To the average person they are innocent words. They are four words
that when strung together don't seem like the kind of thing that would terrify an allegedly well-adjusted, mature adult. But to the parent of a small child out in public they are four of the most terrifying words in the English language - I gotta go potty.
The problem with taking a child to a public restroom is really two-fold. First, they are public. Second, they are restrooms.
I think most of us can agree that cleaning the restroom at our own home isn't fun. No one likes to clean that room in their house, and if they do they are probably some kind of psychopath, or at the very least a highly functioning sociopath with severe OCD issues. It is a room that essentially exists to get dirty, so when you happen to be at the mall, or the zoo, or God forbid driving down the road with nothing but a gas station in sight when you hear the phrase, "I gotta go potty," you know you are about to enter a room that is to cleanliness what politicians are to other people's money. Some of them are clean. To those businesses I say a hearty, “Thank You,” but most are like if you combined the plots from the movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Outbreak.
As a parent when you hear these words your job is to take a small child into a dirty room, get them to do their business as fast as possible, and get out with as little as possible exposure to the Bubonic Plague, Ebola, West Nile, E. Coli, or whatever else may be lurking in the room. One time we were at a park, and the six-year-old zoologist needed to go do his business. (For some strange reason he always needs to #2 in public, I can't decide if it is a genetic thing, or if he has begun actively trolling me trying to push me over the edge.) We walked into the bathroom, I surveyed the scene, and told him, "We're going home." He said, “We just got here.” I said, “Yes, I know, we have a swing set at home, let’s go.” Sometimes it just isn't worth it.
Luck in a public restroom is finding a large stall open, because the first rule of the public potty is, "DO. NOT. TOUCH. ANYTHING." Of course you have a small human on your hands who believes everything, especially if it is unusual, needs to be touched. On one occasion I told a child, "You can’t touch that," so many times in a 30 second period that parachute pants and gold chains magically appeared on my body. True story.
When you get into a stall you have to get the toilet ready for the kid, an amazing feat that combines extremely faceted aspects of both engineering and germaphobia. Toilet seat preparation would be an event in the parent Olympics, probably right after the even where you try to take a toddlers picture in the .034 seconds they are smiling. It is difficult to do really. You put the kid in the corner of the stall, keep repeating the instruction not to touch anything, and go to work trying to put as many layers between any physical objects your child has to touch in the bathroom, and your child.
The real X factor in all of this is your lack of understanding exactly how much time you have to accomplish this task. The other day, my lovely wife was picking something up in a department store, while I stayed out in the van with the kids. Sure enough, before long the four-year-old ballerina announced, "I gotta go potty." I followed up with the first diagnostic question that must be asked, "Can you hold it?" To which the ballerina responded, "I can hold it for two minutes." I hadn’t asked for an estimate, but she gave me one anyway.
Now, you need to know that the ballerina has no real concept of how long 120 seconds is. I had no way of really knowing if two minutes was a long time, or a short time. I put in a quick call to my wife who expedited her shopping experience, and I waited for her to get back to the car. Periodically I would ask the ballerina if she was still holding it ok, and she would give me an updated estimate of how long she could hold it for. At first it went down to 1 minute, then up to 5 minutes. Basically she was just picking random numbers and throwing them out there.
Soon, my wife approached the car setting a new land speed record for a woman nine months pregnant, and the ballerina and I bolted for the stores restroom. Was it dirty? Again it was a public restroom. All things considered it wasn't too bad. This one had at least be cleaned sometime during the Bush administration, probably even W's. We managed to get in and out quickly without contracting something that would require a tetanus shot. I call that a success.
At this point there is a good chance that one day my gravestone will probably say, "Here lies dad, he always said not to touch anything."