Published on September 24th, 2019 | by Meg Thompson1
Use your words and say how you feel.
If I could, I would go inside my daughter’s body and push it out myself, but of course I can’t.
You’re smart, I tell myself. You can figure this out. You can make her pain go away. But I can’t do that either.
“It’s too hard, Mommy,” Mae whispers. “Do it for me.”
I type out texts to my husband Todd that say Some days I am just so sad but then I delete them. I cry to myself and when he comes home he walks past me and I say nothing.
My phone dings with a pop-up message.
This phone hasn’t been backed up in 26 weeks.
Lucky phone, I think.
One evening Todd and I are watching Mae in the midst of one of her bouts. She is screaming and writhing, like she has been doing for months.
“She’s holding it in,” Todd says.
I look closer and see that he is right. She is sucking in her gut, clenching her ass, and standing on her toes with her ankles crossed. I feel a pang as I realize how wrong I have been. I had been trying to sneak more fiber into her diet, certain she was constipated, but that wasn’t the case. She was doing everything she could to keep it in because she was afraid to let it out.
One morning Mae wakes up and walks too slow out of her bedroom, like she is on a tightrope. I don’t remember her last bowel movement. I call the pediatrician and make an appointment, but we can’t get in until tomorrow.
Once before, we had to give her a suppository, and I promised myself I would never do it again. I can still hear her screams. My husband did the hard part as I clutched her on the floor and tried to soothe her, whispering in her ear that it would be okay.
Now, though, Todd was at work. I would have to do it by myself. I gave her the iPad and told her to lay on the floor. At first she was unsuspecting, even when I took off her diaper, but she quickly figured it out.
When Todd was a kid, his mother would make him drink prune juice. He would come into the kitchen and there would be a cup of it on the counter. “Drink,” she would say, pointing. Todd didn’t like to sit on the toilet, he said, because he got bored. He would do anything to avoid it, until it became too much.
When I was a kid, I sliced my finger open with a wallpaper scraper. I stood in the upstairs hallway, too scared to tell anyone. When I couldn’t get the blood to stop, I walked downstairs. My sisters were watching Gilligan’s Island and didn’t notice me. I walked back upstairs, the blood leaking over my hand. Eventually my mother, perhaps knowing at some level that something was wrong, came upstairs and saw me clutching my hands together.
“Oh my God!” she screamed.
We went to the hospital and I got three stitches. For years, the drops of blood were visible on the hallway floor from where I paced.
I ache to talk to Todd, but I am too much like my mother, giving myself more work to do, scurrying around my house, trying to bury myself under the weight of my tasks. My mother likes to talk, but not about anything deep or personal. Sometimes we talk on the phone twice a day. When I go to her house, we will talk for hours about varieties of petunias, how much rain we got, why you shouldn’t eat a lot of chicken, but we do not push. We are trained in the whereabouts of our boundaries. Now that I have children, it is even easier to avoid ourselves and focus on them. I talk to her endlessly about Mae.
“I don’t think you guys ever had a problem with it because we lived on a farm,” my mother said. “It was just everywhere. You saw all the animals do it.”
My parents are old school farmers who deal with their problems by pounding fence posts into the ground and stabbing pitchforks into bales of hay. If you are upset, you should work harder. If you are overweight, you should work harder. If you are sitting down for too long enjoying a cup of coffee, you should work harder. If you find yourself alone with your thoughts, you should work harder.
Maybe my mother is right. Maybe the ubiquitous piles of manure resulted in me being regular.
I read about Kevin Love, a player for the Cleveland Cavs who had a panic attack during a game, and feel instantly drawn to him. During a timeout in the third quarter, he told the coach he would be right back and took off for the locker room, where, unable to calm down, he ran from room to room. The part that made me tear up was when he said it felt like he was looking for something he couldn’t find.
Watching the Cavs in the play-offs with friends and family one night, I stand up for Kevin Love, who happens to be having a bad game.
“He’s been hurt,” I say. “And he had a panic attack.”
”I don’t feel bad for him,” someone says.
Trying to keep my tone loose, casual, I say that’s perpetuating the stigma of mental health. He shrugs and says Kevin’s a model for Banana Republic and he makes a lot of money. I feel my heartbeat pick up and the urge to argue, but that gets pushed down by another desire: to keep the mood in the room light and breezy and unclouded with my desperate, potentially tearful defense of a tall, gorgeous millionaire.
Stool withholding, or encopresis, is common in children. Some believe it’s because we force potty training before a child is ready. Another theory is that poor diets in children lead to uncomfortable moments on the toilet. All it takes is one bout of constipation for a child to decide: Nope. That hurts. Not going to do it anymore.
“Just give her Miralax,” the pediatrician said. “She’ll be fine.”
At home, I sipped coffee and watched from the kitchen as she stood in front of the television, drinking milk with a capful of generic Miralax mixed in. It felt like witnessing a tsunami form in the distance.
“Ignore the label,” the pediatrician said. “It won’t hurt her. Give her as much as she needs to get cleaned out.”
I shuddered internally, envisioning the coming days. My girl is a stubborn one. She is a fighter. I labored with her for an ungodly amount of hours. She idled in the birth canal, her enormous head just off center, refusing to come out no matter what. I should have known, right then, of the will she possessed.
“Don’t go too far from the toilet,” the pediatrician said. “Keep her on it as much as you can.”
Mae is careful and skeptical, qualities that I will be grateful for when she is a young woman and men start to stare. But when she was three months old, I called my mother and told her Mae is so willful. She didn’t like to be held, and weaned herself from breastmilk quicker than I preferred. There was something about the way she looked at me, chin lifted.
The country of South Korea is obsessed with shit. I know this because we lived there for a year teaching English.
You can go to a shit-themed cafe where they serve brown, swirling-shaped pastries and lattes in tiny, toilet shaped cups. You can visit a toilet museum, which Todd and I did with our friend Whit, a fellow teacher, in obvious amazement, and, if I’m honest, with a bit of jealousy. The museum is a tribute to the idea of all Koreans having access to bathrooms. To a Korean, shit is awesome. They celebrate it in a way that Americans can’t really fathom. When one of Whit’s students asked to go to the bathroom, another student inquired, “To pee or shit?” Whit said it wasn’t necessary to specify that, and the class stared at him in disbelief.
Hand in hand, Mae and I embarked on our generic-Miralax-fueled death march to hell. One of the hardest parts of parenting is realizing how little control one has, and potty training displays this perfectly. “It has to be on her terms,” my mother reminded me. She gave me articles from the parenting column in The Washington Post by mothers bemoaning their five-year-old’s refusal to be potty trained. The harder you try, the experts warned, the more your child will resist.
But that doesn’t quell the judgement or the quizzical looks, and ignoring them is another battle for me in parenthood. I read the memoirs, the interviews, the blogs from new moms. I recite their words of wisdom like a mantra: Don’t compare your insides to their outsides. Mae is obsessed with Daniel Tiger, and I also find myself singing his life-lesson songs: When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good. The laxative is working well. Really well. Freakishly well. That’s a good thing. I am grateful for that. I tiptoe around the idea of Mae using her frog-shaped training toilet, which languishes in our bathroom, gathering dust. It stares at me, disappointed, through the doorway as I load the dishwasher. I hear my mother’s voice: Don’t push. Mae could not be less interested in potty-training, even though every diaper change is a mother-daughter version of WrestleMania. At our check-up with the pediatrician, I express my new fear: Mae getting a urinary tract infection.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “That’s definitely possible.”
Todd’s mother, well aware of the struggle I am enduring with Mae, sends me a text. How’s it going? I had the same problem with Todd.
My mind whirs. I haven’t been sleeping. Our new baby, Wilder, is teething. Todd has a new position at work that he is trying to navigate. I, foolishly, am teaching two sections of English online. Mae’s delicate bowels keep us at home, so I find myself drawing ever more inward. We are deep within a grey Ohio winter, and even though I read all those memoirs, interviews, and blogs, I don’t stop. Instead, I take on more, hoping that if I keep myself busy enough, I will forget about myself. Vaccination schedules, bills, insurance policies, car maintenance, food prep, grocery pick up, story time, on and on and on, my children grasping for me.
Holding Wilder on my hip, I type with one thumb: I’m clinging to my sanity. I don’t delete it.
The first time I used a Korean squat toilet, I toiled with which way to face. I was on a weekend excursion to the mountains, excited to see the countryside I had only stared at in pictures from travel books back in America. While walking through the parking lot of a rest stop, trying to figure out where to go in the massive building ahead of me, a bus parked in my path and everyone unloaded, streaming around me and running for what I hoped was the bathroom, as if the starting gun had just gone off at a marathon. When in Rome, I thought, and also started running. Somebody shouted, indecipherable to me, and I saw a mysterious door open to another entrance on the opposite side of the building. Half of the crowd flipped and started running for it. I decided to stay the course and made my way through the crowd, which was mostly just me being jostled along, moving with the weight of the throng. I had never been closer to feeling like I was in a flock of starlings, heading in a direction that I was not fully in control of. This is the Asian mentality, the group over the self, the reason the family name is displayed before the individual name. Inside the bathroom there were rows and rows of toilets, what felt like hundreds. Eventually I came to an empty stall, and when I opened the door, I saw a hole in the floor.
“It’s better for you,” I whispered. “More natural.”
I ended up facing the door, telling myself that is what I would do if I were sitting on a toilet. It was surprisingly easy, efficient. Over time, I would grow to prefer the squat toilet, choosing them when I had the option. Now, when I look at toilets in America, they seem overblown, ornate. I blame them for my daughter’s resistance to potty training. Through a toddler’s eyes, the modern, public American bathroom is a hellscape, rife with toilets that flush without warning. My daughter holds her hands over her ears and runs through the bathroom like she is in a minefield, screaming, toilets flushing around her like bombs exploding.
For years, the grip on my stroller has been tightening.
One night I am sitting on the couch and I can’t get my heart rate to slow down. I crawl on top of Todd and wrap myself around him.
“I’m in so much pain,” I cry into the side of his neck.
I hear the voices from all the mothers in the memoirs, interviews, and blogs I read late into the night on my phone as I nursed Wilder to sleep. They warned me: cracking was inevitable. I was always going to crack, I just didn’t know when. You can only hold that shit in for so long. Todd held me and rocked me like a baby, soothing me until my heart slowed.
Every once in a while, I was able to step out of it and tell myself that all of my problems were created by me, that everything was fine, that my children were safe and healthy, that I had done well, that I had built a good life, but I quickly tumbled back into an anxious pile of laundry and Pinterest boards and questions about the lawnmower. I took snippets of advice — Take a shower every morning. Have one nice piece, like a hair pin, that you can wear to feel good— and clung to them, not realizing how much pressure I was putting on a random, faceless mother to save me.
I put all of my weight on Todd, pressing myself to him, vacillating between the idea that I was at once ruining his life and that this is what happens in a marriage: one person crumbles like a rock wall while the other knows he has no choice but to remain an unbroken beam of light.
When I am changing Mae’s diaper, she notices she has a rash on her hip.
“That’s what happens when you wear a diaper too long and it rubs against your skin,” I tell her.
She looks away from me, then back. “Mommy,” she announces. “I’m ready to use the potty.”
And just like that, she is. She does. My mother told me repeatedly that she had potty trained all of us “in a day.” At one time this had seemed absurd and unreachable. Impossible, I had thought, but I had been trying to make my daughter do something she wasn’t ready to do. Why? Why was I trying so hard? What was I afraid of? Is it that line? That division between letting our children be children and then coaxing them away from childhood, which, the older I get, feels like a lie, that way I change my voice when I tell her: You’re a big girl now. This is what big girls do. Isn’t it much more fun?