“Other people are doing puzzles and I’m cleaning poop!” my husband screamed into the universe.
It was early corona-tide. Late March 2020. The world was in lock-down. We didn’t yet know about mask-wearing or transmission of air droplets. We were told to stay home at all costs. Many of our friends and family were posting pictures of the puzzles they had completed, the books they had read, and the Netflix marathons they’d completed. We, on the other hand, were cleaning poop from rugs and sofas and a rashy, bleeding little bum.
The world was suffering in the early stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Jaremko household was in the full throes of the POOP Pandemic.
Nearly one year later, we still debate which was worse: the COVID Pandemic or the POOP Pandemic. Currently, the COVID pandemic wins that trophy, since the POOP pandemic did eventually end. Yet in March/April 2020, I sang a different tune: the POOP Pandemic was much worse. In the end, of course, one wouldn’t have existed without the other. For the POOP pandemic began a few weeks before, like a dire warning sign of a coming storm we refused see – a faultline beneath the earth, a windstorm in the ocean, a rumbling off in the distance.
In February 2020, our little corner of the world was focused on transitions in our family life. Our son was born in November 2019. I returned to the church from maternity leave in mid-February. We were adjusting to life as a family of 4. I was adjusting to being a parent to two littles and a pastor to a church. My husband was adjusting to being a parent to two littles and a new work-from-home job. My daughter was adjusting to being a big sister. My son was adjusting to daycare and, well, life itself.
Transitions were tough, but we were managing them. That is until the last week of February. It was one of those weeks where everything happens at once. I was away for bedtime most nights that week: committee meetings, Mardi Gras party, Ash Wednesday service, wedding rehearsal, and a beautiful wedding within our church family. On Friday, a beloved church member passed away. On Saturday, my husband’s grandmother passed away. On Sunday morning, my parents (in to help for the weekend) were late to worship, because my (almost) 3-year-old-potty-trained daughter kept pooping her pants. On Sunday night, my 3-month-old son’s eyes turned red and goopy. As I was packing up this pink-eyed boy for Urgent Care, my husband said the words he will always regret: “Well, what else could happen?” It was March 1, 2020.
By the next morning, we had 2 kids home from daycare. 1 with pink eye. The other with a doctor appointment for her now red, bleeding, rashy bum from full weekend of potty accidents. As our brand-new administrative assistant was starting that morning, I took my pink-eyed son into the office, while my husband took our daughter to the pediatrician. The doctor sent home rash cream and instructions for potty regression tactics. We set to work. Yet, in the end, no amount of Metamucil or Daniel Tiger potty episodes could stop a force already in motion: the POOP Pandemic had begun.
By the time the world shut down 12 days later, we were already knee deep in it. Our daughter, who had been fully potty trained for 6 whole months just decided not to be any more. She would take herself to the potty for #1, but #2? NO WAY. She started going behind the couch … or under the table … or behind the chair. As soon as we’d spot her move to a hiding place, we’d scoop her up and run to the potty. We often didn’t make it. There was an incident nearly every half hour.
Which meant while we were on lockdown, working 2 full-time jobs, caring for two very small children, worrying about everything, caring for a 200-member congregation, running a marketing department, trying to figure out how to buy groceries, diapers, and toilet paper, we stopped every 30 minutes to pin down our screaming daughter, clean off the poop, put on the cream, and wash out the underwear. Every 30 minutes. Every day. Week in and week out. The only way to stop said rash was to stop the poop. And the only way to stop the poop was to use the potty. And the only way to convince a stubborn toddler to use the potty was … ? We didn’t know.
The other day, I was looking back through my Instagram posts from that time period and I came upon one, which contained 9 pictures of my smiling, happy family. The pictures painted us as having a super fun day: painted nails, dress-up, bike ride, bouncy chair, big box, and big sister using said box as a pulpit to preach to her little brother. How happy we were, I thought, could it have been that bad? Then I scrolled down and looked at the comment section. A friend had commented that although quarantine was hard, it was also kind of magical. I had replied, “Kinda, but not pictured: the potty-trained kid had a 💩 accident every 30 minutes. I’d rather remember the day by these pics.”
How often do we look at our friends’ social media posts and believe that they have their life together? If only I could be like them, we think. Yet, we compare what we know about our lives with what we don’t know about the life of others. We all struggle. Every single one of us. Some of our struggles are out there for all to see, and some are hidden away. Scripture tells to stand firm in our faith “in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world” ( 1 Peter 5:9). Stand firm and know that everyone is struggling. We are all in this same storm, but it looks different from our different boats. Some puzzlers are lonely. Some hero workers are beyond exhausted. Some book readers are isolated. Some smiling happy families are … craptastic.
As the POOP Pandemic continued through March and April, we met with our pediatrician weekly. Although our first visit had been in person, none of our subsequent visits would be. When COVID shut the world down, all doctor’s visits moved online. I never thought I’d ever do something as senseless and dangerous as holding up my child’s bare bum to a video chat so the person on the other end could inspect it. This is not something you should ever, ever do. But COVID-tide calls for different measures. So there I was, every week, holding up that precious little bum to the screen and pleading with the doctor for help. Every week, he’d make suggestions for a new strategy to try. In the end, he said, “I’m sorry. I’m out of ideas. Keep putting that cream on, but if she can’t stop pooping, there’s nothing we can do.” And so we tried everything to get it to stop.
We tried rewards. We purchased an entire carton of juice boxes and promised a juice box for every poop in the potty. The carton sat fully wrapped for weeks.
We tried punishments. Each accident lost something: cup, cheerios, a toy, a TV show, the iPad, her Minnie Mouse. She was undeterred.
We tried sticker charts, which worked for a total of two days before the stickers lost their appeal.
We tried fiber-rich foods for binding-up, which only led to the opposite problem.
We tried switching back to pull-ups, which only encouraged her to pee in them too and exasperated the rash.
We tried ignoring it altogether. “What poop? I don’t smell anything.” This only led to more mess and more rash.
We tried switching cleaning methods. When she became scared of wipes, we switched to cloth. When the cloth were too thick, we tried the shower. When the shower scared her, we went back to wipes.
We tried kindness and understanding: It’s okay. We love you. There’s nothing to be upset about.
We tried disappointment: This makes mommy and daddy so sad.
We tried reverse psychology: Please, poop in your pants.
We tried bribes: My mom promised her a new fancy Minnie Mouse dress.
We tried courage: You are a brave Super Hero!
We tried play acting: She put Minnie on the potty. She changed Minnie’s underwear. She wiped Minnie down.
We tried reading books.
We tried watching TV episodes.
We tried screaming our anger and frustration and utter cluelessness into the abyss hoping God would send help…or put us out of our misery.
By Holy Week, I started researching child psychologists. I knew it was all related to all the changes in our lives: new brother, mommy back to work, home from school, away from friends, away from family, stuck in the house with a baby brother and two working parents, who were scared out of their minds. How much could one 3-year-old take? This I knew: she was using it to get attention. It started out as something she could control, but it was now uncontrollable. The POOP Pandemic was controlling her…controlling us. This I knew, but I did not know how to stop it.
On Easter Sunday, she picked out fancy dresses for she and I to wear (her favorite thing in the world, besides Minnie Mouse). She found her Easter basket. She hunted eggs. She watched Easter worship with her Dad and brother, which I preached alone from an empty sanctuary. As I left the empty tomb of the sanctuary that morning, my husband texted me the good news: Another Easter miracle! Susannah had pooped in the potty.
The heavens rejoiced. The angels sang. Hallelujah rang out. Christ had Risen Indeed!
The POOP Pandemic ended as quickly as it had begun. She never looked back, but she did enjoy the spoils of her victory: a juice box per poop and a brand-new fancy Minnie dress from her Giggi.
In the aftermath, as we struggled through the COVID pandemic and left the POOP pandemic behind, I tried to piece it together. What had happened? Was it medical? Was it psychological? Was it emotional? Was it attention seeking? Was it a coping mechanism? Was it controlling what you can when everything is out of control? Was it all of the above? Perhaps yes, but as it turns out: it was a spiritual discipline. For the POOP Pandemic had begun on Ash Wednesday and ended on Easter Sunday.
She had given up the Potty for Lent.
As we now re-enter the Lenten season 1 year later and you decide your 2021 Lenten discipline, I have 1 piece of advice: choose wisely.