Toilet training is one of those mountainous milestones that looms for many parents like some evil lava-spewing edifice from The Lord of the Rings.
And the burning eye glowering above it is the collective judgemental stare of the people who are sure they know better than you about how to make it to the top.
Let me clue you in on a little secret that isn’t written in Elvish nor does it require fire to bring out its one true message. THEY DON’T.
Our personal story about this much-discussed but frequently misunderstood subject has all the hallmarks of an epic quest. Intrepid (read defiant) protagonist? Check. Seemingly insurmountable mission? Yep. Many years in the making and way over budget? Even Peter Jackson’s accountant would have blanched at the nappy spend.
My daughter Amelia just turned five and she has only been what you could officially term ‘toilet trained’ for about 10 weeks. We got a certificate for her birth. Something like an Oscar might have been appropriate for this milestone.
It has been a very long road marked by potholes, rugged terrain and a lot of frustration; until Christmas time just past I honestly never thought we would reach the end.
At about two years of age, when some people begin to encourage their toddlers to go the toilet (the phrase ‘go potty’ will not be in use during this post), we found we had bigger problems on our hands.
We discovered that Amelia had a significant and permanent hearing loss in both ears. For this reason she had no speech except for a few broken sounds. Language had failed to penetrate her ears and her mind in any meaningful way. She was now in a state of delay, so soon it seemed after her momentous arrival.
And my god was she angry about it.
As you can imagine, toilet training was not very high on my list of parenting priorities at this time. If I had a list at all, regular items of childhood development were on the back of the page under the heading, ‘I’ll get to it when I can breathe, when this freefall ends. When I don’t feel like I’m drowning’.
The urgent need to get hearing aids fitted for Amelia, to help her to listen, to speak and sign, all outweighed something as inconsequential as her toileting habits or how long she would wear nappies.
That didn’t stop the helpful suggestions from a small but insistent peanut gallery that ‘we really should (a hateful word in the wrong hands) start trying to train Amelia to use the toilet’.
It was like being stopped mid-spin in the centre of a tornado and scolded about not making the beds before I left. I bet Dorothy Gale didn’t have to put up with that kind of nonsense.
No amount of explanation from me about the futility of training an enraged and anxious child with almost no language how to do anything at this stage seemed to dissuade the toiletariat from their superior view.
So we agreed to fervently disagree.
The next year was spent in the haze of medical appointments, meetings with social workers, teachers of the deaf and sign language tutors, as we grappled with this new world we had arrived in.
I did try to put Amelia on a potty and dress her in underwear but she was as far from being ready for toilet training as Neptune is from the Sun.
I didn’t worry about it too much, unless the gallery popped up to remind me about it. You know, just in case I wasn’t tied up in enough knots worrying about my daughter’s progress and behaviour. Her future.
As a family, we preferred to celebrate genuine triumphs, like the first Christmas after Amelia received her hearing aids and she proudly sang a lullaby at the dinner table. Or any new word or sign she learned to repeat and understand.
Or how diligent she was at wearing her aids all day, every day, giving herself the strongest chance to make up for lost time. She was tough on us about everything else, but about her aids Amelia has never been anything but wonderfully compliant. And of course, she was never at risk of throwing them in the toilet.
Besides, she slept well through these years and usually ate everything on her plate as though it was her last meal on earth. We thought we were doing pretty well as parents, all things considered.
But the spectre of toilet training lies in wait in the back of a dark cupboard somewhere, knocking like hell to get out. You’ve squashed it in there behind the musty old linen you need to throw out and the clothes you can’t wear anymore, but you know it’s there. There’s simply no forgetting it.
That’s what really gets to me about the people who feel the need to keep telling you should ‘do something about it’. Like you aren’t already lashing yourself with 1,000 bloody cuts of self-doubt that your approach is wrong or isn’t working and will this blessed thing ever happen?
It’s the same with crawling and walking, all the key milestones (are you sure they don’t mean millstones?). There are always children who will reach them first and super early. Good on them. But equally there will be others who take longer, in some cases years longer, to hit their straps.
You need those polar extremes to form a broad spectrum of normal development. But it can be hard to feel relaxed about this when you’re flailing around at the deep end calling for a lifeguard and there’s only some preachy old washed up surfer standing above you waxing lyrical about the tides.
As Amelia grew older and was able to communicate better and understand more, we tried many strategies to encourage her to shed the nappies for good.
Confiscation of pull-ups, reward charts, bribery, visual aids, watching her cousins ‘do it’, showing her books about characters going to the toilet, asking her childcare centre to encourage her (sometimes neutral but trusted adults have initial success over parents), anything we thought might work.
But she hated the idea of it all so much I had to keep abandoning it, lest we killed each other in a violent battle of wills. The mere mention of the word ‘toilet’ would send her into incredible paroxysms of rage, which in the confined space of our tiny bathroom was a combustible scenario.
I admit I would sometimes lose my temper and try to hold her onto a potty or toilet but this was an utterly ridiculous and upsetting tactic. You can’t physically force anyone to go to the toilet if they don’t want to, and Amelia REALLY didn’t want to.
I would watch her stand in fear on those occasions when her nappy was removed, and if she had an accident she would shake with revulsion at the sensation on her body and scream and cry like she was being tortured. It was awful.
Of course, I didn’t know then that she had undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – that had to wait until she was about four and a half – but I know my mind flitted over the possibility more than once during this time.
Amelia’s extraordinary defiance, her anxieties, obsessive compulsive tendencies and curious sensory needs and responses were a deadly combination when it came to achieving ‘timely’ toilet training.
But linking these traits into her ASD mid-way through last year helped me to understand more than ever before that you just have to wait until your child, whatever their personality, is truly ready to make developmental leaps. They WILL get there.
And there are positive signs of progress, it’s just hard to see them when children younger than your own seem to be somersaulting through hoops to use a potty without much fuss.
It was progress when Amelia relaxed enough to wear underpants during the day all of last year to kindergarten. And though I worried about her little kidneys, it was progress that she was able to ‘hold on’ all day until she came home and jumped into her night nappy for bed.
Her readiness was a long slow bow drawn in a wide arc over five tumultuous years but even we got there in the end – and here’s the sugary centre to this hitherto sour tale.
It started just before Christmas when we met with Amelia’s school and received wise counsel about the process of starting prep in the New Year.
The information night included a gentle but firm note about toilet training and the hope that most of the children would be independent on this score by January. I took a deep, inward breath and steeled myself for the summer holidays ahead. Like every year before this one, I thought “maybe this time…”
I abandoned random ‘strategy’ and threw off the shackles of good sense. Yes, I did what any decent parent would do when you’ve reached the end of the line and you need a result: I LIED.
“Amelia, when Father Christmas comes this year, he is going to take your baby nappies away because he said you’re a big girl now and it’s time for you to go to the toilet”.
Her eyes widened at this news. She asked me to repeat it a number of times. I was sure she had taken it in, but would it work?
Christmas Day arrived and Santa was true to his word, swapping out presents for nappies in the most one-sided trade since the Fremantle Dockers decided they could live without 340 games and two Norm Smith Medals from Andrew McLeod*.
The day was hectic and at first we hesitated in the execution of our plan. A night nappy was proffered at some stage to get us through events and I thought we might have blown it.
The following day was long and hot and we stayed home in anticipation of either a lot of screaming as nappies were demanded, or maybe, just maybe, a breakthrough.
As is typical of these historic family stories, I was not present to witness the huge moment when my girl finally went to the toilet at home for the first time in her life. I was in another room when I heard her calling her Dad’s name. Then I heard him calling me in excited tones.
I ran to the toilet to find Amelia sitting there, a little shocked at herself but mightily pleased. By George she had really done it. And her Dad and me stood there and cried behind our hands, in joy and release from the worry that it would never happen. That we would be sending her to high school in adult nappies.
Over the next few days and weeks my hilarious child treated the entire thing like she’d been at it for years.
She would throw a carefree hand over her shoulder and shrug, “I’m goin’ to the toilet, be straight back”. We would fake nonchalance and stare lightning bolts of delight at each other across the room.
It was hard to believe but before the school year was due to commence, Amelia was toilet trained and since that first day she hasn’t baulked at it or taken a backward step. Because she was finally ready.
It’s amazing to me the amount of energy we have expended in stressing about this particular milestone, in and around the genuinely difficult challenges we have faced in recent years. Enough to power a wind farm or a small helicopter.
Because if it doesn’t come quickly or easily to your child it seems to be the one area where the greatest amount of judgement is served up to parents who are already doing their best. If that doesn’t add to existing stress levels then I don’t know what will.
Even after we hit pay dirt with Amelia and anticipated some praise for her or at least shared excitement, our reliable peanut gallery gave us a bit of, “well, I did tell you it was a good idea to train her but I guess you had other things on”.
Other things on. Yes, you could say that.
As domestic battles go, toilet training was hard fought and we sustained more than a few casualties of confidence. But it’s not Agincourt, is it? It’s not life-threatening and it’s far from central to the wellbeing of a deaf child with autism. Or any child for that matter.
Yet we filled the problem of toilet training up with concrete and made a hideous skyscraper out of it; a massive grey bogey man to haunt us when we had already confronted far scarier things in the daylight.
Thank goodness Santa was around to turn him into rubble or I don’t know what I would have done. And Amelia still asks me to tell her the story about how dear old Father Christmas came and took her nappies away in the night, ‘Because I’m a big girl now’.
* I must give attribution here where it is due, to my ever helpful husband who lent his extensive knowledge of all things footy to this paragraph.