I stood there naked and dripping wet, picking up the poop-stained underwear that my 2-year-old had nonchalantly tossed on the floor. Hanging them up to dry, an odd thought struck me: In any other context, a naked grown man holding children’s underwear would be unacceptable.
For parents, the juxtaposition isn’t weird at all. As an adult male, my relationship to the wider culture, and its vast swathe of sexual mores, has fundamentally changed since becoming a father. All parents intuit this, even if they don’t verbalize it; it’s as cliché as claiming that “having children will change you.”
Your Nails Will Be Painted, and Privacy No Longer Exists
Perhaps I’m just riddled with (somewhat) incorrect beliefs that were only tenable as a bachelor — beliefs that were unceremoniously dismantled and purged through the crucible of parenting. The long list of things that made sense to me as a single man are gone, often replaced by what works or what is expedient.
Painted nails are no exception. When your sweet little cherub asks to paint nails together, the only rational answer is “yes.” And honestly, there’s no good reason not to paint nails with your young child — even when you’re a 38-year-old man covering a fancy event for business leaders early the next morning. (True story: After interviewing a CEO at said event, he pointed to my hands with a smile and asked, “Daughter?”) Dads painting their nails is standard — hardly worth mentioning due to dads everywhere with painted nails, wearing fairy costumes, and generally bucking long-standing gender roles.
Privacy is really where time-honored traditions get reexamined, becoming slippery after having children. More accurately, it disappears. One day it’s there, and the next, your 2-year-old is standing there watching you poop while babbling away about why yellow is her favorite color.
Every ritual you had in the privacy of a bathroom must now be filtered through your role as parent. And no, you don’t get 20 minutes to finish a chapter or contemplate life.
As children get older, parents can of course re-establish privacy but it cannot exist before they start to potty train. Privacy is basically an emergent property of being able to go by yourself…and gaining more awareness of your surroundings. Also, a toddler could easily turn on the oven, dump out the garbage, put thousands of dollars in a shredder, pour glue in a $1,300 laptop, and make a bonfire with everything in the apartment while you go pee. The simple truth is that no one goes to the bathroom in private with a 2-year old around.
You’ll Discuss Genitalia in Public
Like privacy, notions of what are acceptable public conversation topics also change when you’re responsible for shaping the mind of a young person.
There is no better time like the present to answer the question, “Why do you have a penis and I have a vulva?” than when you’re in a crowded rest stop bathroom. Curious preschoolers don’t know that you feel this isn’t the best time to talk about private parts. You’re embarrassed or the spontaneous question caught you unawares and you don’t have a easily digestible answer, but these aren’t good excuses to 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds. You’d also be hard-pressed to explain your reservations.
In fact, not using this opportune teaching moment could teach your child the wrong lesson (about shame) or lead to a louder and even more awkward conversation about why you don’t want to talk about private parts in public. Next time you’re in the public restroom, the kid will loudly reassure you, and everyone there, that it’s okay that you don’t want to talk about your private parts.
Besides, in not capitalizing on awkward public conversations you’ll miss the spontaneous comments from random strangers in other stalls, “Woo, boy! Good luck with that!”
You Will Think and Talk About Poop a Lot
Parenting, in a way, is a mirror to which we hold all the things that parent-less culture, and society at large, find normal and acceptable.
Non-parents might find themselves averse to other people’s bodily odors, including liquids and/or solids that come out of those bodies. Parents, on the other hand, have no tact around biological functions. You’ll find yourself discussing them in great detail with your spouse, your child, relatives, and friends — dissecting the details of what came out and how much. Regularity is celebrated by parents (and everyone else) the world over, especially with babies. In order to get your kid to learn to use bathroom, and not be afraid of it, you’ve probably been teaching by example — nothing to be ashamed of.
Potty training can be a monumental task that all parents could elaborate on for hours, but the uninitiated have no idea that that happens. This is odd given that we all have to go several times a day and we all feel better after doing it; it’s just that a young child will talk about it.
When my daughter was going through potty training, she’d excitedly call us into the bathroom to not only smell her stinky bowel movements, but watch them in progress. We sat there with rapt attention as she grunted through a large deposit. Afterwards, the befouled air is punctuated with a happy declaration, “Mommy! Daddy! I have a big poop! Eww! It’s stinky!” Indeed it is, little one.
Learning to go in the potty is a big deal that you all have been working towards for weeks, or months. You talk about it in great detail with your young learner, your spouse, in parent groups, in online forums, etc. The only people who are turned off by these open and encouraging conversations are people who aren’t presently in the know, or who have forgotten the efforts of this milestone.
Parenting forces you to reevaluate what you’re comfortable with in public, and to a lesser extent, in private. Resigning yourself to the lack of propriety, for example, during your child’s first few years of life will save you from repeatedly bruising your forehead with your palm.
The Cultural Mores Needed to Be Broken
What is the lesson here, you might ask? On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any deeper meaning gleaned from opening your personal bubble to your loved one’s funk. But just like with my daughter’s underwear (that doesn’t sound right), there are profound implications to becoming a parent, or just being human, even if we tend to ignore it. Before my after-shower epiphany, before wiping bottoms and noses, changing diapers, before the birthing room — all of this wasn’t normal to me, but it was normal.
I lived in a world of rigid cultural mores with the rest of the childless singles where awkward public conversations around strangers, bad smells, bodily functions, etc. were off limits. But now… Now, my friend, we are parents and all that goes out the window, or down the toilet, for what works and is necessary. Parenting liberates grown-ups, especially men, from the shackles of rigid and outdated cultural mores.
Yet as human beings, we all exist in a space where the same realities apply to us all. Perhaps we’re all in juxtaposition with our highly manufactured reality and life-changing events, any of them, force us to this essential truth. Eventually, most of us come to understand how completely normal it is to go shopping in the dirty sweatpants and the smelly shirt you’ve been wearing all day. I don’t care. You don’t care. Your kid doesn’t care. It’s easier this way. It’s science.
Go forth and be that unstoppable force in tearing down social norms and barriers.
Matthew Koehler is a freelance writer and dad who has worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan, and Washington, D.C. When not trying to keep up with his 5-year-old daughter, he chronicles his fathering experiences at thewinetimedad.com and is on the lookout for obscure beers.