When my son's friend turned 3, we were invited to attend his birthday party. Although I gamely brought my kids to their friends' birthday parties and had parties for them, unless I was good friends with other parents there, I found these parties taxing. Not only was I shy, but I was secretly unhappily married, and I later realized after my divorce that being unhappily married makes everything harder than it would normally be. When living a lie, coming up with small talk is complicated.
The only thing that made such events more bearable for this mom was a glass of wine (something I confess more about in my book, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity). Trouble was, wine was usually not on offer alongside the birthday cake and goldfish crackers -- and it's not like I was going to BYOB. But today, the hosts had a plenitude of bottles lined up on the kitchen island with some clearly expensive crystal glasses. The dad offered me a glass and I gratefully assented.
Just then, my 3-year-old son grabbed my hand and said, "I have to go to the bathroom!" and I gratefully excused myself.
He was in the midst of potty training, which would normally mean swabbing up a lot of puddles. However, he had #1 handled. His challenge was #2. He preferred not to use the restroom for that. Sometimes, he asked me for a diaper at the crucial moment. Another time, while my friend Susie was cutting my hair in the kitchen, he ignored the little potty in favor of the kitchen tile. And even when I was able to sit beside him, coaching, he hopped on and off, holding his bottom together with both hands, distraughtly shrieking,
"No! No! I don't have to go! Put a diaper on me! No!" until he finally reached the point of no return, and collapsed on the seat.
We found the bathroom down the hallway to the right... and were instantly bombarded with images of Kokopelli.
I was used to seeing Kokopelli. The fertility symbol was a ubiquitous sight in Santa Fe and surrounding environs, but even for the Land of Enchantment, this was a bit much. There were Kokopelli sconces, a Kokopelli tissue box cozy, hand soap dispenser and a Kokopelli motif framed print. Hand towels. Soap dish. Shower curtain. His cheerful, bobbing, fertility-stoking likeness was everywhere I looked, a reinforcement of this surrendered stage of my life and of the suburban overkill of a sacred motif appropriated by Bed, Bath and Beyond. The soundtrack of that day could have been The Talking Heads' "Same as It Ever Was."
I sat Nathaniel on the big potty, but he wanted to sit on Patrick's little plastic potty, which would make cleanup more of a project. He got up. "I don't have to go." We re-entered the party. Nathaniel melted into a passing swarm of happy little screamers. But he was back soon.
"Mommy, I have to go potty," Nathaniel told me. We excused ourselves again. He got on the potty. He changed his mind and got off. I tried to coax him back on the seat but he had made up his mind. He didn't have to go.
I still had my wine glass. Despite the tempting array, every single parent, even Patrick's parents, had eschewed alcoholic beverages at an afternoon party. I felt self-conscious.
Once more to the bathroom. This time, Nathaniel went. In the small plastic potty. As I wiped out and washed the basin, I knocked over the wine glass, which toppled sideways and broke on the stone countertop. Its tulip-round bowl snapped off the slender stem and spilled red wine everywhere.
Hurriedly, I wiped up the wine with toilet paper, finished cleaning the basin, got Nathaniel's pants up, and after a second of frozen indecision, placed the two wine glass pieces in the Kokopelli litter amphora.
I knew that the birthday boy's mom would empty her litter basket sometime soon, notice the ruined wine glass, and remember that I was the only person who drank wine at her party. But that was still better than coming out of the bathroom with a broken wine glass, because I thought that everyone would assume that I was getting wasted in the bathroom, so wasted that I broke my glass, and that was too much to encounter. Especially since I had only had less than one glass of wine, most of it had spilled. But at least my son had gone to the bathroom. What a relief.
As we rejoined the party, birthday boy's mom rushed down the hallway to meet us.
"Your daughter wet her pants outside," she said crisply.
"Oh," I said. My daughter had been potty trained for three years, but she occasionally wet her pants when she was having too much fun playing.
"How old is she?" Gwendolyn asked, pseudo-solicitously.
"Five," I said.
"Ah," she said. Ah? Care to explain that ah, lady?
"C'mon, honey," I said to my slightly shamefaced, wet-pantsed girl. "Let's go get you cleaned up."
Luckily, she fit in Nathaniel's spare pair of pants. And we left right after the presents were opened.
Every parent, if they're honest, will admit that a particular stage of parenthood was especially challenging. For me, it wasn't infancy. I loved being a mom of babies and toddlers. It's certainly not grade school. I have so much fun with my 9- and 11-year olds now. I enjoy their independence, their eloquence, their impulse control.
It was hardest for me when the kids were in that in-between stage. Parents going through a tough time should realize that kids don't go through stages alone. Parents go through them too. And these stages don't last forever. But the memories will remain: the tender ones, the hilarious ones and the mortifying ones we'd rather forget.