Nearly three years ago, when I went into active labor with my second son, I was so very tired. I hadn’t slept in 32 hours. At the birthing center, I sat in a warm bath and stared at the freshly made bed that awaited me. The quilt looked so clean and so soft. In between contractions, I just imagined lying down between the sheets and sleeping. I tried to imagine a way that someone could just pull my baby out of me without surgery or pain and hand him to me in that bed. But I knew that birthing was my work. I had to do it.
“I think I need to get out of the water,” I said. And it was true. The moment my skin hit the cooler air, some of my energy returned. For my next contraction, I positioned myself in a small corner between the dresser and the bed. I held onto the lip of the dresser, leaned into my pain, and groaned. The midwife had been waiting on a couch in the foyer this whole time as her assistant attended to me. She must have recognized something in my groan because she came and sat down on the edge of the bed. She continued with her knitting and made no comment, but I would later look back and recognize this as the work of a professional. Her presence signaled to her assistant that this baby was coming out soon.
As I continued to squat and push, some part of me hovered just above my body, listened to me howling like a woman who’d been raised in the forest by wolves, and asked myself: Is that really necessary? Do you really need to make that noise? And it’s true that I might have toned it down if I tried, but those cries felt like part of the process, like sound would deliver me to the other side of the pain.
After two of these animal groans, out came a head. “Feel it,” the midwife instructed, and I tentatively felt underneath me for the round, wet shape of my baby’s face and skull. I wasn’t moved or excited so much as I was anxious to get the rest of it out. It’s a weird thing to have just a head sticking out of your body. I wanted him squirming, animated, free.
“With your next contraction,” the midwife told me, “the shoulders will come through you, and then the rest of the body will slip out.” I wasn’t sure that I believed her, but that next animal groan was as big as the ones that had preceded it, and the pain and the push were big enough to bring my son into the world. Kellie caught him and held him and immediately the assistant guided my body to the bed. I slid awkwardly between the clean sheets, still bleeding and connected to my baby by a cord. My feet hung off the side. But we worked it out eventually; we got all of me in that bed and rested my new baby on my chest. I was reclining and situated and done with my work.
I’ve been remembering this scene every night lately for reasons that might sound a little odd. Stump, my son who was born that day, has been having trouble pooping. The trouble stems from the fact that he doesn’t want to. He’s in that transitional phase between underwear and diapers, a phase where he will happily pee on the potty, but all of a sudden poo scares him. When he feels a bowel movement coming on he shudders in fear. He cries out “Mommy change me!” though there is nothing to change. He refuses the potty. He would prefer to fight the urge, to hold it eternally.
I try to figure out what’s going on for him. When he wore diapers he pooped without a second thought. In diapers, I guess, he could happily move through his life and elimination happened on its own. It didn’t matter if he felt the need to poo while he was halfway down a slide. He could just let it out. But potty learning demands he learn not only to control these functions, but to experience at least a little bit of shame around them. I mean, the motivation not to poo in your underwear comes from an understanding that poo is gross.
And then there’s this, which I found on the internet this week, one item on a list of reasons why children may have angst around pooping on the potty:
Your child thinks the stool is part of him and doesn’t understand why he should flush it away.
I’m not sure that this is literally true for Stump, but I do think that there’s a parallel between the ambivalence I felt around labor and the ambivalence Stump feels around pooping: something inside of him has to come out, and it requires work. Wouldn’t it be easier just to not? Would it be better to just let the things inside us stay inside?
For the time being, Stump and I have found this new routine: we go into the bathroom and close the door. We take off Stump’s underwear and put on a pull-up. He starts to cry when he feels the urge coming on. “Do you want to hold onto something?” I offer. Sometimes he holds onto the edge of the bathtub and looks me in the eye. Stump’s typical expression is somewhere between determined and mischievous, but in these moments I watch as a look of fear passes through him. His face flushes. He farts and splurts. He looks relieved for a moment, until the next round. Other times he steps behind me and leans into my back. He reaches up over my shoulders. He rests his head against me.
I realize, dear reader, that I am writing at length about my son pooping in his pull-up and yet: these moments have been a bright spot in my week. Stump, I believe, is the last child that I will see through this transition of babyhood to childhood. I have strangely mixed feelings about him leaving his diapers behind. I mean, I’m thrilled to leave the diapers behind. I’m thrilled to not have to deal with the poop-stink of the diaper pail. But I’m equally thrilled to be the person in the bathroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor, helping him through his fear, witnessing as he figures out this very important thing: how to take note of what the body needs, to give in and let go in spite of pain. To release.