In this episode, I share my experience with sleep training my children and I rant about the inadequacy of healthcare for mothers of large families.
This post was originally published on Vie de Cirque in March 2014
About a month ago, our family was the subject of a full-page feature in our local newspaper. This is not the first time that my little gang and I appear on the pages of a newspaper: last year, I took part in a Globe & Mail piece on the decision to stay home or return to work.
When you are the mother of a large family and you make a media appearance, you have to expect the global warming trolls to come to the party, regardless of the topic. We seem to be a looming menace: if everybody did what we did, the environmental impact would be disastrous. In theory maybe, but what about reality?
A quick glance at the literature shows that concerns over demographic decline are at least as pressing as those relating to overpopulation. Birth rates (the number of live births per thousand of population per year) and fertility rates (the average number of children born to women of childbearing years) are declining throughout the world. While many under-developed countries still show birth rates over the population renewal rate (2.1 children per women), their birth rates are in decline. Statistics suggest that the increasing world population is not caused by too many births but by an increase in life expectancy. In other words, we didn’t start breeding like rabbits; we just stopped dropping like flies. The elderly population is on the increase worldwide but the children population is decreasing steadily.
Blaming large families like ours for overpopulation discounts the fact that for countries like Canada, the fertility rate is significantly below the population renewal rate despite a handful of large families. Think about it: the fertility rate of 1.1 children per woman includes women like me. We don’t seem to be making a noticeable difference. If anything, we make demographic decline slightly less scary. I often meet funny people who enjoy telling me:
“I’m happy that there are people like you to make up for people like me.”
Except that we are outweighed: there are too many people like you for people like me to compensate.
Some will tell me that demographic decline is desirable to make-up for our poor ecological balance sheet. While it is true that resource abuse is threatening the environment, I would counter that what is killing the planet are abusive mentalities, not large families. If large families are too few to make a statistical difference in birth rates, what makes you think that there are enough of us to compromise the environment? Resource abuse and overuse happened in parallel with demographic decline. The problem is not simply how many people are killing the planet, but how they are doing it!
Our family lives in the suburbs of Ottawa in a typical wealthy suburban neighbourhood found throughout North America. Large single family homes, 4 bedrooms, double car garage. Two cars, or rather, one car and a larger vehicle such as a minivan or a SUV. The house we currently live in was designed for a family of 4 or 5 people. On my street, in houses of similar size and function, you will find mostly couples with no children or 1 or 2 children. Some are young families hoping to expand but most are older. They all live in 3 000+ sq. ft. homes built on prime agricultural land, with 2 vehicles, air conditioning and heating brought to you by some coal-fired power plant somewhere in Ontario. It doesn’t cost more to heat-up 3 000 square feet for a family of 10 than it does for a family of 2 by the way. Except that with the size of my bills, when the weather is nice I open the windows. Most of my neighbours turn-on the A/C in May and turn it off in October. And while my pile of garbage is bigger than theirs, the diesel-powered truck moves for them as much as it does for me… and their garbage pile is not one fifth of mine, although their household is. Their vehicles are never full and move at least as much as mine do. Every March Break, we stay home while most of my children’s school friends fly-off to a sunny destination. And you are shaking your accusatory finger at me?
Let me tell you what is killing the planet. It’s egotism. It’s a culture of entitlement that drives us to grab what should be ours, whether we need it or not. It’s the pursuit of “more”, not to say “too much”. Take a drive through Ottawa’s old neighbourhoods and take a look at the little brick bungalows. 2 or 3 bedrooms, no bigger than a triple car garage. Reflect on the fact that these homes were once considered family-sized, at a time where families were bigger. Today, my single family home features two bedrooms with full ensuites. Ideal for the only teen who would rather not share a toilet with his parents: your children can now sleep, socialize and shower in their very own personal wing. They don’t even need to interact while going to take a pee! Progress would be a built-in meal door. But the problem with the world is my husband, my children and I???
From my home office window, I watch the school buses go by. Every day, a well-meaning mother drives her daughter – who looks to be about 12 years-old — to the corner and picks her up at the end of the day. In Ottawa, a student cannot walk more than 500 m to get to a bus stop. If the distance between his home and the bus stop is greater than 500 m, a new bus stop is created. Throughout this very cold winter, the coldest on recent record, our attentive mother drove her daughter to and from the bus stop. The daughter never wore as much as a hat. No scarf, no mittens, not even a pair of boots. You need to understand that within a 500 m radius of my home office window, there is no low-income housing. We are not talking about a child in need; we are talking about a child who cannot walk 500 m (probably less) in the winter because it is “too cold”. And it’s too cold by choice. That’s the kind of choice, made every day, multiplied by millions of us, over our lifetime that brought planet earth to her knees. Not a handful of large families.
Yes, we use too much electricity, we drive too often and we wear too many clothes. We gather so much that we must build air-conditioned condos for our stuff. Not only have we covered our prime agricultural land with asphalt, we now build apartments for our stuff! We got there while our population was decreasing. Could you be looking for a culprit at the wrong place?
As for me and my husband, we will keep having children and raising them to become responsible citizens. I don’t know if we will succeed: the social forces pushing us toward overconsumption and self-centeredness are strong. But I believe that we have a better chance of succeeding because a large family is an incubator for the values that we hope to pass-on to our children. You should be happy: they will be paying for your adult diapers and performing your hip replacement surgeries for the next 60 years.
I posted a reply about potty training on a local parenting group. As I was writing it, it occurred to me that I had already given the same advice on the same group page. And elsewhere. Many, many, times. In fact, if I had a dime every time someone asked me for potty training advice and I answered, I would be a millionaire. In fact, I would be a “Parenting Expert”. Heck, by now I may even be on Oprah… Or whatever show people are on these days.
Maybe you came to that post through Google. Maybe you did a Google search about “potty training advice” and the robots lead you here. And maybe right now, you are expecting me to tell you how I trained my kids in 3 days with no accident. Maybe you are expecting to read on how to train your kid in 3 days with no accident. Presumably, and unfortunately, you’ve been trying for 3 months with no success and you are desperately looking for the magic word, the key to unlock your child’s underwear potential. This post may disappoint you.
Because I am not going to tell you how to train your child, even though several of my 6 potty-trained children trained in (almost) 3 days without (barely any) accident. Nope. In this post, I will tell you how to train yourself so your child can train herself.
(I feel like I should add that this post applies to children and parents who do not have any physical or mental illnesses that could undermine the potty training process. But we knew that, right? Goes without saying.)
Whenever parents write to me for potty training advice, their story comes in variations of:
– We started potty training. It worked at first, and then we had a setback (new baby, travel, illness etc.).
– We started potty training and it never worked.
Now potty training is a scene right out of a horror movie. There is screaming, crying and threatening and that’s saying nothing about the child. There is hiding in a closet to poop or pee, and when not hiding there is laughing while soiling pants in front of the parents. Poop and pee is either coming out in inappropriate places, undies being the least of it, or has completely stopped coming out. There is suffering the complications of retained fluids and feces: bladder infections, anal injuries, severe constipation. The relationship with the child is going down the drain (pun intended). Every week brings a new gimmick, a new approach, a new potty training miracle method. Parents and child go through positive reinforcement, threats, punishments, rewards, stickers, Smarties, in short cycles of emotionally charged back-and-forth.
STOP. IT’S NOT WORKING. STOP, PLEASE.
There are a few important principles of potty training that need to be well-understood before success can be achieved. Accepting them may not lead your child to toilet reliability overnight but it will save your sanity and prevent any long term physical and emotional damage in your child’s toilet parts.
Principle 1 : You cannot use the toilet for your child and you cannot make your child poop or pee. This may sound so obvious, but this is where most parents bite the dust and stay down. Potty training may be the first time parents have no control over what their child does or decides not to do. Your children’s sphincters are completely out of your reach. The interaction between your child’s brain and her sphincter is ever farther out of your reach.
When parents ask me for potty training advice, I often feel like they are asking me “How can I control my child’s sphincters?” You can’t, you never will. None of us who have achieved early potty training success have done so because we could control our child’s bowel/bladder function. We did because our children were willing, able and receptive to potty training.
If you feel like potty training is a loss of control and you are grasping for a way to retain control; if you feel like you are caught in a battle of wills with your child over potty training, stop. Put your child back in diapers and start again when you accept that this matter is out of your hands.
Principle 2: There is a difference between normal potty behaviour and abnormal potty behaviour. Don’t ignore abnormal potty behaviour. When emotions run high, it is too easy to lose perspective. Toddler is stubborn: normal. Toddler is defiant: normal. Toddler screams in pain when using the toilet or holds back urine for days: not normal!! Too often, I get potty training stories that include all of the above in one sentence. Whoahhhh… If your child sounds like she’s delivering triplets, maybe it’s time to back off and let her body heal. Put your child back in diapers until her bodily functions run normally and you learn the difference between stubborn and severely constipated.
Principle 3: Using sphincters won’t happen if pain is the outcome. Toddler soils his pants; he gets a clean-up in the cold shower. That’ll teach him, right? Wrong! A cold shower was the outcome of using his sphincters. You are holding baby on the potty until she pees. She screams, you get mad, eventually you win. Right? Nope. She now associates using the potty with intense frustration and anger. Toddler poops in the closet so he gets a spanking. He was willfully defiant and you had to act. Fine. But now he associates pooping with a spanking. Don’t make pain the outcome of using the sphincters. There is two kinds of response to bowel/bladder movement: the positive response and the no response. Don’t allow pain or shame to become part of the pottying equation: remember Principle 1.
Principle 4: You potty trained a long time ago; you are conditioned to pee and poop in the toilet. Your frustration comes in part from not understanding why something so simple can be so complicated. Sit, pee, done. Right? Wrong! Deconstructing peeing and pooping really helped me understand why my child was struggling. Since birth, your child has never held a pee. He doesn’t associate the sensation of holding pee with the need to go. He doesn’t associate the need to go with the need to hold it. He doesn’t associate the need to hold it with the need to hold it long enough to find a toilet. Once he’s learned to hold it, he needs to learn to let it go, which is not the same as just going in a diaper. Then he needs to learn to let it all go and recognize the sensation of an empty bladder. It’s not that simple, it is difficult, and you getting mad only add an emotional component where one shouldn’t be.
Until you understand these principles, put your child in diapers and don’t meddle with her healthy body. Don’t allow potty training to become a battle of will: this is your responsibility. Once you have accepted those 4 principles, write to me, I’ll tell you how I potty trained my children. It may not have taken 3 days; it may not have been accident-free. But we never cried, never screamed, and only got mildly constipated.