We went on a road trip this summer, which meant 24 hours of driving, but much more than that when you factor in stops with four children. We knew that taking kids on a trip like this would be a challenge, but for the most part it went better than we had expected. Except, of course, for one fairly significant problem.
We gave it a good try, really, but it turns out that we can’t ever go on a road trip again. Or out in public, really. Because going out in public means using public washrooms, and we are done with those. You see, we’ve met our nemesis, and we admit defeat. I simply cannot experience this public menace even one more time, at least not until my kids are much older. I’m speaking, of course, of the automatic-flushing toilet.
I’m pretty sure that everyone hates auto-flush toilets. They should, anyway. I mean, CLEARLY everyone with small children hates them, but I think even regular people shouldn’t be fooled by their slick, unnecessary technology. We’ve all been surprised with an unwanted butt-splash. And we’ve all had to wait, standing in the stall facing the toilet, staring at our own excrement and wondering if the toilet would ever flush. I understand that this is all supposed to keep our hands cleaner because we don’t have to touch the toilet, but it’s not like there are automatic-open bathroom-stall doors, or automatic-dispensing toilet paper, so everyone is still touching everything, and this whole process takes place before we wash our hands anyway, right? It’s pretty obvious to me that a toilet that flushes by itself causes a lot more problems than it solves. But I may be biased by my own personal experience.
Allow me to describe a little scene for you, a version of which has taken place many times over the last few months. The setting can be almost any public place, but the characters and the plot are always the same. It begins any time I bring my four daughters with me into a public washroom.
For this short scene, picture the restroom of a busy highway rest stop, and then picture me walking in with all four of my daughters (for true accuracy, picture them covered in cracker crumbs, and picture at least one of them with no shoes on because she couldn’t find them in the mess around her car seat). It’s been a while since our last bathroom break, and it will be a while until our next one, so all of us need to go now if we want to fit another long stretch of driving in before our next stop. The bathroom is kind of dirty in the way that most highway rest stop bathrooms are, and it’s crowded, but it’s pretty quiet, so everyone can hear the question posed by R, my pronoun-challenged four-year-old. “Mommy,” she says, “does the toilet flush by herself? Does she flush by herself?”
Even as she asks the question, she is backing away from the nearest (occupied) stall and hiding behind my legs. “I don’t know honey,” I say. “But if it does, I can cover up the lights, so it won’t flush until you’re ready, remember?” She should remember. We had this same exact conversation in a different rest stop bathroom that morning. The occupied stall next to us opens, and I glance into it. The toilet flushes by herself. My heart sinks.
I take a breath and look down at my two youngest daughters. Because, remember, R has a younger sister who also needs to pee and who is also scared of automatic-flush toilets — which makes sense when you consider that she is the one who actually once experienced the sudden loud noise and splashed butt cheeks that set off this whole crisis in the first place. R only witnessed that unfortunate event, but that was apparently scary enough. My older two daughters were ahead of us and have quickly made their way into other stalls. They have heard this conversation between their mother and their sisters many times before, and they are wisely staying as far away from us as possible.
“So,” I say. “The toilets do flush by themselves.”
“They flush by themselfses?” N is better than R at pronouns, but worse at plurals.
“Yes.” I say. “But I promise I won’t let them flush until you’re all the way finished and you tell me when. Who will be brave and go first?”
The biggest stall is open, and I push them both ahead of me into it. I stand beside the toilet and cover the sensors with my hand. Both girls cower against the stall door.
“C’mon, R! Be a big girl. I promise it won’t flush. Remember? My hand is covering it? I promise I won’t move.” I lunge for her with my one free hand, but she is too far away, and I’m terrified of letting my hand slip off the sensors. I suddenly regret my decision to choose the bigger stall.
“Please?” I’m begging now. “Daddy is waiting for us, but we can’t go back to the van if we don’t pee first.”
“I don’t have to pee. I pee later.”
“I’ll give you a candy in the car if you just try.” They usually like bribery. Not this time.
“I don’t want to.”
I make a sudden surprise lunge, looking at one of them while grabbing for the other, but they are not fooled and dodge my grasp.
“No. I don’t like that toilet.” R is pretty sure of herself.
I am starting to worry about how my big kids are doing with the hand-washing and being-patient they are supposed to be doing, and I’m suddenly really aware of how all the other people in the bathroom can hear everything I’m saying, and must be either laughing at me or judging me for how I’m handling this situation. I start trying to think of a new plan, hand still on the sensor.
And then N pees on the bathroom floor.
This recurring problem led to conversations about how we should have focused on camping trips instead of road trips. But then we remembered something. Outhouses are even scarier than public toilets: “I don’t want to fall in them’s holeses, Mommy.”
So, we tried, but that’s it for road trips, or day trips for that matter. We’ll try in several years, when my little kids are as big as my big kids are now, and when everyone can understand that a loud noise and a wet bottom are just an unpleasant fact of life when dealing with modern technology, and also that it’s pretty easy to avoid falling into outhouses. Both of my older girls were also scared of self-flushing toilets, and they somehow got over it eventually. Until then, we’ll just have to keep watching movies and ordering pizza to entertain ourselves. At home. Where no one ever seems to remember to flush the toilet.