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I never expected to love my quiet moments of solitude at the dog park quite so much.
I never knew that dogs are kind of particular about which other dogs they befriend and run with or wrestle. Sure they’ll sniff any dog’s rear ends, shamelessly, but they tend to wait until a dog who’s at least a little bit special comes along until they put their whole hearts into the chasing or the grappling or whatever interaction they deem appropriate.
I never understood how the varieties of dogs are endless, like humans, and how dogs come in so many shapes and sizes and colors. At least at our dog park, perhaps because it’s in South Arlington, the dogs are quite diverse.
I never realized how many tiny feathers were inside a pillow that a dog could chew to shreds. (I will be finding little feathers in my office for years to come.)
I never anticipated how much like a sibling a dog could be to my children, and exactly how they would each respond to her.
I never knew how pleased I would be when my dog pooped or peed. I had no idea how similar the urine-soaked laundry would be between potty-training children and a house-breaking dog.
I never thought about how much pet ownership is like parenthood in terms of admission to this completely new world where you look around and everyone else seems to know what they’re doing and you’re just making it up as you go along. It’s a club I never especially cared that I didn’t belong to, but now I do. It’s like stepping into the wardrobe and through to Narnia–it’s been here all along but I didn’t quite see it.
I never imagined we would find a dog as sweet and gentle and affectionate as Daisy, who is so perfect for our family. She doesn’t jump on us, but she always wants to be pet or to snuggle. She sometimes thinks she’s a cat. She’s a little anxious, but then so are we. She’s a lot of work (but so are we sometimes) and definitely worth it.
My daughter is finishing a book in bed, reading with her book light while her brother sleeps on the other side of the room. This fills me with such delight I do not care how late she stays up. It helps that today is the last day of school, and there is nowhere she needs to be in the morning. I have turned off my 6:30am weekday alarm until September. My husband pointed out this morning that I never get up at 6:30 anyway. But that’s when I am supposed to get up, and that’s when I need to begin the process of gradually waking up and hitting snooze until it is absolutely necessary to get out of bed and start the day.
I am thankful there will be no more late passes until the fall. When Zoe and I looked at her end-of-year report card today at lunch I noticed that her teacher, or the school, or some benevolent being, didn’t even count her tardies for the fourth quarter, which were numerous. Only some of them were her fault. A few were mine. Many were caused by her brother needing to poop at the precise moment we’re walking out the door. Now he can poop any time of the morning that he pleases, because who cares if you’re late to camp?
Speaking of pooping, we are done with diapers! This feels miraculous to me, a day I was never quite sure would arrive. I discovered with Zeke that having a kid potty train when he has a fully functioning bladder is not so bad. I have a greater appreciation for Zoe’s years of struggle with a recalcitrant bladder and immense gratitude that it went so smoothly for Zeke. Now all we have to do every morning is pick out which superhero underwear he wants to wear. Tonight we discussed whether Superman wears underwear with little pictures of Zeke on it. He said Superman’s underwear also has pictures of Zoe and me on it. I guess that makes sense, since some of Zeke’s underwear has Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. So when Amazon delivers underwear to Metropolis, perhaps it’s the Rosso Family variety pack.
After Zoe and I and a few hundred students and parents from her school watched all the teachers and staff do their song and dance numbers after dismissal, one of my favorite traditions at Zoe’s school, we went out to eat so I could have lunch and Zoe could have pie while we pored over the last day contents of her backpack, including several more items that her teacher gave away to the kids so she wouldn’t have to pack them up today because the school renovation starts Monday. Zoe already came home bearing a dictionary, an atlas, and several other books she was thrilled to have “won” in class. Her teacher is quite clever.
Then at Zoe’s suggestion we went to a paint-your-own-pottery studio and made mosaics, which we had never done there before. We had a lovely, meditative time together, which we always do when we make art. She also painted a bowl. They sent us home with grouting kits to use to finish the mosaics in 48 hours when the glue dries. I have never grouted before. Exciting!
Finally, I am thankful that the three of us enjoyed an unprecedentedly peaceful dinner tonight at Silver Diner, which I allowed Zoe to choose in celebration of the last day of school and her great report card. We went after her martial arts class, and after I let the kids run around the turf room at martial arts fighting with swords made of pool noodles, and after Zeke totally averted a tantrum on his own when Zoe handed him a plain noodle instead of one with Superman duct tape on it, and after we talked with Zoe’s instructor about what’s required of her to earn her red solid belt at the end of the summer, and after we got snow cones (blue raspberry, cherry, and grape for Zoe; pineapple and strawberry for Zeke and me to share) from the truck in the Evolve All parking lot because I had promised the kids last week we would get them tonight. So really you can see we went to dinner quite late and given all that I fully expected any or all of us to meltdown, but we didn’t! Everyone ate all of their food. Zoe discovered she liked asparagus after eating it accidentally thinking it was green beans. We even got milkshakes (yes, I was super indulgent today–whatever) and the waitress brought Zeke a strawberry instead of a chocolate but he decided he liked it anyway–another chance for a tantrum that didn’t happen! We listened and sang along to Hamilton at top volume in the car on the way
home, showered, and no one argued about anything. Zeke asked me to sing “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Helpless” in the shower but I couldn’t remember all the words, even though we’ve listened to it a gazillion times.
Seriously, this is all true. I know it sounds extraordinary. I didn’t yell at anyone all day. The kids didn’t fight. It was awesome. Of course now Zoe comes in and says she feels ill, which is probably because I let her have so many treats today. So, perhaps my fault. But otherwise it was such a lovely, peaceful day. You really need one of those every now and then.
We told Zoe she was getting an extra-long Christmas vacation because she’d been doing such a good job at school. What else are you supposed to say to your three-year-old when she’s been suspended from school for a month because of having too many potty accidents?
This explanation was my mom’s idea. She was thinking more clearly than I was during the panicky and maddening hours after I was called into the principal’s office and told my daughter “had had enough chances” to master her tiny bladder and that removing her from school for several weeks was the only solution.
This happened on a Monday morning after I had dropped Zoe off in her classroom. The previous Friday the principal had escorted us out of the building, while promising she would continue to work with us to help Zoe reduce accidents in the classroom. That week I had agreed (against my better judgment but hoping to placate the principal) to come into the classroom whenever Zoe had an accident. The principal said my doing that would demonstrate my and my husband’s commitment to working with the school on this issue. I complied with her request and of course Zoe was completely confused and the classroom totally disrupted both times when I arrived. Of course Zoe wanted to go home, so I took her home rather than cause a scene that would further interfere with her classmates’ activities and the teacher’s ability to teach. I worried that Zoe would think she was either being punished or rewarded because of the accidents.
Throughout this saga we’ve done our best to shield Zoe from the school system’s opinion that something is wrong with her because she has accidents. I’m sure she’s overheard me talking about it on occasion, but she seems to be ok. She’s perceptive, though, and knows there’s been anxiety around the subject. At a friend’s house over Christmas she had an accident. While we were in the bathroom afterward so she could change clothes, she said “You’re not mad at me, are you? You know I’m trying as hard as I can, right?” My heart was breaking. Of course I know she’s trying as hard as she can. Perhaps I didn’t at first, but now I do.
What’s ironic is that my husband and I were so determined to get her into one of our county’s popular public Montessori schools and we spent much of the spring and summer strategizing and worrying about whether or not she’d get in. While we loved the small cooperative preschool she attended before, we were looking for more consistency. At two she attended preschool two mornings per week, a home-based day care two days per week, and was with her grandparents or at home the rest of the time. We thought she could benefit from more stability and that she would thrive in the Montessori setting, which encourages independent thinking and responsibility. We knew it was hard to get a spot in one of these programs, especially since two-thirds of the slots are reserved for children from low-income families, which we are not. At the same time, we couldn’t afford a private Montessori program, which can easily run upward of $10,000 per year.
During the summer we heard that a spot had opened up at one of the schools, and we were thrilled. In August, in preparation for starting school and going on vacation, we took Zoe out of day care. We had started potty training her in June, later than we had originally planned because she had eyelid surgery just after her third birthday in April and we were advised to wait eight to 12 weeks before attempting potty training because the surgery was already stressful enough.
By July she was doing great, using the toilet independently and having infrequent accidents. Although we had heard that stress can cause regression in potty training, it’s hard to remember that something as seemingly simple as changing a child’s routine can cause stress. Taking her out of day care, going on vacation, and then a death in the family (accompanied by our attending the funeral and her staying with another family member) resulted in a lot of accidents. Then in September, she started school.
During the first week of school, which was 8:30am to 3pm in a classroom with three-, four-, and five-year-olds and no rest time, Zoe had a lot of accidents. It was a big change. Academically and socially she was having a blast, but her body had a hard time keeping up. Every day when I picked her up, the teacher announced, across the room in front of Zoe and everyone else, how many accidents Zoe had. She suggested that something was wrong and instructed us to take Zoe to the pediatrician immediately. We did.
The pediatrician said Zoe was normal. She said even after potty training, kids have accidents, especially in new and stressful situations. We talked about how increased patience and decreased anxiety on our part might help her relax and improve. I struggled to get my anxiety under control in the face of the teacher’s exclamations about Zoe’s accidents. I asked the teacher to please tell me something good or interesting Zoe had done that day when I first walked in instead of focusing exclusively on bladder control.
Two weeks into school, we got a call that a spot had opened up at another school. My husband and I struggled with the decision to cause yet more disruption and possibly more potty setbacks. But we went to visit the school to make an informed decision. The new school was beautiful, with a classroom twice the size and filled with light. The new teacher seemed very easygoing. The program was housed in a sought-after elementary school with a special focus that we would be guaranteed placement in if Zoe went to preschool there. We decided to make the switch. We told the teacher about the accidents and she assured us that she’d help Zoe and it would be fine.
Even with the switch, Zoe’s number of accidents dramatically decreased. Rather than daily, she didn’t make it to the potty on time one to three times per week. During this time we were still working diligently at home to encourage her to stay dry. We employed every possible reward system. We sang and read books in the bathroom. We read to Zoe many books about kids using the potty and watched many videos. We bought a watch that you program to alarm at various intervals to remind kids to go. Zoe could go five or six days at a time without an accident. We saw improvement and were proud.
Then, suddenly, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we got a letter from the principal saying that the school system’s policy stated that children who had more than three accidents in a week or one accident three weeks in a row were not potty trained and could be removed for a week or more until they were potty trained. What?
This was the first we’d heard of this policy, which we were later told was an “internal guideline,” but which was not available to the public or given to parents when children apply or enroll in the program. We scheduled a conference call with the principal and teacher to understand what was going on. The principal mentioned repeatedly during the conversation that she could remove Zoe from the program because of the number of accidents Zoe had had.
We talked to an assistant superintendent, who assured us that no one wanted to remove Zoe from school. We talked to someone in the early childhood office, which oversees the county’s preschool programs, who reiterated the policy the principal had outlined. We didn’t see how this was possible, but it was still happening to us.
In the meantime, we loved our daughter even more fiercely. She is a creative, charming, bright, and affectionate little girl. Just because her bladder control hasn’t yet been perfected does not mean that she deserved to be kicked out of a school where she was otherwise thriving, making great friends and learning a lot about herself and the world every day.
We took Zoe to the urology clinic at Children’s National Medical Center to ensure that there was no actual medical problem contributing to the accidents. The urologist said she is shocked by the number of parents who bring in their children every September for similar reasons. Their kids’ schools say they have to stop having accidents and, surprise, they can’t make their kids do it! The urologist said approximately 20% of five-year-olds have frequent accidents, years after they’ve been potty trained. The pediatrician and urologist agreed it was developmentally inappropriate to remove a child from school because of accidents.
We felt like the facts were on our side, but it didn’t matter.
Zoe stayed home for a month. We had a lovely time. We took trips, made cookies, spent a lot of time at the library, and played with Zoe’s large collection of tiny people and food items. Thankfully my parents live nearby and are happy to spend time with Zoe because I had to meet some deadlines for my business, which effectively shut down for the month. I wondered what would have happened if one of the kids in Zoe’s class whose parents work low-wage jobs had been made to stay home. Would one of those parents have had to quit his or her job?
As Christmas vacation came to an end, we started to get nervous. What would happen when Zoe returned to school? We had received acknowledgements of our letter to the school system from the superintendent and school board, but no further action. My husband’s calls to the superintendent went unreturned.
In January Zoe went back to school. Days one and two were accident-free. Day three she had an accident at naptime, which is completely out of her control. I’m sure most of the kids in the class still wear pull-ups to bed. Day four she had four accidents. I have no idea why, except maybe the stress of worrying about having accidents. She hadn’t had four accidents in a day in months. I asked her whether the teacher had said anything to her and she said the teacher’s aide had dealt with her all day, and had gotten upset at her every time it happened. I’m sure the more she worried about it the more she wasn’t able to handle it. She was so worried I would get mad. I asked her if she wanted to stay home the next day and she was jubilant.
That night and the next day I worked feverishly to find preschools with mid-year openings. As it happened, the lovely co-op preschool where she used to go had a spot in the three-year-old class. We took it. We told Zoe we wanted to find a preschool where they didn’t get mad at her for having accidents because we knew she was doing the best she could. She accepted that. We visited the school so she could see her new classroom and meet the teacher (whose daughter was in her two-year-old class, so Zoe was already comfortable with her). She immediately started playing and said “I’m fine here, Mommy, you can go out now.”
Everyone at the co-op has been delighted to welcome us back. The community is supportive and nurturing and understanding of early childhood biological development. Every preschool director, teacher, and parent I’ve talked to about this has been shocked by what happened and how we were treated. So were we.
The process of potty training my daughter possesses surprising similarities to how I felt about sex when I was in high school. I had always known what sex was, thanks to a book my parents gave me when I was eight called Where Did I Come From? There was no mystery there. What I didn’t understand, until embarrassingly late in the game, was all the other stuff that happens before you get to the baby-making stage. In much the same way, I’ve always known that potty training is the transition from diapers to underwear, and there are bound to be accidents along the way, but I never knew (until now) what happens in between. I’m beginning to feel initiated.
What happens in between seems to be, like sex, different for everyone. I’m a consummate collector of other parents’ tips and tricks and in recent weeks I’ve learned that some kids get it in three days while for others it takes three months. I’ve learned that, continuing the analogy, there are many, many techniques and it’s hard to tell what might work for you until you try it. What works for Zoe seems to be many, many stickers and many, many presents. Zoe may be a three-year-old incarnation of the Material Girl, without the backup dancers.
In theory, we’ve been potty training for over a year now. When she turned two Zoe started exhibiting all the readiness signs I had read and heard about. We bought a little potty seat and a potty ring (the kind you put on top of the regular toilet so the child doesn’t fall in) for our house and for Fuzzy and Poppy’s house. We switched to pull-ups (basically expensive diapers shaped like underwear that children can hypothetically take on and off themselves). We started encouraging Zoe to go potty before bed. She was enthusiastic and willing. I thought maybe that would be it. I had heard legends of children who decide on their birthday that they’re too old for diapers and quit cold turkey. Ha. Not Zoe.
So for a year the potties in our house were primarily recreational. Zoe peed in them when she felt like it, mostly at bedtime or if one of her parents was using the toilet as well. But mostly she used her diapers. And we didn’t push it, having heard that forcing potty training is guaranteed to permanently traumatize you and your child. Then, as we approached Zoe’s third birthday, we thought we should get serious.
The month prior to her birthday, I took a potty training workshop. I sat there in a room with dozens of other parents of children ages two to four who were trying to figure out how to start, how to make progress, or how to finish getting their kids out of diapers. I felt reassured that we weren’t the only parents whose child had not magically trained herself. I took copious notes. Then the instructor mentioned that ideally you should keep major life changes (like potty training) eight to 12 weeks apart for kids. Zoe was scheduled to have eye surgery two weeks after her birthday. I didn’t want to overwhelm Zoe with stress, for sure, but I also couldn’t stand the thought of waiting until summer to tackle this daunting challenge. The instructor said we could introduce some of the concepts, but not to force the issue. We decided to be low-key.
So for a few weeks we talked potty a lot. We told Zoe she was the only person who knew when she needed to go to the bathroom, and we couldn’t figure that out for her. We discussed the virtues of underwear and the downside of diapers. The moment she turned three Zoe started referring to herself as a big kid and started asking questions like “what did I used to do when I was a little kid.” So we seized on that, talking about how big kids use the potty and wear underwear. And it worked. A little.
She increased her use of the potty, and begged to wear underwear. But she would pee in her underwear moments after she put it on, and didn’t seem to notice, or be bothered by it. Not so good. The biggest challenge was that she couldn’t be bothered to interrupt her playing to use the bathroom. Playing was her priority, understandably. We realized she had to make the switch in her head that it was more uncomfortable to wear a dirty diaper than it was inconvenient to take a potty break.
We laid off for a while, until summer. We supplied Fuzzy and Poppy and Zoe’s day care provider with many extra outfits and many pairs of underwear. We started putting Zoe on the potty a couple times an hour. We put underwear on her first thing every morning, even if it meant going through 10 pairs of underwear a day. We realized this was not going to happen in three days. We did a lot of laundry. We returned to Target a few times to buy more underwear. In case you were wondering, the fashionable varieties currently available include Elmo, Hello Kitty, Dora, and Tinkerbell. And apparently there are several Tinkerbells of different ethnic backgrounds, which I don’t really understand but I think is cool.
Knowing that Zoe responded extremely well to incentives (bedtime bedlam and drop-off drama had both been cured this way), we started offering a sticker for every time she went potty and her underwear was dry. At the end of the day, or after a certain amount of stickers, or after some other period of time depending on which parent was currently on watch, she got a present. This is proving to be slightly more expensive than I had anticipated. Fortunately I have a cache of treats in the closet, and I found a cool new toy store. And Zoe is extremely pleased with almost any kind of present.
At first I was worried that it would never happen. But over the past few weeks she has made amazing progress. She’s asked to use the potty at the grocery store, the library, and four times when we went to lunch with friends this week. She’s kept her underwear dry all day several days, and pooped in the potty many times. She even fell in the toilet today at my parents’ house and was extracted unscathed and held in her pee while my mom cleaned her up. Only a few pairs of underwear have had to be trashed. She’s only peed on the floor during a playdate once. My mom reported that she went to the bathroom about two dozen times today, and actually used the toilet about half of those times. But she’s definitely thinking about it, and getting it, and excited about it. Which is exciting to us. We still have work to do. Most of the time she goes it’s at our encouragement, but every day she takes more initiative. So she’ll be getting more stickers and more presents in the coming weeks. But I’m feeling confident that in September when she starts Montessori preschool she’ll be proudly sporting her stylish underwear like a big kid who can hardly remember what it was like to wear diapers. She’ll ask “did I wear diapers when I was a little kid?” And I’ll say “yes, can you believe it?”