Lessons learned
in a public toilet

by Melanie O'Connell


I’ve come to realise that the greatest lessons we learn in life are usually the ones that creep up on us. We find ourselves in the midst of a problem or a situation and a little light bulb switches on. Suddenly, everything becomes illuminated, our minds become flooded with a sense of knowing and we begin to see more clearly.

My three-year-old daughter and I recently had one of these ‘life-lesson’ experiences.

We were exiting the public toilets at a busy local park when a nursing home bus driver approached me and asked if I could give a continence nappy to an elderly lady inside. With some hesitation I said yes and walked back inside to find her. She was certainly easy to find. The dear elderly lady was shuffling towards me with her underwear around her knobble knees and her wrinkly bottom out in the open.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” she said, over and over again.

That’s when the smell hit me. She had completely soiled herself. I made an effort to breathe through my mouth and ignore the foul odor that insulted my nostrils.

I turned around to see my daughter standing behind me, staring in shock, her mouth wide open. I asked her to stay there while I gently guided the lady back into the toilet cubicle and handed her some toilet paper. I felt out of my depth and rushed back to the bus driver to ask for help. He explained that the female bus driver had called in sick and that there was no one else to help. It was down to either me or him.

“Do you think you could clean her up and get her changed?” he pleaded with me. “I can bring you gloves.”

“Yes, I’ll be fine,” I said, feigning confidence. “I am a mum. I deal with poo every day!”

Back in the cubicle, with my daughter by my side, I began helping the elderly lady clean up. I discovered her name was Elsie. She was 94. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother and she was once young like me. Now, with her memory fading and body slowly giving in to aging, she was like a small child once again. The humiliation she felt was evident. She kept laying her head into her trembling hands and taking small, sharp breaths.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” she kept saying over and over again.

In this moment, I resolved within myself that no matter what I had to do, I would help Elsie walk back to that bus with her dignity intact and the poop out of her pants. As I gently guided her legs out of her underwear and into her nappy she said over and over again, “Thank you, oh, thank you my dear.”

I looked over at my daughter who stood there watching. Her little brow was furrowed and her eyes were full of compassion and concern. I wondered what she was thinking.

After I had her completely dressed I walked out to let the bus driver know she was okay. As I came back into the toilets I saw my daughter handing Elsie’s walking stick to her. They exchanged a smile and Elsie said, “Oh, thank you my dear.”

“I helped her Mum,” my daughter said, her eyes wide with excitement. I felt so proud of her.

Once we had waved off the nursing home bus, my daughter asked her usual string of questions: “Mum why did you help her? Why did you do that? Why couldn't she go to the toilet by herself?”

I answered as best as I could and she said, “You’re such a caring mum. You can have a sticker when you wake up.”

We can teach our children many important things like brushing their teeth, eating at the table and using their manners. But I think it’s in situations like these that children can learn the most important lessons in life.

That day my daughter learned what it was to truly care for someone, to respect the elderly, to choose to take part in an act of kindness, and restore dignity to someone in need.

It’s in doing these types of things, which I don’t do enough of, that we can also teach our children that it’s through helping others we find our place. We find purpose, a sense of belonging, of being who we were made to be.

Despite this, I am not going to start searching for more elderly bottoms to wipe anytime soon!


© Melanie O'Connell www.mummyandtheminis.blogspot.com.au

“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.

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* Gloria Steinem