Public restroom misadventures

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last seven years of parenting, it is this:  for a kiddo, going potty is never so attractive an option as when a public restroom is the setting (no pun intended).

And in case you didn’t know it, and because I want the world to know:  taking a little kid to the potty means a lot of extra work for a momma.

Now, I am all for folks visiting the bathroom when they truly need to go.  The 6-year-old and the 4-year-old, yes:  when they say they need to go, I know they know what they’re talking about.  I gladly take them to the potty, taking comfort in the reality that they both can mostly handle themselves in there.  The 6-year-old, in fact, I had to completely let go and let God; i.e., I gave up on monitoring his public restroom use.  I just send him into the men’s side and keep my fingers crossed.  I don’t know if he’s minding his own business in there.  I don’t know if he’s wiping correctly.  I don’t know if he’s washing with warm water and soap.  I am a mom of three littles:  I just can’t micromanage everything anymore, and this is one area wherein I just had to let it go.

(This seems like the appropriate place to mention, though, that just last week 6-year-old Asher came out of the bathroom at a Mexican restaurant with a dollar bill which he said a man had given him.  When Daddy can’t be with us on an outing, see, the boy often has to wait long periods near the restrooms while the two little girls and I conquer the public-restroom-for-three challenge once again, and I think he keeps himself busy by holding the door to the men’s restroom open for those coming and going, and I assume that’s why he was tipped a dollar.  Again, I’m letting go and letting God here.)

The 4-year-old girl I can keep a closer eye on, seeing as how we’re both ladies, and she does pretty well in there — though I did catch her wiping with a wad of toilet seat covers one time this summer.

But the 2-year-old in potty training?  (By the way, “potty training” is a pretty loose term at our house; “training” a wee creature who can’t mount the potty by herself has always seemed pretty futile and like a lot of hard work to me.  In comparison, changing another diaper seems a lot less like banging my head against the wall.)

At home, the 2-year-old is mostly indifferent to the potty; we go through spurts where she thinks her little potty chair is fun or where she thinks it’s neat to use a step-stool to climb up on the big potty, but mostly she doesn’t think about the bathroom at all, preferring instead to go through the diapers like they’re going out of style.

But find us at Wal-Mart, or at a musical, or at a rodeo, or anywhere else where the facilities are limited to an outhouse, and all of a sudden the 2-year-old really has to go.  And again, in 20 minutes, she really has to go.

This is when potty-training becomes a moral dilemma for a mom, because everyone around you can hear her pleas and is thinking Oh, just look at that little sweetheart — ready to be a big girl and use the potty!  But in your own mind you know This little shyster, under the guise of interest in potty training, is publicly manipulating me into taking her on another 15-minute field trip to the germy public bathroom.  (By the way, if you don’t think a 2-year-old is capable of manipulation, try taking a “potty trainer” who doesn’t like his car seat on a road trip sometime.  I still shiver remembering our drive across the state to deliver a horse when Asher was 2 and very much loathed his carseat, and the many calls to “Pee!” that my husband and I endured along the way.  Each time we had to decide if the call from the backseat was indeed so authentic that we should bring the whole rig to a stop on the side of the interstate yet again.)

See, it’s like this for the parent of a potty trainer away from home:  darned if I do, and darned if I don’t.  If I do take her to the potty, I’m probably contributing to the use-the-potty-when-you-need-to-go movement, but I inevitably miss the grand finale… or the wild cow milking… or I find myself pushing 150 pounds of groceries and my unfinished shopping list in a cart with a bum wheel, with three kids hanging off the sides, all the way across the store to reach the public restroom — and when the restroom visit is over, I will push the same stinking cart all the way back to the cereal aisle because we can’t survive without Life!

If I don’t take her, I risk public scorn from those within earshot who will be dismayed that I don’t rush my “potty-trainer” to the nearest facility immediately.  I also risk the possibility that by not taking her, by not acknowledging her first little recognitions of physiological needs, I will incur long-term emotional damage and possibly stunt her potential for lifelong success in the bathroom and other areas of life.  Can you imagine her 20 years from now, sitting in a counselor’s office, sobbing I think it all started when my mom refused to be a responsible mom and potty train me.  She’s been ignoring everything I have to say since I was two, and now I just can’t seem to get my life together!

Sigh.  There is nothing to do but take the child on another public restroom adventure… again… even though we were there 20 minutes ago and nothing came out and very likely nothing will come out again this time.  Even though I know full well she’s tricking me into leaving the comfortable seat from which I am enjoying the show.  I will tamp down thoughts like She is wearing a diaper, after all.  If she really had to go, she could just go in her diaper like she has been for 27 months already.  I mean, what’s one more time going to hurt?


I am Mother.  I will walk a half mile and up three flights of stairs, carrying the wee one most of the way, to get back to the nearest public restroom.  When we get there, I will stand in line for five minutes, smiling politely at those around us.  If an outhouse is the only available facility, I will breathe through my mouth the whole time.

I am Mother.  When our time comes, I will wrestle her into a tiny stall.  I will become entirely too intimate with the public commode and the floor around it as I wrestle her tiny pants down and take off her diaper and situate her on the potty.  If the diaper is wet, I will throw it away and she will have to go commando, because of course I put my last fresh diaper on her — with much difficulty, by the way, while she was standing — when we were last in the public restroom 20 minutes ago.  (Why isn’t she wearing a pull-up diaper for training purposes, you might ask?  Because in recent years I have discovered that pull-ups are just expensive diapers.  In my experience it’s not like a tiny toddler wearing a pull-up understands the purpose of the pull-up, as in, Hey, I’m wearing a pull-up right now, so I should act like I’m really wearing underwear — but if I do accidentally wet my pants, the pull-up is here to save me.  Hurray, pull-up!  No.  Folks, I’m here to tell ya, that’s not how it works.  As far as I can tell, a pull-up is a diaper is a pull-up in the 2-year-old mind.  It’s the handy absorbency that they both have going for them.  When you rifle through another expensive package of pull-ups and your kid’s still not potty-trained at the end, you start to figure these things out.)

As yet another aside, the wrestling with the 2-year-old in the bathroom stall, described above, is all assuming that she doesn’t dart into a stall by herself and lock the door while I am distracted with helping her 4-year-old sister.  Our own 2-year-old took to said habit this past summer, and I know full well:  you’d think a mom would learn to prevent it.  Still, little Marsielle has locked herself in more public restroom stalls than I can count, and once she’s in there, she takes off her own diaper and throws it on the floor — proving that she understands part but not all of what we are trying to accomplish in the bathroom (and therein is the reality of potty-training).  Because she is a clever little thing, she can almost always get the stall door unlocked by herself — but three times in recent memory she couldn’t.  And then, of course, she panics when she realizes she’s locked in a bathroom stall!  Because I hold myself to unrealistic standards like this:  it wouldn’t be responsible to be the person who coaxes the kid out of the locked stall and leaves it there, unavailable to the public… I once cajoled 4-year-old Emi into crawling under to open the stall door for her little sister.  Another time a sympathetic Taco Bell employee crawled under and opened the stall door for us.  And one fateful day at McDonald’s I personally got down on the public restroom floor, slid on my back under the door, and rescued my youngest.  Folks, this is how motherhood breaks a gal:  with systematic, humiliating, reeking-of-self-sacrifice reminders that she is no longer No. 1 in her own life.  Or No. 2.  Or 3 or 4.

I am Mother.  I will wash the little hands of my children in the public sink, even though the benefits are nominal.  Even though there is no right way to wash their hands in a public sink.  I will wedge their little bodies between my knee and the sink as if to squeeze the life out of them — for even the 4-year-old is not tall enough yet to reach the average flow from the tap.  I will balance the child there as best I can as I pull reluctant little fingers toward the water, all while lathering said fingers with soap as best I can.  I will listen to griping about water temperature and wet shirt-sleeves, and when the washing is over and while I reach for a paper towel, the child will scrub the basin of the germy public sink with (now un-clean) little hands… and maybe stick a finger down the emergency drain, too.  I will decide whether or not a re-wash would really be worth it.  I will finally proclaim the child clean and dry, and while I am distracted with washing my own hands or checking for lettuce caught in my teeth, the child will bend over and pick something random off the germy public restroom floor:  a paper towel somebody else dropped, or a lost grocery list, or even a length of toilet paper.  Or the kid’ll play with the little flipper lid on the garbage can.  I will, again, decide whether or not a re-wash would be worth it.  Ultimately I will give up and shoo my chicks out of the bathroom, telling myself that instituting the habit of hand-washing is what we were really trying to accomplish here — clean hands were never a realistic goal!

Ah, well, joke as I might, I know these days with littles will not last long.  Soon enough the girls will have hygiene down pat and will likely start to criticize my own hygiene habits.  I can see them now, 10 years down the road, cringing over my hit-or-miss leg-shaving or my aging, yellowing teeth or my wayward eyebrows.  Who knows?  Maybe once they’re all a little more grown up I’ll actually have time to bathe and look in the mirror!

As for the boy, well, the time for instituting proper hygiene habits in him is clearly running short.  As of today I can still wrestle him down to the floor and floss his teeth.  As of today it’s still okay for me to stand at the door of the bathroom and shout out instructions to him on all the various body parts that one must remember to scrub while in the shower.  But, in the long run, how much control does any woman have over any man’s hygiene habits?  Can I actually force in our son a love for being clean?  A fondness for fresh breath?  No — that is something I’ll have to leave up to a pretty little girl who, 10 or 15 years down the road, will catch his eye and steal his heart and make him want to be clean.  And I pray for that little girl… wherever she is.

© Tami Blake

3 thoughts on “Public restroom misadventures

  1. The public restroom story is exactly on mark! I too wonder if you can ever be clean when leaving one! We live is north central Montana in a very rural setting. So when I have to venture to town, I just cringe when my 3 year old daughter needs to use the bathroom! Truly I would rather find a deserted road and squat outside with her:) she has that down pat do to living in the middle of nowhere! Thanks for you great stories.


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