A Tale of Unsuccessful Potty Training

Emily Barbero by Emily Barbero Additional Needs

Emily Barbero

Emily Barbero

Due to traffic, the drive took me five times longer than usual.

Slow and steady finally got us to the hospital campus.  I parked, turned the car off, and sighed triumphantly.

My toddler cheered from the backseat.  "You did it!"

I giggled. I guess I did.

I carried our nearly 40-pound child into the clinic.  A mitten dropped as we pushed through the revolving door, and I swear we almost died as I bent down to pick it up while continuing to walk forward -- all while he was making the, "Wheels Go Round", hand motions for, "The Wheels On The Bus."

I ran down the hallway (it was more of a shuffle-hop-shuffle-sprint).

An elderly woman tried not to stare at the sloppy commotion, my son already bellowing for his post-appointment sucker.

I watched her steal glances over the top of her Southern Living magazine.

Something about her awkward grimace told me that she probably had once upon a time done this much more gracefully with four children, two in cloth diapers, with a perfect pompadour hairstyle to boot.

I tried to shuffle faster.

The strap of his backpack was strangling me.

I hoped we weren't so late that we'd have to reschedule, which would mean I'd have to schedule/re-schedule/schedule/re-schedule his other weekly therapy appointments.

I felt something trickle down my back, hitting the top of my jeans.


Sweat or melted snow?


My son's cup had tipped while we were running.

It was apple juice.

It was an appointment to check to see if we needed another surgery.

Once we were in a waiting room, our urologist examined him.

He did not need a third surgery.

Things were healing beautifully.

She asked me about potty training.  I stammered.

My son is three.

We first started training at about 30 months.

We started at that time because he showed signs of understanding all the fundamentals: what pee and poop are, where we go, flush and wash, how to hold it and keep underwear dry, even elephants do it, etc.

He also started removing his own diaper.

He couldn't yet undress himself, get on the toilet alone, or wipe by himself, but I was there to help him each time.

We went a full week in underwear and only two minor accidents.

I was a cocky little parent about that week of potty training.

You see, we have been delayed in pretty much every developmental milestone under the sun.

Yet here he was, wearing dry underpants.

And he wasn't yet three.

Which meant... we were on time!

I celebrated too soon.

By the end of the week, he saw past the gummy treats and train stickers.  He grew irritated by the potty dance and cheering.

He realized he could call the shots.

He was the one who said when he wanted to go and when he didn't.

I could tell him when, I could haul him into the bathroom, I could plop him up on the seat.

But he was the one who let out his stream.

So he started to hold in his pee.

He refused to go at all, diaper or potty.

He held it for hours upon hours.

One time, he passed 24 hours of holding his urine.

It was a true and total power struggle.

"So," I humbly confessed to the urologist, "he's not potty trained."

She laughed, took off her glasses.

"Listen, the train-your-kid-in-three-days is a marketing gig.  It sells books.  For some kids, it works.  That's great!  For others, it doesn't.  Your job is to be patient for when he is ready.  You have time.  Your son is delayed, and that is OK."

I realized that his potty training was less about him and all about my desire to finally check off a box on a milestone list that wasn't in the, "when you should be concerned", section.

Over the years, I suppose I've grown a bit bitter about milestones.

There's something about special needs parenting where milestones quickly lose their magical glimmer.

It gradually becomes less about celebrating and more about breath-holding.

Less about what actually happens at three and four years old and more about what we fear will still be happening at twelve years old, or twenty years old.

However, I've found that my son's preschool has a perfect group-time motto that can be applied to toilet-training: eyes are watching, ears are listening, voices quiet, bodies calm.

I listen to the opinion of trusted advisors (like our smartie-pants urologist) for when to push and when to pull back.

I watch for my son's developmental cues.

I keep myself chill and trust my intuition.

And if we're late, we're late.

Just like driving in a snowstorm, sliding on ice into the parking lot, tramping in boots (and practically falling) our way into the clinic -- looking like a crazy disheveled, sticky mess of a mom and son.

You think you're never going to make it.  People watch you as you're going down in flames, shaking their heads.

But we still did it.

And we did it together.


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