The Family Issue

By  |  October 27, 2012

Children, in many ways, are like cancer. Meaning, I never thought much about them until they happened to me. The idea of "a child" and "children"—these were but platonic notions that hovered in the foggy ether of the rear parlors of my brain, somewhere near other concepts that had nothing to do with me, like "malaria" and "Pinterest." When my first good friend had a baby, I didn't even know what to say.

"It's a girl!" he said.

"Wow," I said. "I just bought some new socks."

Friends would get married and have babies, but hearing the news produced no intellectual effect. It was like hearing about a new memoir by the daughter of a dead celebrity whose movies I had never seen. So what? I knew that babies were, prima facie, good, like peace treaties between warring tribes on distant continents were good, or like innovations in trash-bag durability were good.

And then, I got some babies of my own. And one thing I learned about babies is: When you have them, people will ask you about them.

"How are the kids?" they will say.

"Fine," I will say. Because that's what we do. We lie.

Because sometimes, it's not fine. Sometimes, it's like riding a Greyhound bus across the country with tiny people from the state hospital who have the same last name as you and are very likable but also want to bite you and pee on your suitcase. And you can't get off the bus until it stops, eighteen to twenty years from now. But you can't say that. You have to keep lying. Because you have to keep making babies, so society's adults can have something to take pictures of besides the ocean.

Sometimes, my childless friends will want to know what it's like to have children.

"I mean, what's it like, anyway?" they ask, with a cadaverous smile, the way you ask somebody what it's like to date a girl with no arms. It's a sick question, designed to make themselves feel better about their life choices. "Do you like it?" they ask. "Is it fun?"

Ours may be one of the first generations in the history of human breeding to ask such a question. I can think of a hundred good reasons to make a baby, but liking it is not one. I don't like having children any more than I like having cartilage. A blessing? Totally. But so is cartilage. One helps me walk and play squash, if such a desire should come over me. The other one poops on my floor.

We started potty training our first daughter when she was still a year old. I cannot explain why we started so young, other than to say my wife needed a hobby. I insisted she take up gardening, but she insisted on turning our daughter's gastrointestinal tract into her private workspace. My wife led me to believe that learning to use a toilet before age two would be something along the lines of memorizing the periodic table or the Chinese alphabet.

"But she seems so young," I said.

"She's very advanced," my wife said, noting with pride the child's ability to bark like a dog on command.

This is parenting. This is how it happens.

We asked around, did our due diligence. Some said to go for it. Force it. Incentivize it. These friends came from the school of parenting that strongly inveighs against the commodification of youth and believes that any capitulation to the needs of the young will end Western Civilization and reduce our nation to something resembling an early Charlton Heston film. Others told us to let the child decide when she wants to use the toilet. Just let it happen, they said, which seems the very opposite of what you want to do with poop. These are the same people who allow their young to nurse sup at the mother teat until graduate school.

The most normal friends suggested we buy a small, colorful, cartoonish children's potty. The ones with the pictures of princesses on them, they said. This seemed a brilliant idea, because I was sure my daughter wanted nothing more than an opportunity to defecate on her favorite mermaid.

"Ariel!" she would say.

"I know!" I will say. "Now poop on her. Do it."

I laughed about this, but not my wife. No. She would not laugh for the next four years. Because potty training is an endless campaign against the inevitability of the gastrointestinal tract and the deep Freudian fears of the young, a war fought with love, and prayer, and sullied brown hands, and Skittles, which my wife poured into a mason jar.

"What are those for?" I said.

"One Skittle for teetee and two for a stinky," she said.

"I'm not saying stinky. It's crap. It's turd. It's stool."

"From now on, it's stinky."

"Stinky!" our daughter said, holding her nose. At twenty months, she was roughly the size of garden gnome, with a nebula of curly brown hair spiraling out from her head in every available direction, which made her look not unlike a walking toilet brush. A dirty one.

"Stinky! That's right!" my wife said, handing her a Skittle.

The training started on a Monday and consisted of the following:

  1. Remove diaper from child.
  2. Walk child to toilet.
  3. Point to toilet. Smile.
  4. Point to child. Smile.
  5. Point to floor. Frown.
  6. Point to the places on child where the urine and the poop come from.
  7. Say, "Woo woo."
  8. Point to toilet again. Smile. Show teeth. Seem crazy.
  9. Wait.

I received calls and updates throughout Day One. The first came in at 11:00 a.m., when my wife reported that the child had urinated in every room of the house and was now hiding underneath one of the beds. She'd been wearing, for the first time ever, what are called "big-girl panties," which is, I believe, the technical term for what I like to call "underwear filled with urine." By the end of Day Two, most of the house was covered in sheets, towels, and other textiles in various yellows and browns. But it worked. I came home and—wonder of wonders!—heard the sound of nearby tinkling. It was the child, on the adult toilet, in the act of voluntary micturition. Day Two, people. It was such a glorious moment, everybody had a Skittle. That night, I dreamt that every poop that had ever been pooped in the world was represented by a single Skittle, and the jar reached up to heaven. It was big and wide and pretty, a jar of joy.

"What about number two?" I asked the next morning.

"Oh, that'll happen soon," she said.

And she said it with such confidence, such hope.

Over the next few months, the child pooped in all the closets. She pooped in her room, our room, the guest room, the living room—but not the bathroom. She did all her urinating during the day, in the toilet, Curious George panties pushed carelessly around her dangling ankles; but her poo, like the nine-banded armadillo and certain species of wombat, was nocturnal. Only at night, when her rectum was cocooned in the palliative barrier of absorbent garments, would her gastrointestinal tract release its malodorous bounty.

She would find a dark place somewhere in the house. We would hear her talking through walls, and we would smell her pooping through walls.

"Who's she talking to?" my wife said.

"The dark lord she serves," I said.

She would poo and then just keep talking, possibly to the poo, because she loved it and was not ready to say goodbye. Sometimes, she loved it so much that she wanted to keep it inside her, compelling my wife to feed the child various accelerants designed to loosen the bowels. Every morning and night, the woman stood in the kitchen and mixed liquids and powders like a medieval apothecary, shaking and stirring and talking to herself. She poured these tonics into our child, whose bowels soon opened like the Grand Coulee Dam. Around suppertime, the child would begin to hold herself in unusual ways, grasping the front of her crotch with one hand and the back of it with the other, as though trying to lift her entire body off the ground and throw herself out the window.

"Let's go POTTY!" my harried wife would say a bit too loudly, smiling a bit too brightly, as is the customary practice of the clinically insane.

"No," the child would say. "No! No! No! NOOOOOOO!"

It was not an angry kind of No. It was the kind of No you hear when you ask someone if you can throw them into an active volcano. My wife fetched her tools, most notably an enema the size of a large handgun, while I chased the child, picked her up, carried her to the toilet.

"We don't want to throw you in the toilet," I said. "Unless it will help you poop."

"Stop scaring her!" my wife said.

Please note, dear reader, that I was not the one holding a turkey baster full of nitroglycerin.

Eventually, I'd put down the incontinent child and watch her run around the house frantically, looking under things, as though she had lost a precious jewel, or her mind. I was confused. It seems so natural: You eat, you form waste, your body and gravity have a meeting, come up with a simple plan, a location, perhaps some light reading material and a candle for illumination, olfactory coverage, and mood. Nature runs the meeting. You are merely attending, participating. After all, your attendance is required. You could call in sick, and the meeting would be rescheduled. You cannot get out of the meeting.

"We really need to have this meeting," Nature says.

"I'll be here all day," Gravity says.

"She can't keep putting this off," Nature says.

And that was the problem with the child. She became so distressed at the Jungian horror of the toilet bowl that she lost the ability to go anywhere: the toilet, her pull-up, the closet. She kept rescheduling the meeting, until it was no longer going to just be a meeting. Human resources would have to be there. Security would be called. To prepare for this explosive day, my wife became an ethnographer of the body's lower functions, studying the child, making fieldnotes.

"She's got to go," she would say, marking the calendar.

"How can you tell?"

The child would be walking very slowly and sort of leaning back, the way some people approach limbo poles or hurricanes. "It's been five days since she went."

"The toilet will not eat you," my wife said to the child.

"But if you don't give it your stinky," I said. "It will come into your room at night and take it from your bottom with a fork."

The child cried, ran away.

I just didn't understand. She was smart. She could read chapter books. She could recite creeds dating to the late Roman era. She understood the Dewey Decimal System.

Sometimes, if we were lucky, nature blindsided the child with a surprise emergency meeting that she could not postpone. We'd be in the front yard playing and she would grow quiet and sidle under one of the tall camellias by the front porch and squat down and do it right there like a war vet.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Doing a stinky in the garden," she said.

The neighbors across the street stared from their porch, judging.

"She's very advanced," I said.

"How did you potty train me?" I asked my mother on the phone one day.

"Actually, I never did," she said.

I thought about it. Was it true? Had I potty trained myself? Was I truly an autodidactic defecator? I thought back to 1978. The Carter Administration. The Camp David Accords. Grease. Inflation. There was a party, I remember. We had guests, people in the house. The Bee Gees were there, on the stereo, wafting through the air, wanting to know how deep our love was. Also wafting through the air: an odd smell.

I know your eyes in the morning sun,

I feel you touch me in the pouring rain,

And the moment that you wander far from me,

I wanna feel you in my arms again.

I did not understand who The Bee Gees were singing this to, but I felt it was a perfect expression of the love I felt for my feces. Because I did not want it to wander far from me.

And you come to me on a summer breeze,

Keep me warm in your love and then you softly leave,

And it's me you need to show:

How deep is your love?

The song swelled, as did my colon. I gave in to the feeling and immediately became aware that something bad had happened. I locked the door. I was not sure what I could do, there in my room, with a locked door. My only real option was to bury myself in the toy box and hope that my family moved to a new house. Mom knocked. She tried the door and became frantic, as all mothers do with locked doors.

"What are you doing in there?" she said.

"I'm in here, pooping on myself," was not an option. So I did what anybody does when a frantic person is trying to knock down a locked door while you're emptying your bowels: I climbed out the window.

How deep is your love?

I really need to learn,

'Cause were living in a world of fools,

Breaking us down,

When they all should let us be.

We belong to you and me.


"How deep is your love?", 8.5" x 11", mixed media, October 2012 (Katherine Sandoz)

I hit the hot grass and looked both ways. Should I run away? Should I dig a hole to China, as I'd heard was possible? Should I dig a hole for my stool, which jangled in my shorts like a smuggled gem?

Ah, yes, I thought. I should check the mail.

"What have you done?" they would say.

"Look!" I would say. "The new Sears catalog!"

After walking in the midsummer heat, I knew it was going to take more than toilet paper to clean me. It might take a garden hose, perhaps some sort of heated cauldron, perhaps all three of the Brothers Gibb working in harmony. I walked back into the house, past our guests, down the hall. I knew what to do. I would wrap my brown underwear in the mail and place them somewhere innocuous, like behind the television. Nobody would suspect a thing. They would just think Mom was making her goulash.

This war of attrition—my wife and I unshakable in our resolve to carry this campaign to its deadly end, the child entrenched in the defilade of her own colon—was suddenly altered when the child started pooping directly onto the floor.

We were not expecting that.

My wife had said that the child would grow to hate the feeling of her own poo next to her skin. That this natural maturing would be our ally.

"She will hate the way it feels," she said, "and will start going in the potty."

The child, though, was smart. She was nimble of finger, good with a button. She simply removed her pants and deposited the thing on the floor. She was sending us a message. The message was: "Clean up on aisle two."

Let me tell you something. Poop smells bad wherever it is, but when it's just laying there on the floor like a dead squirrel it does a whole other thing to your nose, gets into your brain, makes you want to hurt people. It infected my wife's brain, I know that. Made her crazy. She'd get this wild look in her eye, surrounded by various anal creams and ointments, glycerin suppositories and laxatives, fibrous hardeners and softeners, rubber gloves and trash bags and spray bottles of antibacterial cleansers and bleach and gasoline, towels, buckets, mops, masks, anger. My wife had become a witch, a practitioner of the dark sorcery of intestinal science.

"Are you okay?" I would ask.

"Do you smell something?" she would say. " I smell something."

"I think it's you," I would say. "You haven't showered in three days."

"I'm waiting for her stinky. I know it's coming."

She would be looking out the window, up into the sky, as though it was coming by air. When it finally did drop, I would offer to clean it up, but the wife refused, entering the bedroom with her gear and closing the door and alternately retching, gagging, cursing her offspring, gagging, cursing her own gag reflex, and then retching some more.

"Breathe through your mouth," I said, from the safety of the hallway. "Let me know if you need some help." I explained that she should call me, as I would be at the airport, leaving the country.

If the floor was unavailable, the child would poop in the bathtub. The wife would scream. The child would scream. I would run into the kitchen and return with a weapon.

"What's that?" she said.

"A slotted spoon," I said. "It's perfect."

"But we use it for English peas," she said.

"I hate English peas."

And so I would use the sterling slotted serving spoon to fish out the intruder while my wife disinfected the tub with the diligence of a serial murderer, scrubbing and boiling bath toys with a dangerous fire in her eyes. She wanted to boil everything: the toys, the house, our daughter.

"You would make a great murderer," I said.

Sometimes, my wife was not a murderer, but a midwife.

I would get calls at work.

"It's been a week. A week," my wife said.

In the background, I could hear the child, alternately laughing at Bugs Bunny and then screaming in horror at her impacted bowels.

"Ha ha, mommy! Daffy Duck is funny!" she said. And then: "Ahhhh! Help! Ahhhh!"

"Is someone sawing her legs off?" I asked.

"It's been like this all day," she said.

The kid's dung had hardened into the density of an adobe brick, and she would lie on the floor, in my wife's arms, as though in labor, pushing, pushing, screaming, sweating, grappling onto my wife's neck for support, the baby turd beginning to crown, and then pouring forth into the world.

Sometimes, it would be big. Very big.

"How does that even fit inside her?" I said.

"That's at least a foot long," my wife said.

"I've seen adult ferrets smaller than that," I said.

"We should name it."

"We should take a picture of it."

She got out her camera. I told my wife to put a dollar bill beside it, for scale. So future generations would know what happened here.

Seasons passed, more babies were born. There were now two little girls. And then three. They kept on coming, and they kept on giving birth to adult ferrets in and around my house. We long ago stopped caring. In time, my wife voluntarily disarmed, reducing her arsenal to one product: The Fleet Pedia-Lax Liquid Glycerin Suppository with Child Rectal Applicator. If it sounds like a machine designed to destroy families, it is.

My wife calls it Special Cream. I simply call it the Ass Grenade. If ever you are walking by our house and hear what sounds like the interrogation of terrorist detainees by rogue Federal agents, fear not. There are no terrorists here. It is only my wife, sitting on top of one of my naked children on the floor of the bathroom, injecting a medicinal payload into its tailpipe and lying about how it won't hurt a bit.

"You should work for the government," I said. "Any government."

The Fleet box features a happy penguin, with great big distended penguin eyeballs, as though he has just smoked PCP or unexpectedly sat upon the rectal applicator. In the right light, the penguin looks upset, possibly wrathful. My children know and fear this penguin. In fact, thanks to my wife's regular invasions of their bodies with Fleet products, they now fear all flightless birds.

We can never go to the zoo again. Thank you, Fleet.

The oldest one—the one who long ago seemed so advanced—she is better now. One day, it just happened. I had stolen a quiet moment away from my family in the bathtub, which is the only place in our small house where one can read a book without being molested with questions about snacks, and the child—now more of a kid—entered.

I closed my book and sank deeper into the water.

"Hi," she said.

"Hello," I said.

We have one bathroom. I should have said that already. It brings us all closer. Physically, I mean. She closed the curtain between us. I continued to read. I was in the middle of Heart of Darkness, reading of Kurtz and his primitives and the savage horror of it all. I heard the kid mount the toilet, and then a gentle grunt, and the pas de deux of tinkle and plop, followed by the encore of smell.

"Wow," I said, trying not to breathe from behind the veil. "You did it."

"Don't talk to me," she said.

"Thank you for doing it so closely to my face."

"Mom!" she said, sounding far too old. "Come here and wipe me."

My wife entered, wiped. I laid quietly behind the screen, like Conrad's young Marlow on strange waters, among stranger smells. The kid left. I pulled back the curtain.

"Hi," I said to my wife.

"I'd love to have just one day," my wife said. "Just one day where I didn't get someone else's shit on my hands."

"I like it when you cuss."

"Shit," she said.

"Let it out," I said.

"Shit," she said.

"We call it stinky now," I said. "Somebody told me that once."

Nobody tells you this about marriage. That you will love your wife, and she will love you back, and you will journey together on the Greyhound of your shared life to the ends of dark continents only you can know, and your love will bring life into the world, a whole new person, whole busses full of people who share your name and imperfections and who will love you, and hug you, and shit on your floor, and in your garden, and in the same bathtub where you choose to read the works of Joseph Conrad, in this same inland sea where so many historic turds first sailed, because it's the only bathroom in the house, and you're all in it together, the bathroom, the bus, the cruising yawl of Nellie up the Congo or whatever this thing is supposed to be, this life, and all you have at the end of it is a question:

How deep is your love?

I really need to learn,

'Cause were living in a world of fools,

Breaking us down,

When they all should let us be.

If you don’t believe me, come see for yourself. My wife has a cabinet full of penguins, and she is not afraid to use them. If you ask real nice, she might even make English peas.

Harrison Scott Key is a contributing editor at Oxford American. His writing has been featured in The Best American Travel Writing, the New York Times, and Outside. His first memoir, The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and his second, Congratulations, Who Are You Again?, was released on November 6. Watch the trailer for his new book here.