How to Potty Train in a Million Easy Steps

I thought we’d finished the potty training cycle. Diapers to pullups to training pants to underwear to “Hooray!” and an extra forty bucks a month in my checking account.

Turns out there’s one more stage. At least for me. It’s the stage where I learn to let my six year old son use the men’s room.

A week ago we were at the Bob’s Red Mill off the Milwaukie Expressway. After picking up bulk Scottish oats and a grilled cheese lunch, we headed to the restroom.

To put it mildly, I spend a lot of time with my son and daughter. I have spent six years making sure my son is within sight of me or a cadre of educational professionals. So there has not been a time during those six years when I’ve taken my son to a public spot that I was not allowed to enter and that I had not seen the inside of and said to him: Go. Leave me.

Honestly, I had started to think the group-potty-break days were numbered. Yes, I had started to notice he looked a little, well, large in the women’s room when he’s not even tall. But given the choice between taking him with me and having him out of my sight with men with their knickers down, well what would you choose?

At Bob’s I think I’m taking a leap forward by having my son go in the stall next to me and my daughter. There are just the two stalls and there is no one else in here, so why not spread out? Here’s why. As will happen in women’s restrooms, in the time it takes to chew a Chiclet a line has formed. It’s out the door. Another thing you should know is this restroom is the size of our bathroom at home only with fifteen more people in it.

My daughter and I wash our hands as an elderly lady with a cane takes over our stall and a dozen set of eyes pin their hopes on my son’s stall. And it is at this time that my ever-pumped-on-life son sings out, “Hey, Mom!”

“Yes, honey,” I say, trying at once to imply the steadfastness of my love and the gentle suggestion that he, for the present time, hurry the hell up.

“What’s your favorite Star Wars character?” he says. “Mine’s Darth Maul.”

I smile at the ladies. I’m probably kind of hoping someone might think this is cute, but no one seems to. Darth Maul is not exactly an oxytocin releaser.

And here in the women’s restroom at Bob’s Red Mill–where my son had without prompting thanked the server for refilling his water–it hits me: he’s too old for this.

Is he?

A 12 year old in New York was molested in the bathroom while his grandmother waited outside. I remember from childhood, a friend’s little brothers were in the restroom at Clackamas Town Center when a man came toward them with his penis out. (Her youngest brother, in a move that surprised no one who knew him, screamed his bloody head off and the man ran away.)

I’m not going to take my 12 year old in the restroom with me. And not ten. Or eight. But seven? I’m not so resolute. What about six and three-quarters? Six and four months?

I look for answers online but find the all-too-common commenters planted in their camps and damn the other side. Mothers who say, my child used the restroom alone at two and a half and if your child is too scared it’s your own damn fault for making him anxious. Mothers who say, well I’m taking my fifteen year old in with me and if you have a problem tough titties.

I’ve been in restrooms where I came out of a stall startled to see an older boy in with his mom. I didn’t hold it against his mom, but it was surprising. And I know kids are ready to do things alone at different times not because their mothers ruined them in some way, but because kids are different.

Two days later we’re in New Seasons grocery store in our neighborhood, a place I’ve been with the kids oh, roughly, infinity times. We’re in aisle one. On one side are the organic kale chips and cheddar bunnies. On the other side, the bulk foods, where I’m refilling the spices my children used last month out in the driveway when they were inventing a new power source.

My son looks up and says he needs to go to the bathroom. It’s fifteen yards away, at the end of the aisle, I can see the two doors from here, one on the right, one on the left, each opening to a little room with one toilet. Without looking my son could tell me the color of the walls. It feels like it’s time.

The thing I remember about potty training my kids was how one day I would think we had this thing in the bag, and the next I would be on my knees scrubbing urine out of the loveseat wondering why I’d gone to grad school.

“Okay,” I tell my son.  “Go ahead and go and I’ll be here watching.”

“I want you to come,” he says. But it’s half-hearted. Two weeks ago at the Milk Carton Boat Races while I watched with eagle eyes he left our seat in the bleachers, snacked through a crowd of grown ups to the Darigold tent with the free chocolate milk samples and brought back one for him, one for his sister, two straws and a napkin. Proud as a peacock. Calm as a cuke.

“I’ll be right here,” I say. I hate it when I sound convincing about something I’m not convinced about.

I watch him walk down the aisle in his navy Nike sweatpants and dragon T-shirt, getting farther and farther away. He turns the handle and pushes and the heavy wooden door doesn’t budge. He looks back at me. I gesture the international sign for “push it” and also say “push it” out loud in case he doesn’t understand the sign language. He pushes with both hands, feet braced. He’s diagonal. The door opens and he goes in. He is forty feet away. Tops.

Nevertheless, he’s gone. I try to think of the last time we were in public and I couldn’t see him. But this is good. It’s a wash of relief. My four year old is in the cart, looking at family pictures on my phone, narrating each scene to herself. Self-propelled language development. I am, in a sense, alone. I feel like it’s a little glimpse into the future, when the kids will need us less. When my husband and I will drink coffee in the morning and discuss great books. In just a few short years, perhaps, a family service project in the Dominican Republic.

I measure spices into little bags. Cumin. Allspice. Ground mustard. With two kids dancing around me, this would take five hours. Maybe I’ve forgotten how efficiency feels.

Turmeric. Tarragon. How long has it been? I should have looked at my watch when he went in. Sesame seeds. Why is he taking so long? Did he come out when I wasn’t looking and is now looking for me on another aisle? Should I check the other aisles? But what if he hasn’t come out and then I won’t be where I promised I would be and he’ll grow up not trusting women.

When I run out of semi-rational questions, I start the next tier. Like, when I was engrossed in Hungarian paprika, dreaming of the stupid future, did someone else go in? Maybe my son forgot to lock the door. Then I realize this is totally silly because obviously what happened is someone was already in there. Waiting for some mother to send her son who just six short years ago was a helpless newborn I might add into the restroom alone. The restroom which it dawns on me is right next to the delivery entrance, which leads out into the parking lot, where the getaway car is idling.

Adrenalin spills over the place where sense used to be. I wheel the cart down the aisle. Just moments ago, the store looked friendly and restful. Now the shelves slant inward like capitalistic skyscrapers. The colors are sharp but bleached, like someone Instagrammed them. The smiling staff people now squint like they’re smoking in the cold. I take one-quarter of a breath and knock on the restroom door.



“You doing okay?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says.

Is the kidnapper making him say he’s okay? “You about done?” I say.

“Just washing my hands.” I strain to see if I hear a note of distress but all I hear is water and then the paper towel dispenser.

The thock of the door unlocking is like the thock of a cold can of soda on a 100 degree day.

My little man comes out. He looks so small compared to the tall, tall door. And yes, dear reader, I am the weirdest person on the planet because as my son walks out, with the posture of a son whose mother finds him competent and capable, I peek behind the door.

As of this writing, we still need marjoram, curry powder and kosher salt. Because the potty-solo experiment, I didn’t stop shopping, but I was done with aisle one. Aisle one got too long. Or it had the wrong things. Chips and pretzels and things that sound good, but after you eat them you wish you hadn’t. I don’t know. All I know is my son was gone for five minutes and I was only ready for two. Like I said, with potty training there are bad days and good days. Days you think, I will never get the hang of this, and days when you are so, so close.