It was around the time I found myself jazzing up our toilet with a PJ Masks poster and a jaunty kids night light from Kmart, that I realised toilet training was making me a bit insane.
Even as I sent the photo of our newly decorated 'kid-friendly' loo to my mum friends (who, bless them, responded with encouraging replies and not 'WTH are you doing?) I knew this was a step too far.
I had no idea teaching a small child to wee and poo in a toilet would be this hard. Or involve so many steps, and steps backwards. I've heard of parents who advertise for someone to come in to their house and toilet train their kid, much like people advertise for a babysitter or a nanny – and I no longer think these people are crazy.
I've also heard of people who stay home in lock down and get it done in three days. This could not be further from my experience with my son.
Attempt number 1: sticker charts
Toilet training my almost four-year-old is no joke. And I say 'is' because almost 18 months since I started, we are not 100 per cent there yet. And yes, I did start trying earlier, when he was two and a half, but was met with complete resistance.
And I mean complete – my son did not care one iota for my special dinosaur sticker reward chart. He tore it off the wall in a rage one day.
Nor did he give the time of day to the small bookcase I'd moved to right outside the loo so I could sit with him and read to 'relax' him while he practised sitting on the seat. He wouldn't even go into the toilet at that point, even with a lot of coaxing, so we stopped the whole thing for a while.
Attempt number 2 (ahem): rookie errors
Then we (I) picked another date a few weeks later to try again. The weather was warmer and more appealing to have nappy-free time. I did all the things I'm supposed to do: I announced that we were getting rid of nappies in the house, there would be no more! I took my son shopping to choose himself some cute tiny underpants, he picked some Paw Patrol ones and seemed on board with the idea.
But on the day we started I made the rookie mistake of asking him around every 30 minutes if he needed a wee and I tried to lead him to the toilet in case he did.
I had no idea how many times a child might wee in a day. Turns out it's a LOT less often than you'd think. He became annoyed at my nagging and we got locked in a battle while we stayed home trying to crack this thing - him throwing tantrums and my nerves in a shred. Wees on the toilet: 0. Wees on the floor: Around 7.
After two days I stopped as the process was miserable for us both and we had made no progress. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be easy. Turns out my son has a will that rivals the Iron Lady and I did not feel at all confident about what I was doing. Not the greatest recipe for success.
I started to ask around my mother's group friends how they were going with toilet training. One of them told me about the famous 'three day method' and that her son just clicked. Oh. Another told me her daughter was doing most of her wees on the toilet but refusing to poo.
It was at the next play date when my son was the only one still wearing a nappy that I began to worry a little. What if he refused to EVER go on the toilet and was still wearing pull ups at age 8 and got teased by his classmates? What if he was the last to learn in his kindy class? I reasoned with myself that someone has to be the last to get it. But I didn't want that kid to be my son!
Another friend made me feel better by saying her son was three and a few months before he was trained. My son was just three at this point, we've got time, I reasoned. Then daycare mentioned that my son was getting too big to lay on the change mat (he is tall for his age) and it would be a good idea to start toilet training him. Gulp.
I told them about my past two attempts and they reassured me that 'all children are different' - some pick it up in a week, others can take up to a year and that they would work with my son to get him there in his own time.
Attempt number 3: watering the plants
If you read any article about how to toilet train your child you'll encounter a variety of techniques and tips. Scroll to the comments section and therein lies the best advice, but the one that is hardest to swallow: TRUST that your child will do it in his/her own time.
By my third attempt, my son had started to wee quite happily in the garden, watering the plants, but would not go in the actual toilet. Or on the potty. So I bought him something called a Playette Wee Guard that's like a mini urinal that you hook onto the toilet seat so boys can wee standing up. Perhaps it's the sitting down that he's uncomfortable with I reasoned to myself. He just laughed in my face and said "Oh mum, you fool". (He didn't really, but he may as well have.)
Over the next couple of weeks I started to guide him into the toilet when he raced for the back door to wee in the garden, and eventually he did. Hooray! Still pooing in nappies but 80 per cent of wees were now going in the toilet and 20 per cent on my geraniums.
He flat-out refused to go at kindy. They made him a sticker chart (I didn't have the heart to tell them), stuck a specially laminated picture of dinosaur with his name on it on one of the toilets and even gave him the option of using the staff toilet in case it was a privacy issue thwarting his efforts. None of this helped. Apparently he was scared of the toilet because 'there are ghosts in it' (!). Then he said he was scared of the hand dryer.
I started to dread talking to the educators at kindy pick up because they would spend 15 minutes telling me about his toilet refusal, looking at me for answers. He would hold his wee in ALL day – for six hours and be absolutely desperate to go by the time I picked him up. But nobody could crack him.
My boy would also not wee in any public toilet at this point. I had to take him to A&E during this period as he developed a high temperature and the doctor wanted a urine sample. I gave him a big bottle of juice to drink hoping that a sample would be easier to take but two hours later and he just would not wee on the toilet at the hospital for me. He would willingly walk to the toilet with me but wouldn't go. It was at this point that I (finally, duh) realised – you cannot force your child to do a wee on demand.
The human body does not work that way. My poor little boy had stage fright and whatever was blocking him from weeing on the toilet was very real.
After the hospital experience, I began to see toilet training in a new light. I backed RIGHT off and stopped pressuring my son to wee. I kept nappies off him as much as possible, barely mentioned it and just praised him when he did a wee at home in the toilet which he was now doing, no sweat.
A couple of weeks later, we went on a family holiday to New Zealand. When we arrived in Auckland, we stopped off at a supermarket before doing a road trip to the friend's we were visiting and I went to the toilet at the supermarket. So, inexplicably, did my son.
This was the first time he wee'd in a public place. I played it cool, as if were no big deal to me, but I put my hands on his shoulders as we walked out to the car together. That holiday he got it. He was weeing everywhere on every toilet all of a sudden – the house we were staying in, at the shops, at restaurants – IN THE PLANE TOILET ON THE WAY BACK.
Then, very randomly about a week after we returned from that trip, my son announced to me one afternoon, with absolutely no encouragement or cue from me "Mama, I'm going to do a poo on the toilet."
Say what, now?
And off he went. He didn't succeed the first time, I heard him put the little child seat on the top, sit there for a few moments and then shout "I didn't need one!' before running off into the garden to play.
The next day I heard him go into the toilet to try again. After a minute or so he hopped off, ran up to me and whispered in my ear "Mama I'm trying to do a poo but it won't come out."' I whispered back to him, "You might need to sit there for a few moments, and then just let it come, it sometimes takes a little while." And he ran back and then proudly announced that he had done it. And he had!
I didn't know then that one of the proudest parenting moments you can have is not a first word or a step – but when your child sits on the toilet by himself and does a poo on his own terms. Those goddamn people were right!
Children will go when they are good and ready. My son now happily wees and poos on all toilets. Except for the one at kindy. We still haven't cracked that and it's a mystery to us all.