Sunday, October 18, 2015

On childhood fears, neuroses, and toilets: Conversations with my mother (complete with footnotes (that also have footnotes)!)

My younger niece is apparently getting toilet trained this weekend. I only know this because my mother told me when we were talking on the phone one evening earlier this week. I am weirdly passionate about the subject of toilet training. It's a remnant of my years of teaching preschool. I probably single-handedly toilet trained upwards of 20 children (their parents were rarely helpful), and I am probably the closest thing there is to a field expert. I have strong opinions about pull-ups (go ahead and use them if you want to keep spending your money on what essentially amounts to more expensive and less user-friendly diapers until your child is in kindergarten, and I will go ahead and judge you for it) and potty chairs (why the hell would you want your child to poop into something that you're going to have to dump out and wash like a chamber pot every time they go? And if you buy one that plays music and has a book nook or, worse, an iPad attachment, you are dead to me).

My mother and I started on the subject of potty chairs (in general agreement that they're stupid) and somehow this led us on a weird trip down memory lane.

Join me on our way down the rabbit hole:

Me: I mean seriously. Just buy one of the toilet seat covers and a step stool. It's less cleaning, it's less gross, and it's one less transition you have to make.

Mom: I couldn't agree more. I think some people think their kids will be scared of the big toilet or something.

Me: Oh, please. I mean, if you act like it's something to be scared of, they'll be scared. If you act like it's no big deal, they'll be fine. [thinky pause] Although, you know, I was scared of the toilet when I was little.

Mom: You were?

Me: Oh yeah. It didn't have to do with the size of it or using it, though. I mean, like, I wasn't afraid I was going to fall in. It was the sound it made when it was flushing that scared me.

Mom: Is that why you wet your pants all the time?

Me: It was probably part of it.* I also remember getting in trouble for just not flushing.

Mom: Huh. I have no memory of that.

Me: It wasn't as bad during the day, though, but at night I guess there was some kind of interaction with fear of the dark. I had rules. If I made it into my bed before the tank filled and the toilet stopped running, the toilet monster couldn't get me.

Mom: Is that why you always ran for your bed?

Me: Yep.

Mom: You had rules?

Me: Of course.

Mom: Hmm. You were kind of OCD, weren't you?

Me: Are you kidding? Why do you think I had to line up all my stuffed animals in the bed before I could settle in?**

Mom: Well, I remember that you had to have all of them, but I didn't remember that it was that detailed.

Me: In case it escaped your notice, I was kind of a neurotic kid.

Mom: Fair enough. I wish you'd told me about the toilet monster, though. I could have helped.

Me: [hysterical laughter] You couldn't have helped with that.

Mom: [offended] Sure I could have. I could have used monster repellant spray or something.

Me: That wouldn't have worked with me.

Mom: Of course it would. It works with all kids.

Me: Mom, I knew the bad guys in the closet weren't real, because I made them up, but they were still there.*** Once I made them up, they wouldn't go away. I already knew that I was being stupid and crazy.

Mom: You weren't stupid and crazy ---

Me: Okay, fine, I was irrational. But I knew it was irrational, even at the time. Even when I was 5, I knew how it would have sounded if I'd told you. So I wouldn't have believed you about the monster repellant, because I already knew the toilet monster wasn't actually real. That just didn't mean I didn't still have to be scared of it or follow the rules. Which I also made up.

Mom: Wow.

Me: I know. It's possible that I just thought about it all too much.

Mom: I'm not going to argue with that.****

Epilogue: I no longer fear the toilet monster and there are no bad guys in my closet anymore.***** As I have mentioned previously, ghosts from the cemetery down the street do occasionally visit, but I'm not scared of them.******

*Another part of it was probably the fact that I had chronic bladder infections when I was little, resulting in the formation of an early association that toilet=excruciating pain. And when I say chronic, I mean months-long courses of powerful antibiotics and consultations with pediatric urologists and kidney ultrasounds and cystoscopies. As far as I can remember, they never figured out what was causing them, but by the time I hit about fifth grade, they more or less stopped. Only to be replaced by even less fun medical problems.

**These weren't the only rules, for the record. There was a very specific bedtime routine that I adamantly insisted my parents stick to, including the order in which they hugged me, kissed me, tucked me in, told me they loved me, and recited the "don't let the bedbugs bite" rhyme.* I allowed no deviations, and any accidental ones were just cause for restarting the bedtime routine from the beginning. It's possible there was an element of manipulation to stay up longer mixed in with the neurosis. I admit nothing.

***This is totally true. I distinctly remember one day when I was maybe 3 or 4, while playing in my bedroom, looking at the closet door and thinking, "What if there were bad guys in there?" As soon as I thought it, they were there. I had manifested them. I never got more specific about who/what they were - I pictured them as vaguely human-shaped shadows, and possibly wearing noir-style fedoras and trench coats (don't ask, because I couldn't tell you) - for fear that whatever qualities I imagined would also manifest. I just knew that they were bad, and I could not make them good, no matter what I imagined. All I could do at that point was damage control. It is also true that I knew that they were not real, and simultaneously knew that they were. They both were and were not in the closet. They were basically Schrodinger's bad guys.**

****I kind of resent your implication there, Mom. Or, at least, I would if I didn't know that I'd inherited the "overthinking everything" trait from you. You know what? Never mind.***

*****The bad guys may still be in the closet at the house we lived in back then, though. If that's the case, I'm truly sorry for any children who had to live in that room after we moved out. Their creation was completely unintentional, I assure you.

******Except when I am. Which typically only happens when I am washing my face before I go to bed at night.**** I'm afraid that I'll look up from the sink to see a vengeful spirit behind me in the mirror. I've tried leaving the medicine cabinet open so I can't see the mirror when I look up, but it turns out that's worse, because just because I can't see the vengeful spirit, that doesn't mean it's not there.***** I once watched the last five minutes of Candyman immediately before getting ready for bed. That was a mistake.

*This wasn't the actual order of the bedtime routine. I don't remember the actual order. I'm not that neurotic.

**That, however, I did not know at the time. I mean, I was a smart kid, but I was still only in preschool.

***On the other hand, you have to admit there's an element of "pot calling the kettle black" then, don't you?

****Huh. Weird how it all keeps going back to bathrooms. I don't even want to analyze that. There are probably some things you're just better off not knowing.

*****Jesus. It's kind of amazing that I grew up to be as functional and mentally healthy as I am. I really deserve more credit for that.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reckless Hope

Last week, I went to a Derby party that one of my friends hosted. I made a cake to bring to the party, and while the recipe was not difficult, it was time-consuming. The batter was thick and heavy and had to be mixed by hand with a whisk rather than an electric mixer, and I made it at my parents' house, which meant that I could not sit down for the entirety of the process of making the cake and the glaze, because if I had, my parents' dog from hell would have eaten the ingredients. I also shaved my legs that day, for the first time of the summer. This meant that I was on my feet for essentially 4 solid hours, some of it spent contorting into impossible positions, which is something that would have exhausted me even before the arthritis.

By the time I got to the party, my feet and legs hurt every time I stood, and my arms and shoulders were sore from mixing the batter and having to hold the bowl out of the dog's reach while mixing it and pouring it into the pan. I spent much of the evening sitting in my friend's large, unfenced backyard, talking around the bonfire, and watching my friends' kids run around. When I went inside to watch the race, the living room was standing-room only, and my feet screamed in protest the entire time until I was able to sit again.

One of my friends has a toddler, a sweet little girl who will be 2 in a couple months. Since the yard was not fenced, and we had a fire going, she needed close supervision, and I was worn out just watching her parents chasing and corralling her.

The next morning, still sore and stiff, I had a bit of an existential crisis.

If that baby had been mine, there was no way I would have been able to supervise her effectively the night before.

So I wondered: is it already too late for me to have a baby? Is motherhood something I should just give up on?

These are not new questions to me, and when I cried over them for a little while that Sunday morning, it was not for the first time.

But then, a couple days later, I saw this:

Gilda Radner, of course, never had children. She struggled to get pregnant, had two miscarriages following fertility treatments, and then she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42. And yet, she remained optimistic. When I pulled up the quote above, I found another from her autobiography, published just a couple years before her death: "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity." These are not the words of someone who has thrown in the towel.

I have never been a gambler. My grandparents took me to a casino on my 21st birthday, and my grandpa loved to tell the story for years afterward of handing control of a slot machine he'd been playing over to me. He'd built up a balance of a couple hundred dollars, and he told me that I could continue playing, or I could cash out and keep the money. I didn't even have to think about it. I took the money and ran. If I had continued playing, I might have ended up with nothing - although, considering it wasn't my money to begin with, I wouldn't have been any worse off than when I started. At least by walking away, though, I ended up with a couple hundred dollars.

But if I'd continued playing, what if I'd hit the jackpot?

This is a pretty apt metaphor for how I live my life in general. I am, in general, a realist. I keep one foot on the ground at all times. I try to not ever get my hopes up, my prognosis is always guarded, and I'm only ever cautiously optimistic. It's something that I've always taken a little bit of pride in, to be honest. I wouldn't be caught unprepared if my hopes weren't realized.

Because hope is scary. Hope is fucking terrifying. It's going out on a limb, allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable, taking the risk that your dreams will fall flat. Pure, unqualified, unguarded hope is an enormous gamble.

But when I read that Gilda Radner quote, I had the most radical, earth-shaking thought:

Don't I have the right to be infinitely optimistic?

And it occurred to me that not getting my hopes up had never actually insulated me from pain and loss. It never made it better, when something didn't work out, that I'd tried to keep myself from wanting it too much. So it doesn't make sense, does it, to keep trying to tamp down on my hopes when it doesn't offer much protection anyway.

So I'm not going to do it anymore.

It's a huge shift in thinking for me, a whole new worldview, and it's not easy. Every time I think about the things I hope for, I have to silence the voice in my head that says, "Yes, but, what if...?" But I'm committed to making this change. I'm done with cautious optimism and guarded prognoses and not getting my hopes up. Maybe things won't work out, but then again, maybe I'll hit the jackpot.

I'm going to be infinitely optimistic. I'm going to be recklessly hopeful. And I invite you to join me.

(I'll probably still leave the slot machines for you to play, though.)