Oh, poop! Potty training in a pandemic

By Marissa Marangoni

Just the other day I was doing educational things (please note sarcasm) on Instagram when I stumbled over a survey about potty training. Was it easy? Did you hate it? Did it take way too long? The responses to the questions were overwhelmingly negative. 

As a writer of the famous Urine Luck column, it should come as no surprise to you that I did not find potty training to be a horrible event. In fact, I’m thinking it’s time we teachers of the toilet reframe the experience; I’m of the opinion that potty training should be looked at as a huge step toward a child’s independence and a parent’s freedom. And in the midst of a pandemic, potty training has the potential to be somewhat enjoyable and even rewarding. 

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When J was a little under a year and a half old, I read Jamie Glowacki’s “Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right.” At the time, it was considered the bible when it came to toileting children (that phrase sounds like something CPS would be called for), but I found it off-putting. It’s been a while, admittedly, but I seem to recall disliking the overall tone of the book, which suggested that many parents are simply lazy, and that’s why their kids require multiple pairs of pants at daycare. I also remember really disliking the suggestion that if you didn’t succeed in following Glowacki’s methodology, your child would fail and likely be in diapers until they turned 35. 

While explicitly stating that every child moves at their own pace when it comes to milestones and learning, Glowacki neglected to consider the fact that parents have to do this, too. Some people simply aren’t ready to get rid of diapers and do 65 loads of laundry a week. Others aren’t ready to try to figure out how to clean pee out of the bottom of a play tent. Some of us just don’t have the will to set an alarm for every 30 minutes and actually follow through in corralling our small children to the bathroom each time it goes off.

For someone like me, setting a watch and doing a thing every half-hour is torture, and I wasn’t willing to endure it. I broke the rules of “Oh Crap!” very quickly by being inconsistent. But I like to think that part of that inconsistency was why J was potty trained by the time he turned 2. I let him explore the whole potty thing as much as he wanted to and let him stop when he needed a break. I recognize that my experience potty training J is somewhat atypical, but I think that’s part of the beauty of parenting: you don’t have to do it the way everyone else does it. You should do it the way that works best for your child and you.

I believe I’ve mentioned in Urine Luck that I rarely go to the bathroom alone and based on many of the social media posts I scroll through, this isn’t an uncommon experience. We stress privacy when it comes to pottying, but when parents get honest, a lot of us have regular bathroom companions — whether we want them there or not. I know, I know, this makes some people get red in the face and want to yell words like “decency” and “Inappropriate,” but the truth of the matter is that a kid’s role as commode companion is actually a pretty solid learning experience that helps more than it hurts. Obviously, you don’t want your kid in the bathroom with you forever, but in the beginning, it is sometimes necessary and oftentimes simpler. I’m having a flashback to peeing in the dark while holding baby J and trying to be as quiet as humanly possible to keep from waking him after a long day of fussing. 

Offering your little buddy space in the bathroom when they want to be in there helps them understand bodily functions a little better and sort of piece together all the words they hear when they get their diapers changed and connect them to the bigger bathroom experience. 

J “went” on the potty the very first time he sat on it. Again, not typical, but it’s how he was. He’d been observing for a while and had accompanied me on my Urine Luck reviews since he was a newborn, so it didn’t surprise me a ton when he sat and got down to business right away.

Even though he wasn’t even talking, J had already connected the dots. I think most children have a much earlier understanding and awareness of bodily functions than we give them credit for. If you think back to having a baby at home, how much of your conversation revolved around poop and pee that first year? Probably a lot of it.

We make kids verbally aware of their physical functions earlier than we realize. They might not be able to tell you when they have to go, but you can tell that they can tell what they’re up to when they’re hiding behind a chair filling their diaper after dinner. Recognize their awareness, name what they’re doing out loud so they hear you, identify their actions so they can connect the physical to the verbal, and when you do this, well, you’re taking the first step in potty training. You didn’t even have to clean poop off the floor…yet.

I know, I know, you’re saying, “Listen, lady, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, the last thing I want to deal with is poop on the floor,” but hear me out: poop on the floor in a pandemic may be one of your greatest 2020 accomplishments.

Like most people, I had a lot of goals for 2020, but most of them withered up and went to hell. My goals shifted from things like growing my business and finishing a draft of a book to occasionally putting on real clothes and just plain old surviving. Now that we’re eight months into this, though, I find myself feeling ready to actually try and at least partially tackle a few of the goals I had. Maybe you find yourself feeling ready to do the same — and maybe potty training can be your crowning glory. Unless you’re not ready to do that — in which case, wait. You have to be ready just as much as your child does.

Here’s where I think you’re in the perfect situation for potty training if you do feel ready, though. You’re likely spending much more time at home than usual, and that’s sort of a requirement of potty training. When I buckled down and really focused on potty training with J, we were at home a lot — mostly because I let him run around bare-butted for a few months. Because my work often dies in December and part of January, I took those months to really give J the time and space and attention on learning when and where to go to the bathroom. I’ve had friends take off a week of work to teach their kids to properly answer the call. Others have had to cram the training into weekends and evenings only. What did all these people have in common? They spent more time at home. 

Assuming you are at home more this year than ever before, you have an opportunity to tackle the toilet with your toddler that is, perhaps, unlike one you will ever have again. Your child might not fully get the hang of it by the time we’re back in the world, but just getting started is gold. And being fully potty trained happens at different times for different kids — but it happens, and if you start now, you’ll be closer to the finish line that I’ve almost crossed. 

I used to think I was on the other side of that line, but I suppose that hearing “MOM, COME WIPE MY BUTT!” once a day means that I see the sparkle of my participation trophy, but I still can’t quite reach it.

Friends, time is on your side in this situation. As long as you can find toilet paper and are mentally prepared to find poop in places it’s never been before, I give you the go-ahead to start this journey as soon as possible. Once the learning starts, it doesn’t stop — and the sense of pride I could see on J’s face every time he made it to the potty far outweighed any of the hard stuff that happened along the way. If you expect to have little control of this experience but feel ready to help your little learn more about how to be a human, you’ll be OK. Reward yourself when you need to, put the diaper back on when you’re tired, and scrap the whole thing for a while if it’s just a disaster. Again, simply getting started is an accomplishment. Remind yourself of that daily. And make sure you remind your child of it, too. 

For us, it took from January until March for J to be reliable and accident-free when we went in public, but that month where I made a very focused effort helped him build the foundation he needed to keep going. Heh.

Back to the bare butt for a second: I found that without the barrier of clothes, J was able to more successfully get to the potty to do what he needed to do more often without my help. Did we have pee on the floor? Yes. But, you know, pee is sterile. As for #2, well, yes, that was also on the floor—just not as often. J seemed to save that for his diapers, but once he was brave enough to try it on the potty, he never went back. He did, however, wear diapers at night until last Christmas because nighttime potty training is a whole other hurdle to jump, but it happened when he was ready. And when he was ready, like with everything else, he just kept moving forward. 

Once J was potty trained, parenting became more comfortable for me. Like a lot of people, I don’t really process things until after they happen, but for whatever reason, as I worked with J, I knew that the fewer diapers I changed, the more freedom I would have. I also recognized that mess was going to be a part of the journey to this freedom, and while it wasn’t super fun cleaning up accidents, it wasn’t the worst thing ever—and if you decide to go for it now, it won’t be the worst thing ever for you either! Mess isn’t so bad when it’s in your house and not on the floor of the library or dripping down the legs of one of Great Aunt Edna’s antique dining room chairs.  

Imagine this: we’re finally able to move about the world without worrying about COVID-19. You can take your little to the zoo. You’re not carrying a diaper bag. You go out to your favorite restaurant, and no one has to leave the table to precariously balance a clean diaper, a dirty diaper, a diaper bag, wipes, and a squirming baby on a very small, ill-positioned, gross changing table over a toilet. When you get back out into the world, you’ll either be closer to or at the point where you will spend much less time touching germ-laden surfaces in public bathrooms and maybe not need to apply so much lotion to your dried out, diaper-changing, obsessively-washed hands. 

Potty training in a pandemic? Why not! You don’t have anything to lose. 

But you may want to cover your couches in a few thick towels—just in case. 

Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for the Devil Strip since August of 2015.

Photos provided by Marissa Marangoni

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