african american baby crying

No one told me that one of the messiest parts of parenting would happen after potty training. These days I measure love in liters…of pee. It’s a joy, really. Not really. Changing (plastic) diapers is one thing. Public places are usually equipped with changing tables; Ikea even has extra diapers for the forgetful parent. But most restaurants, shops, etc. have yet to supply their bathrooms with super absorbent towels and a spray bottle of bleach, water and ammonia. Bathroom independence is a continuum and we’re on the ran-to-the-bathroom-and-almost-made-it end. During this time, the space between a big girl and a baby can literally be a slippery slope.

Here is a quick, pseudo-scientific breakdown of daytime wetting in otherwise healthy children: The kidneys are the body’s maintenance crew, the overworked and unappreciated forces that expel toxic waste to keep us alive. The waste travels to the bladder, which presses against the urethra, nudging it to expel. The brain and the bladder can work in tandem, but it is a learned consciousness that develops (without spankings or stickers) between the ages of two and four. For little ones, accidents can happen when the body’s desire to live overrides the preoccupied mind’s commitment to decorum. Children are often enraptured by the wonder of things adults have learned to dismiss: the miracle of a floating bubble, the feel of mud between fingers, the wash of wind against the face…Little brains are sometimes too busy wrapping themselves around the important things in life to listen to the persistent bladder. This “impolite” mechanism gives me the opportunity to practice patience (key word: practice).

We worship the able body and yet are offended by its mechanisms. We hate the bacteria that gather around hair follicles to odorize sweat. We put perfumed cotton against our vaginas to stanch the smell of the shedding uterus. We use lasers to become less like mammals and more like mannequins with hair sprouting only from our heads. We want our bodies to be “civil” and “polite”—the types of bodies that belong in a swanky bookstore chain that plays elevator music as its patrons thumb through overpriced books.   

This is where we were on the occasion of our last accident. I take equal responsibility because a half hour after juice we should have been headed to the bathroom, an odd pair, one of us screaming “But I don’t have to pee” while the other avoided eyes. But we weren’t. It was an hour after juice when I approached the customer service desk to tell an attendant about our accident. His smirk and eye roll were like snowflakes in June—a frost so out of place that I wondered if I’d imagined it. I immediately pegged him for a sociopath for whom yawns were not contagious. I mentally hurled at him all the curse words my favorite women have taught me. Did he not see my daughter’s eyes? The reason they take up a full half of her face is to help adults excuse accidents like this. In him I saw the face I’d made just minutes before; I resented him for mirroring my impatience.

My parenting is in constant reform, and I want to model this current phase after the little brother who cooed “It’s okay, baby,” to my father in his last days, adjusting pillows, turning his body this way and that, spooning oatmeal into his slackened mouth. Dying is the last of the body’s embarrassments. The body’s first betrayal is the impatient bladder that won’t wait for you to finish a thought. Between the first and the last, the body has an arsenal of ways to trip us up: the many odors and secretions of puberty, the erection, the hardened nipple, the bleeding nose, the mess of birth, the hemorrhoids that follow, the graying, thinning hair, the waning (or waxing) sex drive, the fragile bones, the swollen joints, the bent back, the diagnosis of the war your body has waged against itself. But seeing my father’s disappointment in a body that was doing the last thing he wanted it to do, shut down, my brother cooed “It’s okay, baby.” His voice was my own father’s, as if he’d known that none of us were ever in full control of ourselves: we had always, from the first day to the last, depended on the kindness of others.

My own last day will come before I’m ready. Until then, I want to be grateful for every bathroom sprint (successful or not), every soaked towel, every flipped mattress, every physical or emotional “cleanup” that requires parent participation. Here is a truth: from our first meeting, my daughter has been my baby and on our last meeting, I will be hers. No one has to tell me about that part.