Friday, February 10, 2012

The Long Haul

I started potty training Oliver in February of 2009. His second birthday had been two months before, he seemed to be responsive to my attempts to sit him on the potty and, well ... he was already two months older than anyone else I'd ever potty trained before. 

While it was obvious that Oli wasn't developing at the same rate a neurotypical child would progress, the word "delayed" was still being used as a catch-all to explain his inability to function at the level that his age suggested. It was a full year into his inclusion in our family, and I was beginning to suspect that "delayed" didn't quite sum it all up. But truly, I was still in the dark and just plugging along with the notion that at some point, he'd catch up to his peers and his rough start would be nothing but a sad memory.

So I did what had worked so well in the past. I found a couple of t-shirts that skimmed his knees, put a potty seat in the bathroom, prepared myself to spend many quality hours reading children's literature in the john, and stripped his bottom half nekkid.

Right away, it was obvious that while Oli was more than willing to pee on the potty, he was also completely clueless about the fact that he should rearrange his habits to begin peeing there exclusively. Being totally up front and honest here, I'll say that this was a bit of a shock to me. I'd already trained 3 kids, and only one of them had had more than a handful of accidents once the diapers were gone. Go ahead and hate me, call me a liar, or quit following this blog, but it's true. I was pretty smug about it at the time ("Most of mine have quit having accidents after the first week. A month seems like a really long time.") but if you make it to the end of this post, you'll see that I no longer feel that sure of myself and my training prowess.

My most difficult trainee to date had been my son who had sensory issues, so I shifted to the tactics that had helped him make the connection. No more "Buck Rogers" as we call it in our house. Oli got some thin cotton undies for his bum, and I waited to see how long it would take for him to connect the dots that so clearly spelled out pee=wet, wet=uncomfortable, uncomfortable=I should have gone to the potty.

Four months later, we were still waiting. And you know, it was frustrating. I was playing by the same rules that had worked so effectively three times. Why wasn't the whole thing "taking"?

Meanwhile, Manolin crossed his first birthday marker. We started making motions to move to Nepal. Life was marching on ... and I still had a boy in diapers. 

Things began to feel tense. Oli was pooping in his underwear four and five times a day. He urinated constantly--not trickles, but full-on, I've-been-holding-this-but-now-I-will-let-it-go floods. My house started to smell like a public restroom. Worst of all, the bulk of my interactions with Oli felt like they revolved around pottying. "Are you dry?" "Do you need to go to the potty?" "Let's go read a book in the potty."

It was that fall, after 6 solid months of seeing absolutely no progress whatsoever, that I gave up. With a heaving sigh of what I'll readily admit was relief, I violated the cardinal rule that had served me so well with all of the other kids: Thou shalt not put a potty training kiddo back in diapers. Ever. Not even for an hour.

But I did it. I endured my own guilt, and later--as he hit his third and then fourth birthdays still wearing diapers--I began to endure the judgment of others. Family members hinted that if I weren't so busy with the other children, I would take the time to train him. Moms at the Y offered advice about what had worked for their difficult to train toddlers. Helpers in church childcare pointed out that he was the only one in his class not yet able to use the potty. 

Mani learned to use the potty six weeks before his second birthday. It took him three days. He had no more than three accidents during those days, and he was done. That was it. No fanfare, no drama ... just one more kiddo out of diapers.

Which was, of course, bittersweet. Because Oli was still cluelessly pottying in his dipe. And yet here was Mani--growing up and growing ahead of his big brother in so many ways.

Right around this time, I had the blessing of meeting a fellow special needs parent who was unabashedly frank with me regarding her experience in helping her children learn to use the potty. As a long-time foster parent and adoptive mom of many cognitively challenged children, she was a treasure trove of tips and comfort. There was no firm time frame, she assured me, but they had all gotten there eventually. Then she added, "I've never had a special kiddo start using the toilet before age 5, though. I don't know why, but that's just been how it is in our house."

I greedily snapped this little bit of information up to refer back to when the disapproval--or pity-- of others seemed especially hurtful. It became something of my security blanket. "He's not even 5! Let it go!" 

On December 1 f this past year, Oli hit the magic age. And like the folks waiting for the implosion that the dawning of the year 2000 was supposed to bring, Mr. Blandings and I held our breath ... then looked around, waiting for the punch line.

Because nothing happened. Nothing. If anything, Oli seemed to get worse--backtracking from pooping on the potty more often than not to actually waiting until we had installed a fresh nappy on his bum to produce an especially disgusting mess for us to change.

And then, just as we settled back in to the status quo, a light switch was thrown.

For no reason, no reason at all, Oli quit pooping in his pants. Just quit. Even better--he started to tell us that he had to go.

Now, this was news. Never, ever, in all those years of escorting him to the toilet, had he ever indicated a need. It had always been Mr. Blandings and I who were actually potty trained, and while we knew it, we figured it was better than just letting him think it was o.k. to use his pants at will. 

But now--now he was asking to go! And then doing the deed! We were ecstatic.

In January, things were looking good enough for me to venture a hope. Should I try it? Put him in underwear? Bite the bullet? With my husband as cheerleader, I did it. Miraculously, he was relatively accident-free within days. Two weeks in, and he was dry all day, every day, with only the occasional accident.

And now, after five weeks, I am proud to say that my son is finally potty trained! Oli is 5 years and two months old, and yes, he seems to be pretty proud of himself. He likes his new undies, and he's rather fond of the additional book time that he gets from mom when he rushes to sit on the potty. 

And me? Well ... I'm relieved. I'm thankful. And I'm a wiser woman. I feel bad for assuming that Oli could do something that clearly he wasn't ready for, but I'm at least happy that we're not the high-pressure trainer type parents who punish for accidents. I regret the amount of time I put into hurrying Oli along, and have nothing to show for it. But maybe there's some redemption in this story, after all. I'm not saying that all special needs kiddos will train around their fifth birthday. I'm not saying that there's one sure way to even get the job done. But I am saying that patience, perseverance, and grace go a long way to not centering your relationship with your child around something that truly is as mundane as knowing where to put your poop. Letting go of my preconceived notion of when the time was right helped to tear down the wall that I had unknowingly been building with my own hands.

 Oli trained when Oli was able. I hope I remember this when he tackles counting, or reading, or learning to swim. Oli does what he can, when he can. My job is just to be the cheerleading support system that helps him get there.


Melody said...

Beautiful post.

Fatcat said...

I was thinking about writing "beautiful post" (before I saw the one above) and then I thought, you know, it was about poop ... and so it has got to be the most beautiful post I have ever read on this subject. :-)

I'm bad at potty training, horrible. My kids were all trained at 3 1/2 ish and they are completely neurotypical.

Claire said...

Yay Oli!

Sandi said...

Go Oli!
We finally crossed this thresh hold around age 6. They do get where they are going at their own pace. Learning has been the same.

Carla said...

Thankyou for this! I also had a large amount of pride after my first two potty trained by their 2nd birthday. (My mom insisted that all five of hers were trained by then and our children should be too.) However my third was a more unique case. It took a full year of poop in underwear before it clicked! (we have discovered since that he has many traits of ASD) My youngest who is being adopted through the foster system and was exposed to all kinds of things prenatally is now nearing her 2nd birthday and the pressure is on. Thankyou for reminding me that each child (especially our special ones) develop on their own time table...not ours.

Jennifer Jo said...

I think this---learning when ready---is true of all children (and adults). Great post!

Jennifer said...

Bravo on training most of your children by age 2. I was happy when mine trained by age 3! :)

However, my first child, who has mild cerebral palsy and a learning disability, didn't potty train until she was 4. I felt like a failure because the preschool said they couldn't take her if she wasn't trained so I just stuck her in underwear & sent her off and crossed my fingers. Not the best method, I assure you.

There is a lot of patience and grace needed for these children. It's humbling and frustrating and so rewarding when they finally do catch on to things we either thought they never would or were told they never could.

Mamma Sass said...

I feel for you. It is hard and yet when the success comes it is great!!! congrats to Oli. I had a little sister who has FAS and had potty problems until she was twelve - she jsut couldn't seem to sense it. Age 5-6 was when she was officially declared Potty trained - but accidents continued until 12. The puberty for girls and the battle was one for another 4 years. It takes lots of patience and understanding for sure!

Missus Wookie said...

Another who said yep about 5 is what my sn kid needed, past by his 2 years younger sister but he didn't care. Once he started it still took ages but now (at nearly 20) thankfully I don't have to deal with anything like that anymore!

keeperofthefires said...

I loved this post and I love your heart in training your children. We just adopted a special needs child after 3 healthy biological children and it is a world of difference interacting with him. God Bless,
you can see my blog about keeping up with Michael at

Sarah said...

You are an amazing mama!