Dr. Mom

by ParentCo. October 16, 2017

Washroom water tap

I’ve finally figured out what makes a good mother.

Whereas a good psychologist helps a child and gets paid for it, a good mother tries in vain, and then her child succeeds in spite – not because – of her help. I feel qualified to draw this cynical conclusion, because I’ve been both psychologist and mother. When my son James was between the ages of two and four, he was afraid of hand dryers. You know, those big metal contraptions in public restrooms that go “VVVVVV.” People paid me to deal with this sort of thing, so I fancied myself pretty good at it. I thought I could ease James’ suffering. Also, to tell the whole story, James’ public displays were making me look bad around town. Picture me in the pediatrician’s office, halfway under the train table, trying to unfasten the roaring James from one of its legs: “It’s okay, man, there’s no hand dryer at the doctor’s office!”

I’d trained in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a very tidy approach to problem-solving. You identify a problem, and then change either what comes before, or what comes after. I first used CBT to train my cat, Walter, to use his scratching post. I put a container of treats on top of his post and gave him one every time he scratched it. It was humane and effective. My textbook made the point that a mollusk could be trained to clap its shell on command. Wow, I thought at the time. What can’t CBT do?

We started visiting hand dryers all over town. We talked about them, admired them, ate M&M’s under them. My sweet husband made several hand dryers from shoeboxes and mounted them in our bathrooms. James would use the bathroom, I’d hear a flush, then the splashing, and then his little voice making a soft, earnest, “VVVVV” sound. One would think that a good year of focused intervention from a psychologist/mother would suffice. Not this time.

The height of our hand dryer horrors took place in a roadside McDonald’s the summer James was four. We were returning home from a hand-dryer-heavy trip and James was squirming around the booth. Instead of gullibly asking if he had to pee-pee, I just said, “Honey, let’s go use the potty.” Our family of four crept toward the Family Restroom, James clinging catlike to any obstacle in our path. The closer we got, the louder he shouted. “No, I don’t have to go! Please, please don’t make me go in there! No hand dryer! I really don’t have to go!” I smiled apologetically at a woman as I peeled his hand off her purse strap, but she didn’t smile back. Five minutes later, when we emerged disheveled and unrelieved from the restroom with James desperately grabbing his crotch, my husband suggested we beat a hasty retreat. “A dingbat,” I said to my husband as we stumbled out of the underbrush where James had finally found relief. “That’s how our kids make me feel.” Little did I know, this was my first sign that things were about to turn around.

One day, months after the road trip, James had to go to the doctor. On the way there in the car, we talked about his reward. “We could get ice cream. A doughnut? Go to the playground?” James just looked out the window. As we pulled into a parking space he said wryly, still looking out the window: “No, Mommy. You know what I really want?” I braced myself, thinking he was about to ask for a real backhoe loader or a Fender Stratocaster. “Mommy, I just want to go to the grocery store and use that hand dryer.” That’s how James’ biggest fear became a treat, and how I started thinking of myself as mother first, psychologist last.



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