***This week’s guest post is by Michelle of A Mom Next Door. Just a warning, it’s going to make you snort coffee up your nose. Put the cup down.***
Calamity, thanks for offering the chance to guest on your blog. It was very inspiring to write for an audience of people enthralled by your courage, competence, inquisitiveness and sass.
I’m writing this week from New York City, where I’ve dragged my children, Two and Five, for our first-time ever family experience of the Big Apple. May is a Terrible Travel month for our family, because my Husband has a week-long trade business trip in NYC, comes home for 3-5 days, then leaves again to Europe for another eight days. We do this every year. Some years, I try to convince him to go to Las Vegas for the intermission between trade shows instead of returning home. I think it would actually be easier to just have him gone the whole month, than for him to return—jet-lagged, exhausted, stressed about the upcoming trip, and otherwise generally unavailable but still physically present—for just a few days before leaving again, throwing his children into an absolute frenzy of separation anxiety. But the poor man does nothing but miss us and the comforts of home the entire time he’s away, so I can’t bear to bar the door, no matter how difficult it makes my life as a single mom during his absence.
So this year I cashed in on the free companion ticket and hotel points we earn during those difficult separations, and told him I’d rather try the solo mom thing in NYC than be left behind at home for another agonizing month of I-want-my-daddy! Look for a post soon on my blog A Mom Next Door about our adventures, including travel tips for taking on big cities with small kids. I may have to write a whole post about the Horrible Homework Packet of busywork thrust upon us by a teacher who ignored my offer to create an independent work contract centered around the experience of being in New York City. No, my kindergartner wouldn’t learn anything from that—better do endless pages of worksheets instead!
But this post is actually inspired by something looming large in our lives at this very moment: traveler’s constipation. I’d better fill you in on some history first. Me and my children and poop go way back. We’ve been through a lot together.
* Warning, this post contains direct and explicit discussion of all matters digestive and excremental. If merely reading the previous sentence made you uncomfortable or woozy, I suggest you stop reading and go make yourself a cup of tea. If your children are young enough that you are still familiar with the texture of poop, read on, since you’re deep in shit already anyway.
When I became a mom, I expected diapers. I’d had enough experience with babies and toddlers to know that many, many diapers were in my future. But I never supposed that parenting would involve such an intimate familiarity and involvement with my children’s process of elimination. I didn’t realize that a long-term commitment to poop was part of the parenting package. Turns out, childrearing is not just about changing diapers, and changing diapers can be a lot harder than it sounds.
Do you ever surreptitiously smell your own fingers? Once, my infant son’s poop was so tacky, so persistent, I had to scoop it from the crevice with my forefinger, carefully wrapped in a thin flannel diaper wipe that seemed an entirely insufficient barrier. I washed my hands five times that day. But over the years I have become less afraid of poop, accustomed as I am now to the necessity of squeezing a diaper full of a squashed-wide disk of poop into a more toilet-friendly log for our finicky commode. Poop is really not much different from clay. And better than a clogged toilet and sewage on the bathroom floor.
My children like to examine their own poop. I encourage this. We animals learn a lot from poop. I inspect theirs carefully—keeping tabs on their developing digestion, making sure all the food I put into them comes out in the proper way. Both children have been at times particularly obsessed with watching the poop come out of their own bodies. This has created some problems in the potty training process. Imagine a child, clutching the handles on the side of the little plastic potty to lift himself, head tucked down to knees as he tries to get a holy glimpse. Worse, when the poop actually begins to emerge, abandoning the potty altogether to spin in fruitless circles, me chasing after him with a prodigious wad of toilet paper.
My daughter never fails to pipe up with “Me see poop now?!” exactly at the moment when I’ve got her ankles suspended with one hand, swiping at her sticky butt with the other, and no hands free to keep her from reaching out to grab the loosely folded diaper that I inadvertently set just inside the radius of risk. And all this while crouched on the restroom floor, because the frozen yogurt establishment we will never frequent again couldn’t be bothered to install a changing table!
But I do wonder how I will take care of my children when they begin to hide their poop. Who will tell them they need to eat more prunes? So I have already begun teaching them poop’s lessons. I invite them to poke around up there when in the bath and teach them words I know they’re just waiting to say in preschool and kindergarten—anus, scrotum, vulva, intestine, and tampon, of course.
In spite of my open approach to poop and associated processes, constipation seems to be a trait my children share. They are great at vegetables, drink plenty of liquids, take their probiotics without complaint, but still both started suffering from constipation at about four months, before I’d even begun giving them solid food. We’ve tried everything, and yet their animal instincts still urge them to hold their poop until they can eliminate safely in a familiar place.
Which New York City does not seem to be, at least not to the large intestines of a five-year old. When Five was still just three, I finally figured out the connection between his erratic behavior and his cycle of elimination. The claw hands clued me in. My sweet, intelligent, helpful, energetic son would periodically get aggressive and completely obstinate—hitting and scratching with tightly curled fingers, especially at transition times. Then, usually within a few hours of such an incident, he would finally crouch on the toilet seat and have a stupendous, miraculous poop.
It was an instant personality makeover, and once I saw the pattern it became very difficult to keep my nose out of Five’s shit. Children everywhere insist on claiming their own bodies, at least until we teach them otherwise. For parents, charged with keeping those bodies safe and nourished, this boundary is almost impossible to respect. “Put on your jacket!” I’m not cold! “Eat your broccoli!” I’m not hungry! “Time to go potty!” I don’t have to go! Sound familiar?
I knew how fruitless and self-defeating and almost unavoidable it is for parents to get trapped in power struggles of this kind. I had managed to avoid many of them. I never asked my children to put on jackets before leaving the house (not a choice I could practically make if we lived in Minnesota, but in the mild clime of the Bay Area it works). Ten minutes out the door, however, when the kids were feeling the cold for themselves, I’d have that extra layer handy.
My Husband and I never force our children to eat anything. We try to put balanced meals on the table, do our best to eat well ourselves, and limit sugar. We keep soda, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and corn syrup out of the house. But we never tell our children that they have to try everything, or clean their plates. Since we allow our children to decide which dishes they wish to eat from the family table, and to serve themselves seconds as they desire, they may end up eating more rice and cheese at one meal than we’d like. But we notice at other times they’re just as happy to down a basket of raspberries or munch on a carrot.
Still, seeing the connection between my son’s constipation and his behavior was an intoxicating discovery. No more screaming, clawing, hitting, kicking, temper tantrums! I thought. I’ll just teach him that when he feels bad, he ought to try going to the bathroom. That was a failure. “It seems like you maybe have to go poop, son.” NO, I DON’T HAVE TO POOP! I JUST CAN’T GET THE LEGOS TO STAY TOGETHER!! For a while, I could get him to try the toilet by responding, “Then you need to make your behavior match your story. Either stop screaming, or go to the bathroom!” But Five is not one to go down easily. Nothing ever works with him for long: engaging his cooperation is a complex and evolving dance. I did finally figure out some foods that were like glue for his intestines (Pirate’s Booty is a big no-no) and cut him off. I continue to push fruits and vegetables. But for this trip, I invested in the chewable fiber pill.
So far, it’s only made him grumpier. I can hear his tummy rumbling, I can see him clenching his whole body, claws included. But he’s still holding it in. And I’m still hovering, suggesting that he try going to the bathroom more often than I should (which is to say, suggesting it at all), waiting for the sweet and inquisitive boy I know and adore to emerge from the restroom and join us on this big city adventure.
I’m sure thirty years from now he will blame me for his constipation: So that’s why I can’t take a dump! He’ll spend hundreds of dollars to complain about his controlling mother to a therapist, who will finally, exasperated after six months of watching him squirm in his chair, say to him, “Why don’t you just go take a dump! Go ahead, use my private bathroom. You’ll feel better and NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU!”
In the meantime, I’ll sit here at the foot of the toilet and offer whatever comfort is needed as he struggles to make peace with his own inner workings. And on my good days, refrain from saying, “I told you so!” when it finally works.