My Daughter Is Potty-Training Me

A child.
A child. Photo: Saklakova/Getty Images

It seemed like potty-training would be simple. And really, the physical part of it was. But no one told me about the mental piece.

When my daughter was about a year old, I bought one of those little potty chairs for the bathroom where we bathe her every night. It was basically a selfish move. Now that she was nearly walking, my time with her was most stressful when I had to pee: She wouldn’t sit still, so setting her down on a bath mat with a toy for 30 seconds no longer worked. She wandered, she tried to touch the toilet brush and open the cabinets. I found myself not wiping sometimes, simply shaking off. It was dehumanizing, and so the potty chair would be, I hoped, a diversion.

And it was. Pretty quickly, she started sitting on it. And very quickly, she started using it. If I removed her diaper and let her sit there for a few minutes, she would almost always pee, and sometimes even poop.

It’s hard to explain how exciting such a minor achievement can be, especially when it’s not even you achieving it. The joy one feels on behalf of another person in these small moments is par for the course in parenting a small child, but there is, I’ll admit, something special about the potty. Your spawn is performing basic bodily functions, and you are so, so proud.

Somewhere along the way, I decided not to push it. She could use the potty when she wanted, but I’d wait until she made the decision herself not to pee in her diapers anymore during the day. Nighttime, well, we didn’t even really think about that.

Potty-training has changed a lot in the U.S. in the past 25 years or so. Even into the late 1970s it was very common for parents to begin by 18 months, and the duration of that training was usually shorter than today, when most parents now report not beginning until 24 months or older. In fact, one study found that more than half of 33-month-olds didn’t stay dry for the duration of a day.

The reasons for why we’ve decided to wait are complex, but it’s likely a combination of convenience and changing attitudes about when children are emotionally ready for toilet training. Today, parents are much more likely to believe that children should be potty-trained on their own schedule, rather than ours.

I fell somewhere in between, having learned that forcing things only works as a last resort with my daughter.  For us, potty-training has been a some-days-on, some-days-off game, and we’ve been fine with this, largely because, overall, there has been slow but steady progress.

I was happy with this system, her school was happy with it. Everyone seemed to be completely happy. Until about a month ago.

It’s important to say that Zelda’s bowel movements have always been really consistent, meaning that they occur at roughly the same time of day. She usually goes once in the morning, and once after dinner, before bed. This has been true mostly since birth, so this part of potty-training was going to be very easy, we thought — and it was, until recently.

But about a month ago, she started denying that she had to use the toilet in the evening before bed. No big deal: We progressed to the next phase of the night, into her bedroom, on with the diaper, into pajamas, into the crib. Then she usually has some almond milk while I read to her, then lights out, I leave, good night. But in recent weeks, Zelda has upended that process by, as soon as she lies down and gets tucked under her blankets, going, “I wanna go pooootttttty.”

“But we were just in there and you said you didn’t need to go,” I said the first few times, before hauling her back out of bed, off with the diaper and back into the bathroom where, every time, she proved that she did, indeed, need to use the potty.

I tried to anticipate her requests by encouraging — avidly — that she use the toilet. And she did! But without really doing anything. She’d simply sit there and say, “I’m done.” Then, 20 minutes later, just in bed, same thing: “wanna go poottty.”

Of course the practical problem with this is that removing a child from bed easily adds 20, 25 minutes to the bedtime process, meaning an 8 p.m. bedtime becomes an 8:30 bedtime. And of course, I am the parent to one of those children who, if they go to bed late, wake up especially early the next morning, creating a cascading series of days where no one gets enough sleep until we magically bump life back into its normal habit. And now, she was fucking with the schedule almost every night.

“Okay!” I smiled.

The first time I let her see that I was mad, I knew that I was losing. You really can’t show anger to a 2-year-old, and I don’t mean that you can’t react in anger. I don’t do that for philosophical reasons. But I don’t demonstrate to her that I’m angry because for some reason, it actually seems to please her, which further infuriates me.

Now, like I said, she’s not lying — she does need the toilet. She never says she needs to use it then just sits there. But I’ve spent two years managing this “bedtime routine” down to a science: It’s supposed to be calming and quiet, and suddenly I have a nude screamer running down the hallway at 7:59 p.m. requesting I sing “Wheels on the Bus” and “do the actions” (make my hands the wheels).

And this is happening at the end of my “shift” as a parent, in the very short corridor that exists every single night from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m. when I have the chance to be a regular adult again. I can snack or watch TV, shop online. I’m not with my kid, and I’m not working. It’s an actual break, and it really only happens in the window directly after bedtime.

Bedtime, which is now somehow the most trying part of the day. Because my kid suddenly and desperately needs to poop exactly at bedtime every night.

The worst part is that it’s such a reasonable request. I feel like a horrible person, begrudgingly taking her to the toilet at 8 p.m., resenting a mere 20 minutes. I know that the only way to get through it is to prevail, every night, to minimize my internal frustration, and to constantly remind myself that we are in this together. I’m not training her, she’s training me.

One night last week, she requested the potty. I picked her up silently and set her on the floor of her bedroom. “Let’s go to the toilet,” I said.

“Carry me, please, I’m a baby,” she said. That’s another new trick. I carried her only to save time, and because I still get a kick out of it.

She sat on the toilet in the semi-darkness.

“It’s dark,” she observed out the window.

“That’s because it’s bedtime,” I said quietly, staying on task.

“Sing ‘Wheels on the Bus,’ peas,” she said, looking at me.

“The wheels on the bus go round and round,” I began.

“Mom, do your hands like this,” she showed me her own hands.

“No, Zelda, go to the bathroom, please.”

She screamed “Noooooooo!” as loud as she could.

I felt the anger well up in me. I must have pressed my lips together tightly in order not to expose myself in any way, because her smiling face transformed into what I imagine mine looked like just then: livid determination, mouth a straight line. I was at eye level with her, crouching down, and I pushed my face closer and closer to hers. We were both silent.

“I love you,” I whispered to her, looking into her shining eyes.

“I love Daddy,” she smiled.

“I know.”