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I never expected potty training to be so much like having a newborn

I helped my 3-year-old off the empty plastic toilet, pulled up his third pair of Thomas the Train underwear that morning and told him we could try again in a couple minutes. We were less than five steps out of the bathroom when I felt a sudden warmth on my left foot and realized that he had yet again peed himself. Willing myself not to scream, I squatted to strip him down and tried to sound convincing when I told him, “It’s fine, it was just an accident.” To make my day even more of a disaster than it already was, his twin brother chose that moment to waddle over to me and announce that he had pooped his pants. We were six days into potty training, and it was not going smoothly.

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Sensing that I was very, very close to completely losing it, I wiped both the floor and the kids down and left the boys under the watchful eye of Dora the Explorer. I headed into the bathroom to scrub out the latest in a string of sodden underwear and to try to collect myself for the day that still lay ahead.

I looked down on the bathroom floor and noticed the cat, in his old age and with terrible vision, had made a mess of the litter box — again. I grabbed the broom and went to clean it up and an epiphany hit me the same time as the smell did: I was struggling to hold myself together and not to yell at my kids for their potty accidents, but the cat’s mess didn’t bother me in the least. I thought the part of potty training that was making me miserable was the constant cleanup of all the bodily fluids, but in that moment I realized all the pee puddles and extra laundry aren’t what makes potty training so mind-numbingly frustrating.

The real reason why I was at the end of my rope with trying to teach two 3-year-olds that pee and poop go in the potty was because in spite of all the potty training books and online articles I had read in anticipation of this week’s task, I still felt like I had no clue what I was doing.

It’s hard to try to explain to a child something that comes so naturally to you. As a grown-up, I know the cues my body gives me when I need to make a pit stop. But it’s hard to describe those physical feelings to a child. My kids think every meal is called breakfast and use the phrase, “I don’t feel well,” whenever they want attention, are bored or are actually sick. How do you explain to a child with a still-developing vocabulary the nuance between a gas bubble and the actual need to go No. 2? And how on earth do you describe what pushing out poop feels like without using the word push itself? Add to the language frustrations the fact that even though everyone uses the bathroom, as adults we’re conditioned to be embarrassed of our bodily functions, and it’s no wonder parents lament teaching their kids how to use the potty.

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Constantly having to do laundry and disinfect your floors is without a doubt a huge pain, but I never realized what my friends with older kids were complaining about until it was my turn to try potty training. Parents are used to cleaning up various messes, so the additional chores that come with bathroom accidents are annoying, but not really all that different from what we already do.

The sneaky thing about potty training is how it reminds you just how much you don’t know about this whole parenting gig, making you feel like a brand-new parent all over again. When your baby is a newborn, it can be a struggle to figure out how to handle every new scenario that comes your way: how to go to the grocery store with a baby, how to eat a meal in a restaurant with a baby, even how to get yourself through a bad cold or a bout of the flu while still being responsible for a tiny infant.

With time and practice, you become more sure of yourself as a parent. You learn what works and doesn’t work for your family, and having a child becomes your new normal instead of this event that throws everything off balance. But right as you start to feel like you’re a parenting pro, that’s when potty training comes along to rock your world yet again.

Potty training your child is a lot like having a newborn again, only instead of the focus being on how to keep your baby fed and happy, now you’re worried about how to keep your preschooler fed, happy and within roughly 15 feet of a bathroom at all times. Just when you got used to your child being able to do some things for themselves, like eating or entertaining themselves for small stretches of time, you need to be constantly vigilant and present in the event of a potty emergency. It’s like those early days of parenting, complete with the wet spots that show up on your clothes, only this time it’s not spit-up.

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Newborns at least nap, giving you time to get things done around the house or take some much-needed rest yourself. My 3-year-olds view sleep as defeat, meaning I have to make some difficult decisions about how many stains I can handle on the carpet if I want to try to do something more than six steps away from them, like make lunch.

I have a newfound respect for parents who have managed to make it to the other side of the potty-training tunnel, because I realize now that what they went through involved so much more than purchasing Clorox wipes in bulk. Handling someone’s poop is naturally humbling — and so is the realization that parenting is a constantly evolving journey. I know one day my boys will learn how to use the bathroom on their own, but until then, at least there’s a secret pint of ice cream in the freezer waiting to comfort me after the kids fall asleep.

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