Conundrum in a Diaper

This post has been cited in the August 2009 Discovering Dad Blog Carnival, hosted by Discovering Dad.

As a kid I thought the role of my parents was to make me meals and snuggle with me in front of the TV. These were the comfort foods of my existence, the essence of parenthood through the eyes of a child. I now know that I was only half right. The routine of parenthood may be comforting, but there is more to it, at least from the perspective of a parent. There is also the opportunity to witness the slowly unfolding magic of child development. The routine and mystery of parenthood can even be found in the simple act of changing a diaper, which is mostly mundane, occasionally revolting, and once in a while downright beguiling.

Such were my thoughts one day several years ago when I was called to duty. My infant, whom I’ll call “G”,  required changing. While on my knees, hunched over a relieved little cherub I caught a wave of pleasant nostalgia quite incongruous with the other pungent waves wafting about. “Aren’t we done with this?” Indeed we were. Not with G but with “R”, our three year old who had just mastered use of the potty.

“Daaadddyyy…hellllp…potty.” I was startled from my stupor by a call from R. I placed G, cleaned and re-dressed, in her swing, which she adored like a second womb. I found R delicately perched on the toilet. “I made a poopie!” she rejoiced. Indeed she had, a direct deposit, and no trifling one (foreshadowing the enormity of the insight that followed). I once again rolled up my sleeves, gathered the supplies, and pitched in.

Toddler toileting is one of our earliest introductions to nature’s sense of humor. Around age three, nature endows us with all the capabilities of properly using the toilet, save one. We can drop our drawers in preparation for, scramble upon, deposit into, flush, and pull up our pants after using the potty. But the one skill needed for true toilet independence is literally out of reach and will remain so for quite a while longer. Even a lanky and deft young contortionist can no more wipe herself than she can perform a reverse slam dunk. It’s too far a reach and the geometry is too complex.

The application of wipes first to the newborn and then to the three-year old felt like time travel. I had just relived three years of relieving and wiping in three minutes. Most of it was in the aid of R. How did she get from there to here, from the Pampered princess to queen of the porcelain throne, so quickly? Where did the time go? Since she was party to it all, surely she could help make sense of it. “Do you remember wearing diapers?” I asked.

“No,” she replied plainly. How could it be that she didn’t remember? She wore diapers for years, the last one only a few months prior. She was there through it all, the wet, the dry, and the stinky. Or so I had thought. But now I’m told she didn’t remember. She might as well have not been there. In a sense she wasn’t.

If R doesn’t remember, did it happen? It is a matter of perspective. To her, it absolutely did not; to her, she had not worn diapers. I know she had. In a very real sense my story of R is not hers. She is not the big girl version of the baby I held. That baby is gone and R doesn’t remember a thing about her.

It is fascinating and spooky that she can’t remember things she did daily for years and had only stopped doing recently. This amnesia of infancy is a conundrum, found in the use of diapers and in a thousand other routines of early childhood. These transitions of toddlerhood, like those from crib to bed or from diapers to underwear, are not trivial. They are associated with much resistance and the bearing of strong emotions. It is startling that something so cherished as to be worthy of all the fuss is so easily forgotten. But once the hard-fought transition is made, the old ways quickly fade. What was once essential becomes obsolete.

Some of the routines R cherishes most today are the same as those I enjoyed with my parents. She too loves the family meal, both eating it and preparing it. She’s thrilled when it is a “movie night” and we pile on the couch for an episode of children’s programming. Now that she has developed a more permanent memory, R (and later G) is likely to remember these routines of childhood into adulthood. Perhaps by then I will be able to convince her that she did indeed once wear diapers. Maybe not. After all, I’m sure I never did.

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