My mother painted a picture that still hangs on their bathroom wall. It reads, “Save water; bathe with a friend.” While I can question the ethics of such a painting—bathing in multiples conveys a moral flexibility not often found in a Christian home—the message itself was practiced for a limited time in our the Towles household.
Our house changed significantly throughout our time growing up. It started as a nursery, housing a baby for six or seven years, then as a playroom for about a decade, then as a dormitory for migratory teenagers, then a crash pad for college students. Even now, my parents’ home converts itself into a hotel during holidays or family get-togethers.
While we were in the playroom phase of the home, my parents got creative with how we were cleaned up, hosed off or deloused. We were boys, so we transitioned back and forth between three stages: filthy, dripping from the bath, or on our way to being filthy again. If you have only raised girls or you have grown up around girls, you may not understand the depth of filth I am talking about. It’s the kind of dirty that often required a “prewash” hosedown in the backyard, sans and shirts, and then a dip in the tub. This kind of dirtiness required flexibility usually reserved for a general in a war zone or a kindergarten teacher or an acrobat in circe du soleil. My parents had to understand what would get us clean and keep us clean, at least while we were close enough for us to touch them. (Being that filthy, many times we’d stick to them if we were not clean enough, mainly because dirt, juice residue and grape jelly form a very strong mastic. This is dangerous stuff if you like being clean and physically separated from those who are not clean.)
In order to have time other than bathing, my parents devised a plan to reduce bath time without a reduction in cleanliness: multiple bathers. Yep, they threw us all in at once. Great plan.
As my Dad tells it, this multiple bathers idea really took off around the time I could sit up in the bath with my older brother, Joe. I could sit up in the bath and Joe was about the age where bathing was a play time, so Joe would play “lets-see-how-long-little-brother-can-hold-his-breath,” which explains my short-term memory problem.
Actually, my parents were there supervising, but that didn’t mean that problems didn’t arise. Picture the scene. There, in the quiet of the evening, with the problems of the day behind the Towles family and the moment of rest and slumber ahead of them, they would gather in the bathroom for the night-time scrubdown and bed time. Mom and Dad would strip us down and place us in the warm communal waters of brotherhood. With toys and washcloths and soap, they commenced bathing, but they neglected to tell us filthy little boys that our purpose in the tub was to reverse our filthy state, to scrub us clean, to make us less malodorous. We didn’t get it.
We thought bath time was fun time, where we splashed and threw toys, or we thought it was torture time where brother Joe played the aforementioned “underwater” game, or we thought it was potty time. Yes, you read that correctly. I would love to blame the brown submarines that often accompanied our communal tub time on my brother Joe, but I know that I was the creator of those floaties.
At this stage of fatherhood, I reflect on the communal tub scene with a bit of confusion. Before I became a father, I just thought it was a funny I-soiled-the-tub-I-shared-with-Joe story. It was humorous, that satisfied grin stretched on my face as Joe tried to avoid my creation as it sped toward him in the ever-shrinking tub.
As a parent, I am confused that they still tried it after the first time I added my own efforts to “tub time.” Why would they keep on taking that risk? Why did they put us in the tub together again, repeatedly?
It just presented a potential for much more work than two boys being bathed separately. It required a massive cleanup effort: the tub, then Joe, then me, then my Mom or Dad, depending on who cleaned the tub.
It didn’t seem like a good idea, but communal tubbing revealed a massive secret of parenthood: when it’s your idea, you tend to hang onto it longer than if someone told you about it. That’s the issue with parenting: it makes you an expert, even though you’re clueless. My parents didn’t know what the heck they were doing, but we kids depended on them to hose off the stale applejuice and peanut butter.
Fortunately, the time for communal bathing came to an end, mostly because Joe could remember that I had a penchant for using the tub as a toilet, and they realized that the time of usefulness for communal bathing had come to an end. (Joe would pitch a fit when they’d dunk me in beside him.) My parents’ recognition that their good idea (communal bathing) was not a permanently good idea showcases a great principle of parenting: change is inevitable.
They recognized that getting us both in the tub was going to get more difficult and that getting us out was going to get easier. Joe knew that I was going to befoul the tub at some point, and there was a distinct possibility that I would learn that spoiling the bath time triggered an abrupt exit. (It’s fun to get a quick, loud, excited reaction from Mom and Dad, so why not?)
So when the usefulness of the effort has run its course, it’s good to recognize the change and never to look back. In other words, when there’s a turd in the tub, it’s time to get out.