for your reading pleasure.

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Then, the bathtub–waiting for me to actually dare take them near water–

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Oh no! They fell in!
Oh, there’s not water.
Silly Forest and Soldier!

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They also liked the baby swing in the backyard. Hold on, boys!

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Then it was time to have a tea party with their friends . . .

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And at this point I began to think, Maybe this is a bit silly?
I mean, seriously–would books really have a tea party with themselves?

Of course not.
They’d have a tea party with OTHER books!
So I introduced Forest and Soldier (they were pretty uncomfortable at this point, but already they have some sense of propriety so they soldiered on) to my other three inspirations; women who demonstrated that even “regular moms” can create books, and they unwittingly dared me to write: Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, and Joanne (J.K.) Rowling. (The books all want to have a sleepover later. With popcorn. But I just vacuumed, so I’ll have to think about it.)

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(I’ve met two of these authors, and bashfully said nothing about how they inspired me.
But some day I will. )

Finally I brought Forest and Soldier back to where they were conceived–my computer. On the screen is a list of the current drafts I have of the entire series (my file of past drafts is immense) and I showed them where they began. I’m going to save this picture as motivation; I’ve done it twice before, so I can do it six or seven more times to bring to life the entire family/series.

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And then, I put Forest and Soldier back into the box.
Not because I’m still overwhelmed or anything by being a real mom, I mean, author.

Just because it’s nap time.