Surrender, Dorothy


What a fool I was, expecting a free pass — or at least a discount — on toilet training my daughter. 

At that point I’d been a child psychologist for 15 years. At work they called me “the potty lady.” I dealt with it all, an unflappable coach who always had a change of clothes handy. I took an eight-year-old still in diapers and got him into Jockeys within a week. I cured a four-year-old of peeing only on the drapes and pooping only in the cat box. Sure, I was cocky. Who wouldn’t be? 

Also, I made my usual mistake, asking my mother how my own potty training had gone. 

“I don’t think I was involved,” my mother murmured, gazing into the distance. “I think you did it yourself.” Even as a toddler, I was that good. Keep this in mind, though: My mother is the same woman who claims not to remember my brother reaching across her to give me a black eye when we were teenagers.

About Margot: she’s dramatic. One summer, she was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: brown hair in braids, blue gingham dress, red shoes, stuffed terrier in a basket. So as soon as Margot hit her new preschool classroom, she proposed that they put on a play of which she’d be the star. And they did it. As I watched her strut to center stage and belt out the play’s final lines (“There’s no place like home”), I leaned over and asked my husband, “Who isthat girl?” 

I’ve never liked attention. But because my last name is Adams, I was always the first student called for her diploma. I’d amuse the audience by taking a convoluted route to the podium, stepping on my clothes or someone’s appendage, or otherwise dorking out. Then, I’d spend the rest of the ceremony berating myself internally. I knew Margot wasn’t going to be a Xerox of me, but I didn’t anticipate how often she’d amaze me.

“Margot was supposed to be easy,” I complained over the fence to my neighbor, Mimi, while taking out the trash. From the front room, with its Persian rug, Margot warbled a melodious, “uh-oh.”

“How bad can it be? What’s she doing?” Mimi asked.

“Yesterday when she woke up from her nap she called to me from her room, asking, ‘Mommy, do I just step over the poo-poos, or what?’ What did she think I was going to say? ‘Oh, yes, honey, that’s what Daddy and I do every morning when we wake up. Just step over them. Or you can jump if you’re feeling sporty.’”

Mimi asked in a low voice, “What sort of poop are we talking about?”

“Roly poly,” I elaborated.

“Well, at least it was solid. So easy to clean up.”

Oh, the many ways in which mothers reassure each other. I went back inside feeling better.

Margot and I had a standoff. Margot, who behaved exactly as the example children did in Azrin and Foxx’s Toilet Training in Less than a Day and was toilet trained within a few hours, reversed course after that nap. Sure, she would pee in the potty when the mood struck her, but poops could just go into the princess underwear, so that she could wear a whole coterie of different princesses per day. 

By the third day, I leveled with her: “Margot, you must not be ready to keep these underwear dry. You let me know when you’re ready to try again.” We put the princess underwear away, Margot giving them a sad little wave as we closed the drawer. After I helped her back into a diaper she seemed satisfied, though, as if she’d made some kind of headway.

A month after the initial toilet-training attempt, Margot appeared in the kitchen wearing Rapunzel underwear, and we were back in business. Still, we had some high-profile accidents ahead of us. When she was three, we went to a high school performance of The Wizard of Oz. As soon as the Wizard showed up, Margot covered her eyes and peed on my lap. 

“Mommy, why did you take me to that horrible play?” she asked when we got home. “I’m only a little girl.” 

All I could do was apologize. “How is it,” I asked my husband after Margot was asleep, “that she always makes me feel like an idiot?” Instead of the benevolent coach, calmly putting my experience to good use, I’ve ended up the bewildered observer, cleaning up the mess just like everyone else.  

Child psychologists don’t have it any easier as parents. With my own child, it’s not important what I know or what I’ve done for a living. All that’s important is my role in the drama: mother. If I feel like an idiot, if Margot feels like she’s succeeded in spite of me and not because of me, then I’m playing my role to a tee.

For Margot, victory is sweetest after a struggle. She has to be the General, or better yet Dorothy, our plucky heroine who gets herself out of a tight spot and back to Kansas. Remember, Dorothy’s mother was dead. And Auntie Em was no help. It was the wicked witch who sent Dorothy that awful smoke signal, telling her to surrender, and it only made her fight harder.