Published on Texas Monthly
The training potty, pink with a white-colored seat, has sat unused in the corner of our bedroom for a couple of years. I don’t remember if we bought the toilet, which has a silver handle that makes a flushing sound when pressed. I can’t recall if it was a gift, either. Sometimes when you have a child, especially if they’re an only child, you suddenly end up with things: Teddy bears and dolls, some of them even handmade. Toys, books, and puzzles with some of their pieces forever lost. Clothes and shoes, both hand-me-downs and new. My daughter Adela, who turns three in late May, has everything she needs. We’ve been fortunate that way.
Last summer, before my wife, Araceli, and I told ourselves that she was too young, we made a halfhearted attempt at potty training. Adela could say only a few words back then. We figured that as she began to talk more, potty training would be easier. Over the Christmas holidays, we gave it another unenthusiastic try that ended with her wearing pull-up diapers. Frankly, with everything that happens during holidays, we wanted to avoid the stress that comes from potty training. Adela wearing pull-up diapers felt like a good compromise, like we’d at least advanced past regular diapers. But if a child isn’t potty trained, those pull-up diapers serve the same purpose as the regular ones. Still, the act of buying them instead of regular diapers felt like progress. It felt like tangible proof of her growth, which isn’t easy to see when you’re there every day.
All of it felt like one of those parenting milestones you read about—the ones that you’ll presumably never forget when you reach them. I remember the first time our daughter stood on her feet without any help. How she looked unsteady, and how we had to force ourselves not to reach out and keep her from falling. She fell backward anyway, then landed on her butt and smiled. We picked her up, hugged her, and smiled back at her. I remember the first time she drank out of a cup. The first time she stopped using a high chair. The first time she said “daddy” and “mommy” and “I love you.” I remember the first time I took her to daycare. And even though she barely understood, I remember telling her it would just be a few hours away from us, and that mommy and daddy weren’t abandoning her. I told her we’d all be together again by early afternoon.
When it became clear in recent weeks we’d be at our home in Arlington for the foreseeable future while quarantining—weeks at least, and potentially months—we decided that rather than wait until summer, it was time to fully commit to potty training. My wife and I would take turns making our daughter sit on the toilet.
Everything went smoothly the first day. It was March 20, the seventh day of our quarantine, and eight days after the United States declared a national emergency. My daughter wore underwear throughout that first day—she didn’t need the pull-ups anymore. She noticed something was different, but didn’t complain. And as she’d sit on the training potty, we’d read a short book about Elmo doing the same. She’d laugh and turn the pages, and just as Elmo did at the end of the book, we’d finish and then wash our hands.
For me, parenthood involves a constant emotional calibration: I oscillate between thinking I’m either doing great or doing it all horribly wrong. Some days, like on that first day of potty training, it’s easy to feel like the difficulty of parenting gets overstated. But other times, like on the second day of potty training when we went through about six pairs of underwear, raising a child is completely overwhelming. On those days, it feels as if we’ll never teach our daughter the most basic requirements of living as a person in the world. On those days, I worry she’ll never be able to understand.
My wife talks to my daughter in English. I speak to her in Spanish, in an attempt to raise her as bilingual and so she can communicate with my side of the family. Everything I tell Adela—from the name of fruits, to simply telling her to put on her shoes—is in Spanish. My daughter is talking more and more every day. Her words and sentences sound clearer, and she’s beginning to communicate her emotions. Sometimes she’ll watch movies like Monsters, Inc. and say, “I’m scared.” Sometimes, because of that same movie, she’ll say, “hey Daddy,” to get my attention. She then roars like a monster with her innocent voice. I, of course, pretend that I’m scared.
She says all of this in English. I’m often concerned that as she’s learning to speak, I—by talking to her only in Spanish—am just making things more difficult. Potty training has exacerbated that concern. I worry that me asking “quieres ir al baño?” or simply saying, “avísame si te anda,” is making things worse, even though she understands every other thing I tell her. I think that might have been why the third, fourth, and fifth days of potty training felt like we were taking two steps forward and then one step back. I think that might have been why our sixth day of potty training was disastrous.
That day—March 26, just two days after our local officials in Tarrant County issued a shelter-in-place order, and the day our nation surpassed all others for known cases of the virus—we went through so many pairs of underwear that we lost count. It was still morning and we had already mopped the hallway, hosed down my daughter, gave her a shower, and started a load of laundry with our bedsheets bundled on the laundry room’s floor.
That was a bad day. Or, I should say, a bad potty-training day.
The thing about potty training during quarantine is that no matter how well or terribly it goes, it adds structure to hours that feel like days and days that stretch on like weeks. Surrounded by what seems like a constant stream of bad news—how many people across the world have died because of the virus, how our government’s inept reaction has worsened an already horrible situation, how people are dying alone, and how it feels as if the virus is getting closer and closer to where we live—potty training has become welcome distraction.
Inside of our humble home, progress doesn’t get measured by how much the curve is peaking or being flattened. In our little world here, a ten-hour drive from our parents and Adela’s grandparents in El Paso, progress gets measured by how many times a day my daughter says “poop” with enough time for us to react. When we make it to the bathroom in time—as we’ve done more and more with each passing day—we wipe, flush, wash our hands, and sing a song. We cheer. We high-five each other at the center of the universe. My daughter’s tiny hands look and feel especially delicate during these moments.
In that joyful instance, when we’re building something beautiful while the entire world feels as if it’s standing still—and perhaps even going backward—my wife looks especially happy. At that moment, I almost forget she’s had trouble sleeping lately.
She often tells me she worries someone will try to break into our house. She tells me of a nightmare where someone tries to take our daughter. She tells me this, at night, when our daughter is peacefully sleeping between us in bed. When she tells me this, we lie in the quiet darkness. Sometimes the quiet makes you think of dark things you’d best ignore. I take comfort in hearing Araceli’s voice in that darkness. I tell her we’re fine. When I say this, I pretend that I’m not scared.