The socialization process on us as children is powerful. Perhaps one of the most powerful is toilet training. As a teacher, I discovered that there lay in nearly all children deep dark secrets relating to failures in their early attempts to control their bladders.
Parents are often anxious and put great effort into toilet training their children. Often they start long before the child is able to recognize the signs of a full bladder, and before they are able to exercise some control. This pre-conditions the child to intense feelings of shame and guilt about their bodily functions of elimination. Failure is long remembered and closed off in the depths of our psyche labelled, “I’m not ever telling anyone about that.”
My father was a general practitioner in the days before health centres. He ran a clinic for his new mothers. His advice was to hold the baby over the potty regularly after feeding from six weeks of age, and of course, my mother followed his advice religiously. As a toddler, I can remember sitting for ages until I had produced something. My understanding then was that I was just waiting for something to happen. I would slide on my potty all over the house to pass the time. It never occurred to me that there was some leeway for negotiation.
I was six and very shy when I started school. It was difficult for me to ask the teacher for anything in front of the class. It would show that I was either not listening, or didn’t understand when everybody else did. We were all told that if we went to the toilet at recess and lunchtime, we would not need to go in school time.
One day I found myself with an urgent need to go to the toilet sometime after lunch. I could not bear to raise my hand and ask the teacher if could leave the room. So, I just held on for dear life. It became unmanageable, so I slowly let go believing it would be mopped up by my clothes, nothing would show and nobody would notice. It didn’t work. A yellow puddle formed under my chair and the teacher came and removed me from the room. I was given a dry pair of pants and told to change. Nobody said anything more, either at home or at school, nevertheless, I carried an intense feeling of shame over my public disgrace for years.
One summer holidays, I was camping with my teenage children and another family and down at Port Campbell. We wanted to ask our way on to a crayfish boat to see them haul in the craypots. The fisherman looked at us quizzically and said, “Yeah OK. There’s not much t’see. We leave ‘ere at 4 in the mornin’ – back round noon.”
We ate our Weeties, skipped the coffee, and arrived well on time. It was pitch black. We left the port and headed out into deep black water. The seas were high, and the boat pitched and rolled as the three men pulled up the craypots. The waves washed right across the deck and we were soaked from the waist down. You couldn’t walk anywhere without hanging onto the rails. All the others spent the entire trip leaning over the side being sick. There was no cabin for retreat, no seats and certainly no toilet. The male crew had no problem with that.
Inevitably, the time came when I needed to go to the toilet. I sat firmly on a Hessian sack of something and just hung on…but there were at least two hours to go. Eventually, like the six-year-old child all those years ago, I decided to just slowly let go. The waves just kept washing over me from the waist down, and no one was any the wiser.
As we tied up at the pier, the other mother, looking very pale and shaky, staggered off. “Thanks… although I’m not sure for what,” she said to the crew.
Afterwards, my first instinct was not to tell anyone, but I’m glad to say it didn’t last, because with the telling the bad feelings dissipate.
Some years later, when I was teaching grades 2 and 3, I came across a wonderful story about a very shy, young Jewish girl who wet the floor on her first day at school amongst the alien gentiles. She was intensely ashamed and fled home. The story was beautifully told with great compassion for the child. Although it was written for adults, I decided to read it to my class and ask them to write a story about an experience of their own.
The children did not stir. They listened intently. I talked to them about the feelings we have about such incidents and how difficult it is to tell anyone, and yet it’s not really such a big deal. When I told them my story and asked them to write one of their own, there was a strained silence, then a few submerged giggles. Nothing happened.
So, I asked them to pair up with a friend with whom they felt ‘safe’ and tell them their story. This gave them a chance to rehearse what they might say and run it past someone else for approval. Nearly every child wrote a story. Slowly the children began to thaw, and I could see that it had been a cathartic experience.
Many years later, my granddaughter, Alice, who was in Prep, was too busy and involved in some school activity to take time out to go to the toilet. She wet the floor. The teacher handled it graciously, without fuss, but her mother was concerned that this might be a mark against her with the other children. Consequently I told Alice my story.
The next day at school, Alice stood up in front of the class for ‘Show and Tell’ and told the class how her Gran had wet the floor when she was at school. I don’t really mind being the sacrificial lamb because it helped Alice to move on…but I avoided the school for a while.
I wonder, as I approach old age, and possibly incontinence, if these feelings of intense shame and guilt will surface again.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem