Thursday, June 9, 2011

Training Day

It may not seem like it, but holding one’s pee and knowing ahead of time when a release of that pee is forthcoming are sequential, not coincidental, skills. This is something I did not appreciate when Pip was making the switch from diapers to underwear. As he started to show interest in using a toilet and began acquiring the ability to hold his pee for longer and longer periods, I expected him also to be able to tell me when he had to go. That he didn’t was a cause of much frustration for me. I didn’t understand the sequence and, as such, every time he wet his pants it sent me into all kinds of confused deliberations. I couldn’t figure out whether I was doing something wrong or he was just trying to antagonize me. This ignorance on my part made the whole toilet training experience much more difficult for Pip than it had to be.

What I understand now is that the tired line, “Toilet training a child is really about training the parents,” is true. The sequential nature involved in developing bladder control means that even after a child has learned the first step, a parent still has to be pro-active in order to get this child to deposit their waste fluids in a toilet instead of on the living room couch.

This is where Polly and I are at this moment. She can hold her pee long enough that wearing underwear all day is a viable proposition. We can go for a long walk and not worry that she will be wet before we get home. We can even get down to the park and back on most days, though this does push us up against her limit. But, as she can’t yet tell me ahead of time when her seal is going to break, I have to make sure she gets to the bathroom on a regular schedule. If I do this, she will stay dry all day. If I fail, she will plow through four sets of clothes in an afternoon.

So, Polly’s bathroom visits are a normal part of our everyday domestic life. She goes after breakfast, before snack, after snack, before lunch, after lunch, after nap, before dinner, and usually twice between dinner and bedtime. This pattern is so regular, I barely have to think about it when we’re at home. The challenge arises when we venture away from the house. Then, the regularity of our schedule breaks down and things get more difficult. On these trips, it becomes my responsibility to keep track of how long it has been since her last bathroom visit and to make a calculated guess as to how much longer we can go before we will need to find a restroom again. As there is no visible gauge by which to measure how much pee is currently residing in her bladder, this calculation is fraught with all kinds of uncertainties. Plus, my ability to keep track of these details is frequently hampered by the plethora of additional variables that come into play when we are out and about.

Our trip to the public library last week presents a prime example of the dynamics involved in this process:

First, I love taking Polly and Pip to the library. There are books to read, computers to type on, and stuffed animals to carry up and down the aisles. And the kids always seem to run into something new and interesting. Last week it was a massive globe overlaid with a contour map that allowed them to feel the difference in elevation between our home, the Rocky Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. They were enchanted by this globe and wanted to keep spinning it round and round.

At the same time, managing both of them and their disparate interests in this setting can be a challenge. It requires a certain amount of hedging, a certain amount of gambling, and a certain amount of willing ignorance as I keep bouncing back and forth between them. In short, I have to pick my spots and choose at any given moment which pull or request is most important to handle. Within this flow, monitoring Polly’s toilet timing doesn’t always stay at the forefront of my mind.

There is also another variable at play for me in a place such as the public library. I am very self-conscious about the counter-normative nature of my role as a full-time father. What I mean by this self-consciousness is that I know people are watching me, and I feel it is my responsibility to demonstrate what fathers are capable of. Despite the hordes of skilled and accomplished fathers out there, the bar of expectations regarding men’s parenting abilities remains set pretty low. I am reminded of this each time some stranger sees me out with my kids and says in passing “You’ve got your hands full today.” This is supposed to be a friendly and innocuous comment but, as with most pleasantries, it communicates more than the speaker necessarily intends. In this case, it says “I see you are out of your element. Good luck holding it together until you can pass those kids back to their mother.” Again, I know that the people saying this to me are not trying to be mean. They are trying to be sympathetic. And yet, they are basically saying that I, as a man, am largely incapable of handling small children, that when it comes to parenting I am a temporary stand-in, good mostly for providing the kids with some entertainment while the real experts, their mothers, get to take a well-deserved hour away.

For many men, this implication is fine. It allows them to be distanced and distracted when watching their kids. It gives them some leeway to screw up without incurring any real social penalty. It enables them to be little better than a third-rate nanny and still be praised for their efforts.

But I hate it. I don’t want to play the overwhelmed father. I don’t want to have my efforts devalued and brushed aside. And I don’t want other men to get away with shoddy parenting because that’s all that is expected of them.

As such I constantly strive to show how much fathers can handle. I work to stay calm regardless of what Polly and Pip do. I pay close attention to their questions and seek to help them with whatever needs they have. I avoid appearing frazzled or overwhelmed even when I’m tired and frustrated. I inject care and confidence into my interactions with Pip and Polly. I do all of this because I am a good parent but also as a way of demonstrating to those who may be watching that I am fully capable of parenting my children; that, no, my hands aren’t full today.

Then last week, as I am juggling the kids’ various interests while simultaneously trying to select a couple of books the kids will find fun and I will not mind reading repeatedly over the next two weeks, Polly says to me, “Polly needs to pee.” Unfortunately, what she means by this is: “I am currently hosing down my drawers and you may want to get me to the nearest bathroom forthwith.” So, I quickly scoop her up, call for Pip to follow us, and head for the restroom where I can switch out her wet pants and underwear for the dry set I always carry in my backpack.

No problem. Polly and Pip handle the whole thing very well. Polly doesn’t get upset about being whisked up and away and Pip follows us without hesitation. In the bathroom, Polly stands still while I take off her soiled duds and replace them with a clean set of pants and a pair of blue rocket ship underwear. Pip takes the opportunity to relieve himself and wash his hands. In less than five minutes we are back out on the library floor and heading back to our respective places.

I’m feeling pretty good about the whole situation until I get back to the bookshelf where Polly and I were standing. There I find a wet spot on the carpet. It’s not large but it’s clearly fresh and is certainly not water. I walk over to the spot and rub it a bit with my shoe. It does not fade any.

And now, I begin to ponder an ethical question: Do I tell anyone about this?

The proper answer would have been “yes.” It’s the children’s section of the library. Kids pee on the carpet from time to time. I could have told the librarian at the desk twenty feet away from us and she would have called someone from the custodial staff to come and spray it with some disinfectant. Then it would have been done.

But I chose to go with “no.” I didn’t want to face the female librarian and tell her that one of my kids pissed on the floor and then have her give me the sympathetic, that’s-okay-you’re-just-a-dad look. So, instead I stood on the spot for a few moments and then moved Pip and Polly to another section. I rationalized this action by saying that the spot wasn’t very big and probably would vanish soon anyway. Then I could walk away with nothing harmed and no one the wiser.

In retrospect, I realize I botched this situation in two major ways. First, there was an obviously right thing to do, and I didn’t do it. Instead, I acted like a temporary stand-in and took the easy way out. In the process I undermined my own internal credibility when it comes to all those good parenting exhibitions.

Second, I missed two demonstration moments. One of them was the opportunity to demonstrate for Polly and Pip how we should collectively care for and maintain our public spaces. While I don’t think they knew about the spot on the carpet, by not bringing it to their attention and then going to talk to the librarian about it, I missed the chance to act out the kind of responsibility that I would like for them to take on as they get older. Similar sorts of opportunities will come around again but it’s a shame to waste such a good one.

The second opportunity was a bit more ephemeral. By not bringing the spot to the librarian’s attention I missed the chance to make an active performance of what a father is capable of. All my efforts to exude confidence and care with the kids in public are done in the hopes that others are observing us and recognize on some level how well that father is doing. By going over to the librarian’s desk, I could have made a more direct and immediate demonstration of these same ideals.

The parent who handles problems well is even more impressive than the parent for whom there are no problems at all. Sadly, in this instance I was neither parent and for that I am truly sorry. It looks like I have a bit more training to do.


  1. Thanks for another insightful post. I was struck particularly by your take on the dreaded "you've got your hands full" comment. This is my number one comment in public and I have my own sensitivity to it - having five children, more than the socially accepted number! I am able now to look at it a bit more objectively and can tell that people don't really intend to be insulting when they say it. Also, there is wide variation in the *tone* of the comment and some say it in a genuinely sympathetic "I've been there" way, usually followed by "I had seven but it was wonderful". Those help make the bad ones more bearable. The other day I was buying milk and eggs at a farmer's market when the cashier asked if I needed a bag. When I declined, she said cheerfully: You have a lot of hands to help carry! This was a whole new way of looking at the situation and I appreciated it. Nevertheless, I am always monitoring my children's behavior and my parenting with the possibility of The Comment in view. :)

    Another comment (regarding full time dads):
    I have a friend who tells me that when her husband takes their four daughters to the grocery store, people (especially women) fall all over themselves telling him what a great dad he is and what a fabulous job he is doing. She is somewhat affronted by this as she feels they simply expect that she, the mother, would do those tasks unrecognized when, in fact, the two share parenting and work responsibilities. It probably doesn't help their case that the family is black - and others don't know that he is an engineer and she an OB-GYN. She's supposed to be the mom and anything he does to help makes him a Great (black) Father.

    Lastly, I might add that, for myself, I think it's obvious who the "good dads" are and the "not involved ones". This goes for moms too. I don't assume gender has anything to do with good parenting. It's probably not the stuff you're thinking about that makes other people notice that you're doing a good job. Anyway, Kid Situations happen to everyone; the key is how they get handled. And, how the unseen ones get handled goes even deeper. Wish I had done better in some of those myself.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. "For many men, this implication is fine. It allows them to be distanced and distracted when watching their kids. It gives them some leeway to screw up without incurring any real social penalty. It enables them to be little better than a third-rate nanny and still be praised for their efforts."

    I think that's a pretty bold statement when you think about the amount of fathers in the current generation of parents that are actively involved on a daily basis. I don't know if this isn't the case with your peer group, but in my current circle of friends (and even acquaintances), I'd be hard-pressed to find a dad who feels overwhelmed by the idea of taking the kids to do something fun or even "being in charge" while mom's otherwise engaged.

    Did you ever consider that maybe you're overestimating exactly *HOW* counter to the social norm you think you are? I mean, yes, you are a bit of an anomaly in that you provide care for the children all day, every day. However, I would argue that's more because you're a parent who can afford (in all senses of the word) to stay at home with your children rather than the fact that you're a man.

    Someone gave me some advice once, and it's not as easy to remember as one might think. However, I believe it might be beneficial to you to consider at times when you feel as though people are underestimating your ability. (This is greatly paraphrased, by the way) - in all of your encounters with other people, assume that they are working and speaking under the best of intentions. While this may not *always* be the case, I do believe it is the case the majority of the time.

  3. Tara - I appreciate your thoughts on the tone of the "you've got your hands full" comment. The one thing I would point out in reply is that regardless of tone or intent the fact that this comment is considered a friendly, throw away line does communicate something about the embedded cultural expectations of fathers. Much like with the father you described who is praised for successfully entering the grocery store with his kids, it seems that the bar for fathers often remains set pretty low.

    The question I have'nt quite answered for myself yet is: why do I care about where the bar is set? I feel offended by this low bar in some way but I'm not sure why it matters.

    Anonymous - You are right to point out that the current generation of men is on the whole a very active and involved group when it comes to their children. That said, I don't feel as if the thoughts contained in the lines you quoted are completely off-base. They were born out of a specific set of impressions that remain strong in my memory.

    Before Polly was born, we used to take Pip on regular Saturday morning trips to the zoo. One of the constant, almost archetypal, figures present at the zoo during these trips was the father who obviously had the kids for the morning while his wife was off doing something else. While these fathers were not necessarily clumsy or overwhelmed, they did conduct themselves in such a way to show that this was not their regular gig. There was a certain absence of parental restraint in their actions - they put cotton-candy in the kids hands at 10 AM; they conversed loudly on their cellphones while their kids ran around; one or two even stopped to get a beer from the zoo's beer vendor. These obviously were not all the men nor were they the majority of them. But there were enough that I felt comfortable using the word "many" in the lines you quoted.

  4. I think the big distinction here, Jeff, is what you just said about "regular gig." Anyone would be overwhelmed caring for children full time if they aren't used to it. When my niece and nephew stayed with me during the summer when they were younger, I would be exhausted at the end of the week, even though I loved spending time with them. I wasn't used to the early mornings and the constant need for activities. If I did it every day, every week, I'd develop a rhythm, a pace that was manageable. Like everything, it just takes practice to hone your skills.

    I also agree with Tara that sometimes women begrudge that good fathers get more credit than good mothers do, but that's just because equal-partner parenting hasn't always been the norm. Every time I watch Mad Men, I am reminded of how not responsible fathers felt for the dirty work of raising children in the 60's (on the whole, always exceptions of course).

    I used to deny gender differences when I was younger: "equal means same" mentality. I'm more comfortable with our gender differences now. Men and women have equal, but sometimes different gifts. I see this all the time in my marriage, and my husband and I are definitely equals. Your children will have the best of both worlds with you and Ava.