Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Essay: The Great Stinky Toilet Mystery

“Remember that time when we could only talk about how much our toilets stunk for, like, a month?” I asked my friend Ren the other day.

“Yeah,” she nodded sagely.

“What was up with that?” I pondered out loud.

Ren slowly shook her head in clear bewilderment, “I have no idea.”

We tried to stop ourselves. We really did. But for a significant period of time in the late 1990’s, regardless of whatever other conversational topics we conceived of while catching brief snippets of talk time at the sandbox or the wading pool or while doling out carefully cut-up, peeled, organic, locally grown apples, we were lured back to the Great Stinky Toilets Mystery.  No matter how much we scrubbed our thrones, no matter which over-priced, bleach-free, eighty-second generation cleaner we used, we could not rid our bathrooms of the cloying waft of urine. Like Lady Macbeth, we washed the same spot with wild compulsion to no avail. Out, out, damn stench. Ren’s toilets were as bad as mine, and we suspected that there was some virulent virus infecting the toilets of western Massachusetts. Pee Pee Flu Syndrome.

How does a Smith College graduate (cum laude, folks!), “Ms. Magazine” subscribing, former wearer of padded-shouldered business jackets get to a place in her life when persistent piss odors become the bane of her existence? One word: Children. Here are two more words for you: Mommy Brain. And let’s add an image to go with our words: Trying to hold water in a colander. As in, “See this? This is your brain on children. Any questions?”

During the Great Stinky Toilets Mystery era, Ren and I were in our fifth year of stay-at-home motherhood. We each had a toddler and a preschooler, one girl and one boy each, and though at this point even you can do the short-legged, bad-aiming math to solve the crux of our urinary odiferous issues, at the time we were sincerely stumped. We were too close to the situation, too tired, too beaten down and too brain-dead to claw our way out of the OCD mind loop. Yet we couldn’t stop perseverating on it. We didn’t want to talk about it. We tried not to talk about it. We made great efforts to come up with other talking points, somehow incapable of even getting a foothold on the conversational behemoth of Bill Clinton’s impeachment or the Columbine Massacre or even the latest episode of “Ally McBeal.” It always came back to bathroom stench.

Me: “Your toilets still stink?”

Her: “Yup.”

Me: “Mine too.”

Her: “Ever figure out why?”

Me: “Nope.”

Her: “Me neither.”

This conversational Mobius Strip epitomizes the challenge of my parenting years. I was a thinker in a thought-free world. More accurately, I was a former thinker who yearned to think again but had lost the ability due to toddler-induced dementia. I could see the concept of complete thought up ahead, but strain as I might I could not reach it.

And please spare me the crap about stay-at-home parenting being the Most Important Job in the World. I almost always hear that sentence crowed by people for whom parenthood is a philosophical concept rather than practical reality. Or people with full-time nannies. Obviously, I do this job because I think it’s more critical than sustained cerebral functioning, but don’t think I’m skipping along this road wearing a flouncy blue gingham dress, joyfully flinging flower pedals and singing a merry tune (“If I Only Had a Brain” perhaps?) For me, stay-at-home parenting is hard. And I pray that when I get to the end of this long road, my formerly nubile brain is there to greet me with open arms. (For the love of all that is good, don’t talk to me about the brain fog of menopause! Please allow me my denial. Leave me in peace to cling to my ignorance.)

The good news is that Ren and I made it through the worst of it. Our kids are now hovering about the teen years, and we’ve both expanded our lives well beyond the wading pool. On the rare but treasured occasion when we get together, our conversational topics open like blossoming pedals.

Me: “Remember that time when we could only talk about how much our toilets stunk for, like, a month?”

Her: “Yeah.”

Me: “What was up with that?”

Her: “I have no idea.”

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