I’ve often wondered what kind of a parent I am. I’ve heard the labels of “helicopter parents” or the more lackadaisical among us who raise “free range kids.” I can see aspects of my personality present in each of the labels, and yet I’ve not been able to determine which one pertains to me. There are pros and cons to each label, and neither one really captures the kind of parent I want to be. A recent experience forced me to think about these two labels again.
I was enjoying a pleasant morning with two other moms. I brought scones over to my sister-in-law's house, she had coffee for all of us, and we each had a toddler. The toddlers played in the living room and we sat at the dining room table in the adjacent room. Moments arose where two of the toddlers would begin to wrestle and fight over a toy, and the moms would break the conversation long enough to glance over our shoulders. The moms paused to watch the aggravated faces of our toddlers as they duked it out with Neanderthal-like thinking and reasoning: “if I pull on this toy long enough, this other kid is bound to give up.” One such fight started to pull the toddlers on the floor, the fight devolving into a toddler WWF, and one mom said to the other, “I’m just going to let that go.” This is the strength of free range parenting, right? Let them figure it out! I often walk the line between how far do I let something go versus step in and keep my toddler from physically assaulting another. Yet sometimes I jump in too soon. As I observed these two moms whom I love and admire, allowing their quarreling toddlers to wrestle it out, I thought, yes, I can learn something from this moment. It’s okay to let the Neanderthal minds reach their own conclusion, especially if no one is getting hurt.
Shortly thereafter the toddlers headed upstairs. Each mom took turns periodically running upstairs to check on kids when dangerous screams or crying was heard. After a while we relaxed into a long conversation, content with the absence of the toddlers so we could complete our thoughts and converse as adults, uninterrupted. There was a moment when the conversation stopped because someone thought she heard a toilet flush upstairs. Of course, this was quickly dismissed as a possibility because why would the toddlers ever consider playing in the bathroom? At another moment, I heard a large cheer go up from the toddlers, a muffled, joyous cry, that made me happy and I reassured myself: you see, Anna Marie, you don’t need to be overbearing or a “helicopter parent,” because left to their own devices long enough, the children figure out how to play well together. It’s not Neanderthal wrestling and fighting, it’s not Lord of the Flies: it’s just good, clean fun.
Then another 15 minutes later, the fateful sound of the toilet flushing entered our consciousness, and we broke our conversation to go check on the toddlers. I had yet to take a turn running upstairs to check on the kiddos, so I sprang up and volunteered myself. Once upstairs I saw no children, just the closed bathroom door, so I headed straight to it. I came in the bathroom just in time to see one of the toddlers throw his socks in the toilet, and a little hand reach for the handle.
Me: hey guys, what are you doing? No! Don’t flush that!
Like eyes that must adjust to the harsh sunlight, I began to take in my surroundings with increasing confusion. Nothing made sense: the toddlers weren’t wearing any pants. In fact, two of them, my daughter included, had their diapers off. How in the world did that happen? And why? I could see remnants of toilet paper strewn all over the floor, baseboards, and walls – but the paper was wet, not dry. Why was the floor so wet? I walked further into the bathroom to see a mound of wet toilet paper, plastic bags removed from the small trash can, and a diapers shoved into the corner. One diaper was filled with diarrhea, and it looked as though it had been dunked in water – toilet water? – over and over again, because the diaper innards were swollen and bloated.
This was the moment that I continue to re-live, now 4 days later, still as fresh and nauseating as if that moment were now. The children were crowded around the toilet like the witches of Macbeth – their cauldron filled with water and excrement. Their brew was strewn all over the walls, floor, and on their little bodies. Their eyes were joyous, they were proud of themselves. Frankie told me they were having a Pee Pee Party. I beg to differ. This was no Pee Pee Party. If I had a Twitter account, it would have read:
I glanced more closely at my daughter to see that her bottom "the smoking gun," hers was the diarrhea diaper now soaked in the corner. My stomach churned. I began to yell.
Me: Susie! SUsie! SUSIE!!! We have a big mess up here – I need your help!!
The joy in the toddlers eyes quickly turned to tears as the moms descended upon the bathroom and began to yell. Between the three of us moms, we have birthed 11 children, spanning over the past decade. Not one of us had ever had a child remove their own diaper, much less a diaper full of poop. It was a Poopocalypse.
Baths ensued for all three toddlers. Laundry was started: kids’ clothes, towels that were just innocent bystanders in the bathroom, rags upon rags that we used to scrub the toilet, walls, windowsill, and floors. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. We drilled it into their heads: that they are NEVER, EVER, EVER to play in the toilet. Never again. Frankie cried as I washed her in the bathtub, telling her how disappointed I was.
Frankie: I (sob sob) waaaaannt (sob sob) Daaaadddddyyyyy! (sob tears sob sob)
Me: I do too! I wish Daddy were here, too: so he could clean up this disgusting mess!
If I was a helicopter parent, would I have let that situation happen? Probably not. If I were a raising free range kids, would I consider this just part their learning? Doubtful. I’m still confused about which of those labels come close to my style of parenting. Of course I realize that labels don’t do me – or anybody – any good, and they don't ever fully articulate the scope of parenting. My only conclusion was that if I had a helicopter, as a parent, I would have gotten into it and flown away. Instead I stayed there in solidarity with my fellow moms: bathing kids, doing laundry, wearing rubber gloves, laughing and sighing while up to our eyeballs in shit.