Our two-year-old has been pooping on the potty for a good long while. A friend suggested starting early, slowly, and casually so that my son wouldn't be afraid of the toilet and would have an early understanding and association of bodily waste and flushing. It's always been sort of a fun thing. For months now he's been having at least one bowel movement a day on the toilet, much to my delight during a pregnancy ridden with nausea induced by a heightened sense of smell.
Just as my friend predicted, he recently started asking to use the potty instead of going in his diaper, as well as sometimes announcing to me that he was choosing to go in his diaper because he was busy. I started to be afraid I may miss some sort of golden window, and became convinced that he would need a little bit of a boundary to ever fully commit to the potty.
So with a week of rainy days ahead of us, we recently ventured out to choose some underwear. He was excited about it and enthusiastically selected a pack of Mickey Mouse and a pack of "Race Cars." We talked on the way home about how we would keep mickey and the race cars clean and dry, how we were all done with diapers and would just go on the toilet now.
EXPOSED BY POTTY TRAINING
I was committed to treating him with gentleness and kindness, to protecting him from shame, to avoiding a power struggle. I wanted him to be sure that my affection and delight were not rooted in his performance. I was committed to not making a big deal out of accidents and giving him as much time as he needed.
But potty training was so much more difficult than I ever could have anticipated. Logistically and physically, it went as well as I imagine it could for a 27-month-old. This afternoon marks a week of being in underwear, and he hasn't had an accident today (yet). He's stayed completely dry for naps and nighttime from the beginning. No, the difficulty with potty training hasn’t been physical, it’s been relational.
Will has been an unusually kind and compliant toddler. He is uniquely tender, constantly pouring out affirmation and expressing excitement. "I love you so much, Mommy! I missed you, Mommy! Thank you for doing that for me, Mommy! Oh, Mommy, good job! You did it, Mommy!" But on day two of potty training, despite all of my best efforts to make it as casual and nonchalant as possible, I saw a side of my child I hadn't seen before. He became defiant, disagreeable, unkind, and combative. His gentle affectionate hands struck me. His tiny mouth shouted unkind words.
On day three of potty training I saw a side of myself I didn’t like much either. I ran out of resilience. I started to take everything personally. I was sensitive. I was reactive. I was short tempered and curt.
God used our potty training experience to reveal how much of my identity was wrapped up, not in my child’s performance (being able to successfully keep underwear clean and dry), but in our relationship. In the peace between us. In the way that he treated me and regarded me. How easy it was to be puffed up by his approval and affection, but the danger of this identity placement revealed itself as I became deflated by his defiance and disapproval.
I stand by the fact that he was ready to potty train. I don’t think waiting longer would have changed what was revealed in his heart by the process—the amount of frustration he felt over failure, the desire for approval, lashing out in anger when defeated. I can say this with confidence because potty training revealed all of the same sin patterns in my own heart. As much as I would love to blame third trimester pregnancy hormones, when I raised my voice at my late arriving spouse in a way I vowed I never would in front of my toddler, when I reacted in anger as my toddler struck me after the use of what felt like my last ounce of patience, my heart revealed the very same idols of success and acceptance.
SHAME AND THE DESIRE TO HIDE
In the moments following the reactive expressions of my sinful heart, I experienced an intense desire to have a break from being inside my own skin. I also wanted to be away from Will and David, away from the relationships that made it impossible to avoid seeing the condition of my heart. I wanted to escape the consequences and effects of my actions. I desperately wanted to hide from the eyes that saw a version of myself I hated, chiefly the eyes of the Lord. I didn't want to pray. Paul's words in Romans 7 came to mind, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
As humans, we may bear shame because of what we have done, or what has been done to us, but we also all bear the shame of association with Adam, the shame of being sinful. And although guilt is experienced in the courtroom, shame is experienced in relationship. My sin was before me in a way I hated to see during potty training. The fact that my husband and child were seeing (and being affected by) me too brought about a poignant experience of shame, intensifying my desire to hide.
THE GOSPEL OF GRACE
This desire to hide or quit also revealed itself in my son during this experience. After each accident, he protested going to the bathroom to be cleaned or being brought to the toilet to try again. Shame makes us want to hide, to quit, and maybe even to continue to “soil” ourselves because it's what we feel like we deserve. It becomes who we are, making it feel impossible to change what we do. But look at Paul's answer to his own question in Romans 7: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." He doesn’t stay in his despair- he looks to the cure for shame- the ultimate cosmic gesture of acceptance- the gospel of Grace. Justification is once and forever: an act of the Father whereby he declares us forgiven. Even in the moments that expose my sinful heart- he rejoices over me with singing, not because of the things I do, but because I am his beloved child, whom he regards as righteous because of the finished work of Jesus.
Just as shame is revealed in community, it is also healed in community! I recall the oft repeated urging of my college pastor: “See Him seeing you.” If we are in Christ, God's eyes meet us not with disdain and disapproval, but acceptance and love. Our honesty in repentance is met with assurance of not only our pardon but our adoption as his beloved children. Only his eyes are unchanging, and his gaze is so much more precious and dependable that the wide and stormy eyes of my two-year-old. In his eyes, not the eyes of my spouse, do I find lasting approval that motivates me to obey and to love my family out of joy instead of fear.
Although our transition from diapers to underwear has gone remarkably well, I know that it is extremely unlikely that Will's underwear will be clean and dry forever. He will likely wet or soil in the future during activities that are too much fun or in locations where we can’t get to a toilet fast enough. But those mistakes won’t move him back to “square one.” He won’t be starting over. He won’t not be potty trained because he failed to keep his "Race Cars" clean and dry. What an opportunity to rehearse this gospel of grace for both of us. In as much as it depends on me, I want to help him fight shame by rejoicing over and delighting in him even as he steps out of soiled underwear, speaking words of encouragement as he climbs the step stool to the potty again, and affirming our relationship because he is my child—not because he can keep himself clean and dry.
I can do this because just as I stoop before my son to clean his body, my servant hearted King kneels before me to wash my feet. I can do this out of the reality of my relationship to a loving Father who declares that I am “clean,” once and for all in justification, and offers the grace to change through sanctification as he makes me more like his Son. I don’t have to ride the waves of shame created by the wake of my own emotional reactions or the reactions of those whom I sin against. I can instead live out of the covering God offers me in my nakedness and shame- the robes of righteousness draped around me by grace through faith in his Son- robes that I cannot soil, and that he will not remove.