A child standing in front of wallpaper

Your Child's Potty Issues Right Now Are A Piece Of A Much Larger Phenomenon

When this is all over, poop will loom large in our memories. You can’t see the sun rise or set from inside our apartment, where we spend 23 hours a day, so time orients itself to other cycles.

“Mummy Poopface” and “my little poops” have become terms of endearment inside our new, tinier world. The only Animoji my son wants to use in video missives to cousins is the smiling, winking pile of poo. My formerly potty-trained 3-year-old has returned to pants-pooping behind the red chair. Scroll Twitter, and you will find plenty of parents grieving over potty regressions.

Or that’s what the parents are calling them, anyway.

“I hate the word regression because oftentimes it's not a regression,” says Jamie Glowacki, author of Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right and a potty-training consultant. “There's bumps along the road of learning,” and the road just got really bumpy.

Glowacki has around 50 potty-training consultants who work for her, conducting remote coaching, and says they are all currently booked solid. “The reality is we have high anxiety right now and nobody's escaping it, whether or not your children are aware of coronavirus.”

You might think you’ve shielded your child from the stress of the pandemic, but children, like dogs, she is sorry to say, know.

“Does your dog know when you’re anxious? Do your dogs know when you're about to go on vacation even before you pull out a suitcase? Yeah they do, because they soak up nonverbal communication,” says Glowacki. “They’re experts at it because they don't speak.” Likewise, our toddlers. So some backsliding and anxiety around the potty is to be expected.

There are some basic solutions to potty-training issues, but what interests me is the bigger, theological piece of the picture. It’s weird right now. I’m reminded of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach. His first instinct is to hide. “‘Gregor? Are you all right? Do you need anything?’” ask his family from outside his bedroom door. Gregor attempts to paper over the issue, telling them, “‘I’ll be ready right away.’” Kafka writes, “He made an effort with the most careful articulation and by inserting long pauses between the individual words to remove everything remarkable from his voice.” I’m picturing myself asking my son, “Are you doing a poop?” with tension in my voice as he lies under the coffee table, knees folded up under his belly. (The reply: a high-pitched “No.”)

It’s a predicament of isolation and alienation — Gregor becomes less able to even speak in a human voice as the story goes on, and wants only to be “included once again in the circle of humanity.” How difficult to be unable to fully communicate, but find your world turned upside down when you wake up one morning. How hard to be a toddler!

As they develop an understanding of object permanence, they realize 'my poop is not me.'

Poop takes on a particular significance in Freudian theory, as Jordan Shapiro, Ph.D., author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids To Thrive In An Uncertain World, explains. The first revelation for a child is that “it's their creative product in some ways.” They make it inside themselves, and as they develop an understanding of object permanence, they realize “my poop is not me.”

Try and grasp the profundity of this notion, a child conceptualizing that “something within my body is also not mine. Like, it's not me. That's not who I am. It’s produced within me, but it's beyond my sort of tangible boundaries,” as Shapiro puts it. “I think that that's a really early stage of starting to understand who you are,” he says.

As I am talking to Shapiro, who is assistant professor of intellectual heritage at Temple University, a child poops his pants. I watch my husband executing the cleanup over the top of my laptop, like a patron sitting in a cafe watching a handbag thief wrestle an old lady out the window.

Potty-training forces children to reckon with their human selves, Shapiro says. “When I teach Freud. I often say in utero is spa day. It's just like you're in a sensory deprivation chamber. They feed you the perfect nutrients and stuff and then suddenly you have to confront this opposite” — moving from oblivious babydom to the personal autonomy and responsibility that accompany toddlerdom. “I would say that the learning to use the bathroom is part of that process,” he says.

When a child sees a turd in the potty, “it can be like a piece of them is going away,” says Glowacki. It’s a tear in the fabric of reality. “Think of how many people fear the dentist and fear anything going up their butt at the doctor,” she says. “It's like two really private cavities.”

Added to that, you have parental issues around poop, the adult sense of shame around it. This shame doesn’t occur to a small child. “When they see their own poop all they want to do is like reach down and smear it all over the walls right and and make pictures of it, you know, use it as paint,” says Shapiro, while adults like to pretend that mess doesn’t exist — in its metaphorical extreme, this denial manifests in what we term “anal retentiveness.”

We are just poop machines. We are just animals. We are just cells. We are just atoms. And so there's no meaning to anything. It's completely chaotic.

Poop presents an existential crisis where adults have to reconcile the messy realities of our bodies with our search for meaning. At a biological level, “we are just poop machines,” says Shapiro. “We are just animals. We are just cells. We are just atoms. And so there's no meaning to anything. It's completely chaotic and nothing and and all we can do is sort of create narratives and stories that allow us to make meaningful decisions in the face of our unbearable chaos.” This is, I believe, the unofficial slogan for 2020. COVID-19 is a virus that reveals a failing in our own bodies, and results in terrifying physiological symptoms. We are at once scrubbing our hands to within an inch of our epidermis, and elbows deep in the scatalogical mess of our offspring.

Back to my son, who will choose the talking poop 10 times out of 10 when filming an Animoji message, and children are working on these issues too. “They're certainly capable of crayon drawings, but they're not capable of actually reconciling the tension of being human,” says Shapiro. Instead, “they are already doing it in their own unconscious ways and that shows up in the poop [emoji].”

So, you have an existentially challenging skill set children are trying to master (pooping in the potty), plus a pandemic, plus a lack of privacy and excess of parental oversight, and it’s all a lot — enough fodder for lying on the couch being psychoanalyzed for years.

“What happens a lot of times in potty training is we put a glaring spotlight on it” says Glowacki, when it’s instinctually a private thing, and in fact that first move to poop in private is the biggest and best sign that it is time to start potty-training “tomorrow,” she says.

Which brings us back to poor Gregor. Things get brittle for a while for Gregor's family, and on the far side of the metamorphosis, his mother, father, and sister must heal over the gulf he has left, and say goodbye to his exoskeleton — flush the past away. "All three left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now," writes Kafka, as they find their way to "new dreams and good intentions."

As we all will soon.

Tips from Jamie Glowacki on handling potty issues right now:

Don't allow potty-trained children to regress. If your child starts pooping in their pants, take their pants off immediately, because that's just setting up another bad habit.

Be understanding. You want to be sympathetic to underlying anxiety with the whole pandemic, says Glowacki, but don't tell your kid that it's OK to poop their pants.

Make mastering the potty today's lesson. You can tell your child, "We're not doing ABC's today, we're getting poop in the potty."

Avoid withholding behaviors. if your child is withholding their poop, tell them you're leaving the room to get something. A lot of the time, their muscles just want privacy to release.

Previously: Poop In The Bath Tub