What I Learned in a One-Bathroom House

I grew up in a one-bathroom house. And with no second half-bath tucked away in the corner, nine of us competed for that space.

Even with no one in it, the bathroom was cramped with nine toothbrushes, a medicine cabinet that let go its contents if you opened the door, an almost-always empty roll of toilet paper on its holder, damp towels, a potty-chair in the corner, and a large toothpaste tube, squeezed in the middle. If you were sharing a sink to spit toothbrush water with a sibling, the walls seemed to bulge.

To take a bath, I had to first take a poll. I’d go through the entire house, asking everyone the same question.

“Do you have to go to the bathroom?”

This is how I learned early to distrust polls. Just as I’d sink into hot soapy water, a younger sibling would bang on the door.

“Gotta go!”

“I just ask you five minutes ago,” I’d begin, even though I already knew the answer.

“Didn’t have to go then!”

Our parents weren’t sympathetic. They, after all, had grown up with outhouses and chamber pots. Going to them with our complaints was sure to bring on stories of holding noses while emptying chamber pots, of bundling up while doing the bathroom dance before traipsing through snow to sit on an ice-cold seat, and of then trying to do your business while you shivered away.

“Way back when,” my dad would say, “even kings and queens didn’t have it as good as you do. This will teach you to deal with life.”

He was right, and here’s what we learned:

  • To be efficient—Get in and get out, this was the mantra. No reading on the toilet, no dawdling in the tub, no daydreaming in front of the mirror. And if something, like combing hair or clipping nails, could be done outside the bathroom, find some other place.
  • To be aware of human biological realities—A lot of earthy things happened in that tiny bathroom. We saw filled-up potty chairs and globs of toothpaste spit in the sink, and we could tell when a little brother hadn’t bothered to take an aim. The sights and smells and sounds of that room toughened us to change our children’s diapers a decade later and, still later, to care for elderly parents.
  • To give way when others’ needs encroach on our own—We learned to speed it along at a knock on a door and to form a line and wait for a turn. But we also discovered that to be equitable, things can’t always be equal—that, for example, younger children would be moved ahead of us in line.

And though we didn’t appreciate these one-bathroom house lessons then, they helped us grow up.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that our family had an escape hatch, a luxury most families on our street didn’t have. Living in a parsonage, the church, with two perfectly good restrooms, was just across the drive. And we knew how to get in the back door.

My dad was right. Way back when, even kings and queens didn’t have it this good.

4 Replies to “What I Learned in a One-Bathroom House”

  1. I liked this post a lot, but I take exception to this statement: “we could tell when a little brother hadn’t bothered to take an aim.” 🙂
    –your little brother


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