Toilet Terrorist

I literally spent my entire morning Google searching “watery poo.”

These are depths to which motherhood has sunk me. My son turned three last month, and he is now officially a giant. We threw him a big construction-slash-ugly-sweater-themed party (hey, the adults need some fun in our lives, too) to celebrate his growing older and more enormous. While changing his diaper a few days later, he instructed me on how to correctly complete the task, and unwittingly awakened an immediate and desperate need within me to never, ever handle his butt cheeks again.

With my husband out of town for several days, I threw myself full-force into potty training his mini doppelganger, and I slowly became enveloped in a consuming fog of bodily fluids. I lived my day-to-day under constant threat of pee puddles. I could be anywhere, doing anything — shopping at the mall (yeah, right, like that ever happens), at the grocery store, at the kids’ indoor playground, when I might be suddenly called upon to run Joey to the bathroom before he exploded. It became almost second nature to crouch and grab my son by his shoulders, repeatedly (and very publicly) asking if he had to “peepee or caca.” And then, I’d stare through his eyes into his very soul and ask again. Because he lied, he always lied… and two minutes later, I’d be wrestling piss-soiled pants off of a person half my size, who somehow channeled the strength of twenty bulls.

It’s true, my son is getting stronger now. At this point, I can’t physically make him do anything he doesn’t want to, and I pray to God daily that he doesn’t figure that out. I’ve resorted to bribes in order to elicit certain behaviors, and rescinding those bribe offers when he refuses to comply. Parenting experts call it “negotiating,” but that isn’t what it feels like. It feels a lot like I’m being held hostage in my own home, and forced to reward a tiny terrorist for not acting like a complete asshole all of the time.

And when negotiating doesn’t work, I go for the next best thing: locking everything down. My house is now awash in cabinet locks, closet locks, doorknob covers, and baby gates. It’s f*cking Fort Knox around here. Sometimes I can’t even break through the plastic contraptions in order to access my own belongings. It’s like a slap in the face, the final nail in my coffin — I’m not a mom now, I’m a captive, and the patients are running the asylum.

It’s not my son’s fault that he’s so psycho. When I try to communicate with him through tantrums and breakdowns, I often envision that scene from Knocked Up in which Seth Rogen tells Katherine Heigl, “You’re a crazy bitch, hormones.” I truly feel at times that my son has been taken prisoner by his own testosterone when I ask him why he’s upset, and all he can say over and over through his raging cries is, “I don’t know! I don’t knoooooow!” It’s almost hearbreaking, if I weren’t blinded by rage and frustration.

And his memory. My God, his memory is like that of a goldfish. One circle around the tank and I’m surprised if he remembers his own name. It’s hard not to take it personally when I tell him 1,586 times not to throw food, force burps, or push his sister, and he repeatedly does it anyway. It grates on me, not just because of the intense, constant pressure I’m under to produce a well-mannered young man who doesn’t push ladies, or burp in their faces. When Joey misbehaves, it brings into full focus mine and my husband’s disparate reactions, and our (sometimes very divergent) opinions about whether, or how, to discipline him. You see, when one of our children acts out, or acts up, it doesn’t just cause strain on our relationship with him — it can cause a pretty huge strain on our relationship with each other, too.

And that’s why my husband and I very nearly divorced each other over a toilet last weekend.

We were a good two weeks into our potty training adventures, and Joey was doing a terrific job. He was responding well to my bribes of chocolate chips, cake, and cinnamon rolls, and he discovered a new passion for analyzing his own feces, and inviting others to do the same. I’ll never forget the day he yelled to his two-year-old sister from the bathroom, “JUNE! I WENT CACA! COME SMELL IT!” I will also never forget the fact that she happily submitted to his demand, and I can’t wait to remind them both of the incident at very public events, like a college graduation, or a wedding…

As Joey’s potty proclivity grew, so did the amount of time he spent in the bathroom. Suddenly, he had cause to explore every aspect of this very special room in our house, from the mysterious brush tucked quietly in the corner behind the toilet, to the toilet itself — how fun to flush and watch the water spiral down! We lost several rolls of toilet paper to the magical water hole, despite our very best efforts to discourage such wastefulness. We should have recognized their loss for the warning shots they were, but his was just natural curiosity. Right? It felt normal.

Until Joe emerged from the bathroom one evening, announcing that he’d flushed mommy’s earrings. Earrings? What earrings? I didn’t leave any earrings in there… All at once, I felt a pang in my stomach, realizing he had, in fact, flushed mommy’s WEDDING RINGS. What ensued was a flurry of yelling and crying, and a five-hour dive into the intricacies of our indoor plumbing, with the help of a nice Roto-Rooter man named Dave. Against all odds, we recovered the rings. We assumed Joey had learned his lesson, but we still hadn’t learned ours.

A mere two days later, I awoke to find the upstairs toilet filled to the brim with murky water. Again. I plunged, watching the water splash out on the floor with each push, but to no avail. The toilet was blocked, and I knew which suspect to interrogate first.

“Joey, did you flush something down the toilet?”

“Yep.” No hiding, no secrets. Not even a hint of remorse. My husband, now our resident plumbing expert, was again called upon to dismantle the toilet and dig out the offending toy — this time, a wooden train, so inextricably wedged into the P-trap that we had to retire the toilet permanently. I could feel the rage seething from my husband’s nostrils, a cold blast of frustration and helplessness. He was icy toward me as well, and I toward him, as we fundamentally disagreed about how to proceed with our son. Should there be punishment? Would he even understand his wrongdoing? I understood, at least in part, Joey’s constant inner struggle with his own toddler temperament, and an insatiable curiosity that drove him to repeat undesirable behavior — with that in mind, was he even really “at fault?” One thing was clear: it was time for a prison break. Within an hour of the incident, I’d secured a sitter for the evening, and that night my husband and I enjoyed a leisurely sushi dinner and an uninterrupted trip to Lowe’s for a new toilet (and ten toilet latches to keep out prying little fingers).

Sometimes, it’s not so much the pressures and frustrations of raising kids that gets to me — it’s the chasm that develops within seconds between me and my best friend, my fellow prisoner in this ill-advised parenting experiment.

As we try to tame the chaos together, we often get caught up in it ourselves, losing sight of why we’re doing this, and how we even got here. Building a family together can be a bonding experience as you both grow and stretch far beyond any comfort zones you knew previously. I really believe that. But damn, does it take work, and patience, and a f*cking boatload of humility.

We barely scraped through the saga of the toilet terrorist, and I have a master’s degree in conflict resolution! This shit is nearly impossible, man (pun intended). But it is possible. When you feel your two islands begin to drift apart, remember the big picture, and what’s really important. Find time together — hire a sitter, call in a favor to a friend, or lock yourselves in the bathroom and let the kids duke it out. They could probably both use a few sibling-inflicted pokes in the eye.

But whatever you do, make absolutely sure you lock the toilet lid before you leave.

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