Attitudes

Recently, my daughter (11) invited a friend for a sleepover. The friend’s mother called to tell me that her daughter wore a pullup when she slept away. She wanted to be sure that the mattress was protected against a leak. She asked me to give her daughter an opportunity for a discreet change in the evening and the morning. It was unlikely that the daughter would wet the pullup, and even more unlikely that she would wet the bed, but the mother asked me to give her daughter cover if she did. If that was all OK, she would let her daughter know that she could rely on me.

She was comfortable making the call. Her daughter is popular, outgoing and friendly. She has probably been to many sleepovers. The mother had made this call before.

I assured the mother that her daughter would be in good hands. I told her that her call was thoughtful – both for me and for her daughter – and refreshing. She had a good laugh when I told her that our beds were well protected, and that we could provide her daughter with a pullup from our own inventory. I was touched that she thought enough of my discretion to share the embarrassing confidence. She said that she always called before sleepovers, and parents were always discreet and helpful.

We had a little more talk about the subject. Our attitudes and approach were the same: Neither of us was (as J would say) fussed. It’s not a big deal.

I cannot imagine my Mom or any other mother of her (or any earlier) generation doing that. I can’t imagine them discussing this with even their closest friends. It was a shameful secret. Although I don’t think either of my sisters would have cared whether Mom discussed it with other parents, it would have mortified me that someone outside our family – and, worse, a parent of a friend! – would know.

Maybe I’m more old-school than I thought, because I’ve never made a call like that. I’ve never even thought of it.

Maybe it’s a sign that parents are accepting bedwetting for what it is: a delay in one (minor) element of physical development. It isn’t an emotional or intellectual defect.

And maybe parents are also confident that other parents see it the same way.

Improvement in options is probably the major factor. Life is a lot easier for a bedwetter and her mom than it was when I was a child. Today, the unpleasantness of adolescent and teenage bedwetting is insignificant, at least compared to my childhood.

A pullup is discreet. It disappears under pajamas. Even if someone else sees it, it doesn’t scream, “Bedwetter!” or, worse, “Baby!” It’s as comfortable as underwear. It prevents all the awfulness of a wet bed. It doesn’t stink. In the morning, you toss it in the trash.

The old days were uncomfortable, smelly and obvious. They required laundering. They required a hot, sticky plastic sheet, not a breathable and comfortable bed pad.

It’s easier now to accept it, and even to ask other parents to accept it.

On the other hand, the friend’s mother and I agreed that we’d never have that conversation with our mothers-in-law.

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What I learned from Mom: Later Childhood

For several years after my oldest sister started school, Mom didn’t think much about her kids’ bedwetting. My brothers – all pre-schoolers – were too young for her to be concerned about their bedwetting. It was just a matter of changing in the evening and morning.

My sisters were even less trouble. They took care of themselves. They changed discretely and accepted their condition without a fuss. All Mom had to do was provide an adequate supply of protection. She had to buy their diapers from a medical supply store rather than from the grocer. But it was all just part of the diaper budget.

Mom discussed it annually with our pediatrician. He gave my sisters thorough examinations, always concluding that the cause was immature anatomy and recommending patience.

My sisters were beyond an age that almost all kids have stopped wetting the bed. For most kids, that would be a shameful secret. But for my sisters, it was just a fact of life. It didn’t affect their social lives. On a sleepover, they were adept at putting on a diaper secreted at the bottom of a sleeping bag, and taking it off and secreting it in a plastic bag at the bottom of a sleeping bag. They were big, bold, mature girls, so no one would suspect their secret.

I was oblivious. I shared a room with my sisters. I saw what was on their shelf in our bathroom closet. I woke up to their morning (and middle-of-the-night) bedding changes. I knew that my brothers wet the bed. But it was all just part of the background noise of a large family.

So it went until my oldest brother was 6 or 7. My sisters are a little more than a year apart. I’m two years younger, and my oldest brother is two years younger than I am. I didn’t wet the bed, so nothing disrupted the routine until my brother was in first grade. He struggled against wetting and wearing a diaper. And Mom was concerned that she had three overage bedwetters – two of them almost teenagers.

Mom worried that she and my sisters were too complacent, too ready to accept that there was nothing they could do. On the other hand, my brother was not complacent at all. He wanted to stop wetting the bed and particularly to stop wearing a diaper.

Mom made a push to try everything. She had always limited drinking in the hours before bed, and always required a final trip to the bathroom before bed.

She tried waking them in the small hours of the morning. (Mom called it “lifting”. Why? I don’t know. Nobody was lifting anyone.) That cut out a couple of wet nights a week, if she woke them before they wet, and they didn’t wet later in the night. But it left them tired and irritable (and affected their schoolwork).

She tried anti-bedwetting drugs. They cut down the frequency, but they all had side effects and weren’t completely effective.

She tried alarms, which only trained them to wake up after they had wet. The alarm woke up everyone else, too, announcing that somebody had wet the bed.

They tried going without diapers, with only a pad and the plastic sheet to protect the mattress. My sisters did not last long with that experiment. My brother refused for several more months to wear a diaper, but finally even he got tired of waking in a puddle.

The net effect was a few dry nights a week. They were all still wetting most nights, so they still needed protection.

Every few years – as one of my brothers came of school age, or one of my sisters got frustrated at wetting the bed as a teenager – Mom would make another push. But it always came to nothing.

My oldest brother’s bedwetting started to taper off a few years later. By the time he was 12, he was dry most nights. My older sister, 17, was having more and more dry nights and longer runs of dry nights. She was hoping that she might be completely dry before starting college. My other sister, 16, still wet almost every night, but was starting to have a few dry nights (and even two or three dry nights in a row).

And at age 14, I hadn’t wet the bed in more than 10 years.

What I learned from Mom: Childhood

Mom told me that her relaxed attitude toward our bedwetting was a combination of experience, necessity and bluff. She tried hard to keep her worries from us kids, so that our bedwetting (and dealing with our bedwetting) were much harder on her than it seemed to me.

Mom confirmed the genetic aspect: She wet the bed until she was a teenager. (She didn’t say anything about Dad, and I didn’t ask. But my nieces and nephews on that side are late bedwetters as well.) It had been hard on her – waking (and sleeping) in a puddle, feeling shame and inadequacy, fearing friends’ discovery, hearing the contempt of relatives, avoiding overnight stays, smelling the odor that lingered in a room and on clothes. Her parents did not allow her to wear protection, believing that would remove the incentive to stop wetting. They tried all the available cures: Drugs, alarms, waking, no drinks before bed, …

Because of that, she knew that bedwetting wasn’t something that one could control. She resolved to be relaxed, sympathetic and reassuring to her own children, and provide us protection against a wet bed.

She wasn’t at all concerned that my sisters wet the bed as pre-schoolers.

When my oldest sister was about to start first grade, Mom raised her bedwetting with our doctor. He confirmed that it was likely not something my sister could control, and that Mom and my sister should not be too concerned. Some kids took longer to outgrow it. While there were drugs that sometimes provided relief, he didn’t recommend them for children. They weren’t a permanent solution and they had side effects. He didn’t recommend alarms or waking, either. Sleep is just too important to children. Unless she showed symptoms beyond just wetting the bed, the only thing he would recommend was to manage the consequences.

Effects of bedwetting

Medical surveys of children and parents report that bedwettters have a sense of “social difference and isolation“. Wetting the bed causes “distress and low self-esteem“. Bedwetters  have significantly lower self-perception of their scholastic skills, physical appearance and athletic competence, which worsens if bedwetting continues into adolescence and teens. Children in one survey rated parental fighting and divorce as the only things more stressful than bedwetting.

Interestingly, self-esteem improves if bedwetting is managed, even if it isn’t cured.

Parental anger or frustration is strongly correlated with negative emotional and psychological effects.

In my experience, that’s correct: A parent who is tolerant and reassuring and helps manage the physical consequences will also minimize (or even eliminate) shame, isolation, fear and loss of confidence and competence.

I didn’t feel shame or fear or isolation as a teenage bedwetter. It didn’t make me shy or withdrawn or wary. I didn’t feel physically, emotionally, intellectually or socially diminished.

For me, the bad effects were physical: The sodden wretchedness of a wet bed; the bulky discomfort of a diaper; greasy, smelly rash creams; the time and effort of putting on, taking off and laundering diapers.

My first teenage wet bed was a shock. The next few were disheartening, as I realized that it wasn’t a fluke. I didn’t just wet the bed; I was a bedwetter. I was even more unhappy when disposables proved inadequate and I started wearing a cloth diaper.

But within a few weeks, all that had passed. Neither wetting the bed nor wearing a diaper bothered me. After a month, it barely registered on my consciousness. A diaper dealt with wetting, and the washing machine dealt with a diaper. Changing was just another bedtime and morning routine. I could easily hide it on a sleepover or trip.

Perhaps the reason that I wasn’t afraid or ashamed was that my basic personality was already formed. I was already confident and happy.

On the other hand, my siblings were all chronic bedwetters before (and into) their teens, so their personalities were formed under the influence of bedwetting. Although we range from artistic to nerdy to pragmatic, none of us is shy or lacking self-esteem. If my siblings had any shame or fear about wetting the bed, they didn’t show it.

The difference, it seems to me, is family. My parents didn’t treat it as a shameful problem. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t even a small deal. It was what it was, and it was easy to deal with. It was a private matter, and easy to keep private.

My older sisters were as big an influence as my parents. I idolized them. They were smart, outgoing, athletic and confident. They were daredevils. They both wet the bed regularly until they were 16 or 17.

Wetting the bed didn’t seem to affect their personality or outlook. It certainly didn’t hamper their social lives or dampen their enthusiasm for sleepovers or trips. They certainly didn’t seem to fear discovery.

J

I dated J for several months before I told him that I wet the bed. Telling him was prelude to spending the night together (not intercourse — that was much later).

Over the next few days, J asked a hundred questions — some intelligent, some silly, some touchingly sweet — as they popped into his head. A college girl who wet the bed was … different. He was kind and sympathetic, without being patronizing. If he had pitied me, I would have dumped him.

After I assured him that I wasn’t hurt or embarrassed by his curiosity, he wanted a “fashion show”. (I wore briefs back then; it was before I discovered pads.) For the next few weeks, he was sneaking looks as I went from bathroom to bed, although he (comically) tried to be discreet. There wasn’t much to see — I wore a big, baggy, flannel Lanz nightgown, just so nobody could tell what I was wearing underneath. Super sexy.

The sense of its peculiarity passed for him as quickly as it had for me as a teenager. It became conventional, as interesting as me brushing my teeth. My fascination with his shaving lasted longer than his interest in my nightwear.

J was just like Mom: practical, compassionate and matter-of-fact. He was relaxed. He was reassuring. It didn’t mean anything to him. It just wasn’t important. And why should it be? It didn’t interfere with my life; there was no reason it should interfere with his (or ours together).

Then we got married. And really intimate.

Incontinence wear isn’t sexy. (I have Simone Perele and Eres for that.) I’m not ashamed of it, but there’s nothing to be gained by flaunting it. Last thing before going to bed, I go to the bathroom, close the door and put on a pad. First thing in the morning, I go to the bathroom, close the door, take off the pad and throw it out. The only thing J ever sees is the pad lines under my pjs. With the modern disposables and my baggy pjs, I don’t think he even sees that.

It doesn’t interfere with intimacy, any more than pajama bottoms do. If I’m in the mood, I don’t put on a pad before getting in bed. (Pretty good signal, no?) If we get in the mood, it comes off PDQ.

I’ve never slept unprotected with J. He’s never woken up in a wet bed. I would never want him to subject him to that misery, especially not to the misery of my wet bed.

I doubt my bedwetting crosses J’s mind more than once a month. Once in a while he’ll ask if there’s anything new, or joke about it.

Maybe I should ask him to make a guest post.

UPDATE: J has reviewed and approved this message, after making me take out some PG-13 material. He also pointed out that “protection” has a different connotation in the intimate context, so I changed it to “incontinence wear”.

Family

All my siblings were chronic bedwetters until at least age 10. My sisters wet the bed until they were 16 or 17.

My parents didn’t make a fuss about it. It was just a fact of life. Mom helped my siblings try various strategies — alarms, waking in the night, limiting drinking after dinner. But she never pushed us into any of them. She had no faith that any of them would help; she believed that it was all a matter of maturing anatomy.

Diapers were a fact of life, too. Mom kept a supply of necessary sizes of disposables for my brothers in their bathroom and for my sisters in our bathroom. She did not require any of us to wear protection at home. But she provided the option, and all of us took it. For my siblings, it was second nature. They had always wet the bed and always worn protection.

It was different for me. I hadn’t wet the bed since I was a toddler. Managing bedwetting was new to me at age 14. Mom didn’t tell me that I had to wear protection, but she did suggest that I would be more comfortable if I did. After the horrible experience of waking up in a pool of urine, I did so promptly and without shame. I had the example of my older sisters, whom I loved and admired. They had each always worn protection without shame, and still did at ages 16 and 17.

Bedwetting wasn’t a secret in the family, although we were discreet. I shared a room with my sisters. I knew that they each wore protection to bed, but I never saw it. Each of us changed in private, behind a closed bathroom door. I never saw a wet sheet or wet pajamas, either. I did hear my sisters changing wet things (and occasional blue language from a stubbed toe) during the night.

Mom’s one rule was that everyone was responsible for oneself. Dispose of one’s own wet disposable; launder one’s own wet sheets and clothes; let her know when it was time to buy disposables or replace worn diapers or pants. No wet sheets left on a bed. No wet things left anywhere but the trash or the washing machine. Mom would run sheets and clothes through the dryer or hang them on the line while we were at school, but we folded and stored our own laundry. The house never smelled of urine.

None of it affected our social lives. We all went on sleepovers and class trips. We all knew how to discreetly change and how to get wet things in plastic bags before they started to smell. The discipline and discretion at home helped me keep it from my roommates in college.

High School: Coping

The first time I wet the bed as a teenager, Mom and I shrugged it off as a fluke.

After a second wet night, Mom gave me one of my younger brother’s disposables. It was purely practical, not punishment. “It’s more comfortable for you and less work for me.”

I didn’t fight it. I had already spent a couple of miserable nights. If it could keep me out of a pool of urine, I would wear it more or less gladly.

It didn’t fit well and leaked so badly that it was hardly better than going without. I was getting desperate for a good night’s dry sleep, and after three wet nights in a week, it was clear that this wasn’t a fluke.

Mom got me Attends. They kept me dry enough to have a comfortable sleep most nights. But they still leaked. It wasn’t usually a big leak — even if it was big enough to wake me, I could change, put down a towel to cover the spot and go back to sleep quickly and in relative comfort. But about once a week, it was enough that I needed to change sheets as well.

Mom got me a flannel-lined plastic pant to cover the disposable. The pant contained the smaller leaks, or at least kept the spot on my pajamas and sheets to a few inches. But it wasn’t enough to contain the floods.

After a few frustrating weeks, Mom made me cloth diapers.

I was not happy about that. Bad enough to wet the bed. Worse to wear something. But wearing a real diaper, complete with pins and a plastic pant — that was the worst that could be. Besides the humiliation, it was like sleeping with a pillow between my legs.

Not only that, I couldn’t just toss a wet one in the trash. A diaper had to be washed. Not only that, to avoid a rash, I had to take careful precautions — changing and washing thoroughly as soon as I woke, even in the middle of the night, and Desitin. Desitin has a distinctive smell, which I thought everyone around me could smell all the time.

The only thing good about the cloth diapers was that they didn’t flood and they rarely (and then only barely) leaked.

Eventually, I learned to fold them and wear them so they weren’t so uncomfortable. But they were still a dreary necessity.

When I was on a sleepover or school trip, I wore an Attends with a diaper doubler, inside an unlined plastic pant. Mom sewed a waterproof lining in my sleeping bag for sleepovers. I had a few leaks, but never enough to soak through the sleeping bag.