How to embrace the long and winding road that can be toilet learning

‘I don’t need a nappy anymore,’ chants my youngest as she skips into the room.  She’s been at her first Montessori kinder now for 4 days.  They have toilets and the children are encouraged not to wear nappies from about 18 months of age.  They have special underwear that is more absorbent than normal knickers, but that still let them know when they are wet.

‘Is that right, darling?’ I say, bending down so that I can celebrate this new milestone.

My eldest, however, is devastated.  A gastro bug has swept through her school and only ten minutes earlier she had agreed to put a nappy on because she couldn’t get to the toilet fast enough.  She is humiliated and she is angry.  The offending symbol of babyhood is whipped off followed by inconsolable tears.  Sometimes life really is cruel.

For the rest of the afternoon, my youngest refuses a nappy and instead uses the toilet.  She climbs up the stool and sits herself down, balancing on the too large seat and closes the door in our faces, ‘I need crimacy,’ she tells us.

It’s only been about six months since my eldest stopped using a nappy to do a poo.  It’s not that she can’t tell when she needs to go, she has been able to do that for years, it’s anxiety that has stopped her.  She was afraid to use the toilet to pee, and then afraid to use the toilet to poo.  I’ve learned there is no point trying to push the point.  The day she held onto her pee for 6 hours and then peed on the loungeroom floor as soon as my back was turned was enough to teach me that lesson.  She will know when she is ready.

So whilst my eldest will wait until she is sure she can do it and then master it that day, my youngest has more of a ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ approach to milestones.  She tries the new skill for a bit, lets it go, tries again, lets it go, and so on until she’s got it.  My youngest wanted a peddle bike like her sister, was adamant that she could use it.  Absolutely refused her balance bike.  That is until she discovered it was really tricky.  So now she rides her balance bike.  She also wanted Heely shoes, the sneakers with wheels, just like her sister.  Her sister spent the next week practicing until she could do it on her own.  My youngest still looks like a cat on roller-skates.

My youngest, now having decided that she doesn’t need nappies, refuses to wear one to bed.  My husband groans, but I let her make the choice.

When my eldest made the same choice, she was fine.  She has really only had about four wet nights and they have all coincided with her being unwell.

‘You’re cleaning it up then,’ says my husband, his shoulders jerking the way they do when something is too messy and too uncontrolled for him.

She gets through the night with a dry bed.

She then proceeds to wet through her clothes and her bed every day and night for the next two weeks.

‘She needs a nappy at night,’ says my husband.  We are exhausted.  No one has slept through the night since my youngest declared herself nappy free.

‘She will get this,’ I say wearily, ‘she just needs time.’

He disagrees.  I want to argue, but I’m too tired.

The next night he tries to put a nappy on her but she refuses.  She stomps her foot, screws up her nose and furrows her brow.  She looks like Chucky.

I feel terrible.  This is not how I want to handle it.  I’m afraid it will undermine her confidence.  ‘You’ll have to do this,’ I say to my husband, unable to betray her like this, and completely ignoring the fact that by being complicit in it I am betraying her anyway.

Once our youngest is asleep, my husband creeps into her room and puts a nappy on her.  She is out cold and doesn’t notice.

‘Is she using the toilet at home?’ says her teacher at the parent-teacher interview.

‘Yes,’ I say, has been for a long time now.

‘And at night?’ she asks.

I look at her and at the young teacher to her right, knowing they are not going to like the answer.  I run my hand through my hair, feeling strange when I run out of hair after an inch.

‘No,’ I say.

They both look at me.

‘We tried for a little while, but she was wetting every night, and no one was getting any sleep.  My husband didn’t like it, I have a chronic illness and cannot manage the broken nights, and the girls were exhausted so we went back to a nappy.’  It sounds pathetic even to my ears.

The older of the two smiles, I know that smile, its the smile I’ve used as a therapist when I hear people’s excuses and I’m about to call them on it.  She talks about kids learning to rely on nappies.  She tells me that we might risk undermining her confidence, and while she understands that the sleep deprivation is an issue this might be bigger than that.  They tell me all the things I already know, all the things I’ve been arguing with my husband.

I smile.  I nod.  ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘of course,’ I say.  ‘Absolutely, she is ready,’ I agree.    The problem is my husband is not ready.

I try to explain it to them but am met with the usual raised eyebrows and so I stop.

‘Well, my husband is going to Australia next week for a couple of weeks, so I’ll start with her then.’

‘I think it’s time to address Avarose wearing a nappy at night,’ I say to my husband after the girls are asleep.

‘Why?’ he asks his face paling slightly.  I know he is thinking about the mess and about the lack of sleep.

‘The school brought it up and you know I don’t think it’s fair that we put a nappy on her once she’s asleep, it feels so dishonest… I was thinking I could do it with her while you are away.’

His face brightens.  ‘Sure,’ he says, going back to his laptop.

She wets the bed the first night, then has a dry bed for the next four nights.  Unbeknownst to my husband I actually start before he leaves.  By the time he gets back I think, we’ll have it sorted.  We do not of course.  We have six wet nights for every dry night and the washing becomes a full-time job.  It is insurmountable.  But then suddenly, two months later, it’s as if a switch goes in her brain, and she has it.   She loses it repeatedly but it sticks for longer and longer periods each time.

‘How’s she going?’ the young teacher who was very kind in the interview asks me as I’m waiting for youngest to finish washing her dishes after snack time.

‘Really well,’ I say, ‘she’s got it.’

The teacher punches the air in triumph.  Her dark ponytail dancing.  ‘I knew she could do it.  We ran into some teacher’s from her sister’s school and they were “Oh, isn’t she such a sweet girl.” “She’s one of mine,” I told them,’ she points her thumbs to her chest ‘ “and she’s capable too.” ’

I love how much pride she has in that.


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