Dear johns: public washrooms

The evolution of the public family washroom

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I nearly dropped to my knees and kissed the floor when I came upon what looked like the Taj Mahal of public washrooms inside a bustling suburban Ontario mall recently. Alongside the men’s and women’s restrooms was a selection of family washrooms the likes of which this weary shopper had never seen.

With the privacy these big washrooms afford, there’s no need to worry about your preschooler peeking under stalls or your oldest trying to get candy out of the tampon machine — after all, you have the whole place to yourselves.

Each has a tiny toilet stationed beside the adult-sized one, with a partial divider in between, so parents can coordinate their relief effort with their child’s while staving off curious eyes and endless questions they’d rather not field at the mall. Matching kid-height sinks and dryers accommodate little do-it-myself-ers.

For moms seeking respite to nourish their new addition, there’s a tranquil nursing room that branches off the ladies’ room. Soothing music invites mothers to snuggle into one of the comfy upholstered chairs. Shiny wood side tables are positioned next to each chair to accommodate diaper bags, squeezy toys, soothers and other infant paraphernalia. And a few steps away is a fun, cave-like enclosure filled with colourful foam cubes to keep toddlers busy.

Was I seeing things, or had builders finally heeded the collective cry of parents for family-friendly facilities?

It wasn’t that long ago I found myself balancing on a wobbly toilet seat, sandwiched between two stalls inside a dingy mall washroom trying to breastfeed a wailing baby. In those days, a diaper change table in a washroom was still a novel idea.

But while washrooms have improved, there’s still a long way to go before there’s a change table in every washroom (women’s and men’s) and a nursing room at every mall. “At times I’ve had to throw a coat down onto the washroom floor to change my son,” says Brighton, Ont., mom Mandy Scarr.

“Public washrooms can be gross,” agrees Meredith Fraser-Ohman of Ottawa. “I’m not a germ-a-phobe, but some of them are pretty disgusting.” So the mother of three is voting with her feet. “The state of the washroom definitely impacts where my family shops and visits. Recently I’ve been to a wonderful washroom facility in the Bayshore Shopping Centre here. It’s got a great family washroom with a big toilet and a tiny toilet, along with a pull-down change table. If they take off running, I can contain my three toddlers in this washroom. So I’ve noted this mall for future visits.

Those in charge of public spaces are taking note of parents like Fraser-Ohman. “The state of the restrooms has a great deal to do with the experience someone’s going to have on our properties,” says Neil Murphy, national director of communications for Cadillac Fairview, which operates 35 shopping centres in Canada. “It would be inconceivable these days to build a new mall without family-friendly washrooms and, when we renovate, we target washrooms, food court areas and other public areas that are used for relaxation or downtime from shopping.”

And so they should. As every parent knows, the full weight of the juice box consumed in the van will only be realized when you’re trying to squeeze into a tankini, or manoeuvre a stroller and a tray full of Happy Meals to a table on the opposite side of the food court. Watching your kid perform the universal I-gotta-go-now dance in a long lineup for the ladies’ room only compounds the stress.

For Cheryl Wadasinghe, heading into a public washroom with her twin daughters, aged two, is an ordeal at the best of times. “The kids don’t poop all day long and the minute we get to the mall, they go. So there I am with a poopy diaper in one hand and a wipe in the other hand. At the same time, I’m trying to prevent my other daughter from crawling out the front end of the stroller.” While all this is going on, says the Ottawa mom, “I’m trying to be friendly while grandmotherly types approach me and ask, ‘Are they identical? How do you manage with twins?’”

While she really needs a second set of hands, convenient facilities, with sinks in close proximity to change surfaces and hands-free fixtures, do help. Parents say they prefer change tables built into countertops over the fold-down type because there’s more room to lay out diaper cream, wipes and other supplies. Sinks and dryers that turn on automatically provide peace of mind and convenience in this germy milieu. (Taps touched by legions of diaper changers? I don’t even want to think about it!)

Most parents agree that if there were a washroom fairy godmother, they would ask her for free antibacterial towelette dispensers inside each stall and above each change table so they could wipe down surfaces prior to use. Or maybe a concierge who hands out diapers and squirts of hand sanitizer? For now, though, we’ll have to be satisfied with those little packs containing a diaper, quilted change liner and wipe available in some family washrooms for a toonie. But parents can dream, can’t we?

Got a Bathroom Beef?
Ever been outraged to find a change-table-less washroom at a rest stop by the side of the highway, or a museum with nowhere to nurse your baby?

When Chatham, Ont., mom Claudette Meriano struggled to find a washroom suitable for changing her then 12-year-old, physically handicapped daughter at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto three years ago, she embarked on a major letter-writing campaign to management at attractions and malls in her area. The result: Managers at several malls and a number of tourist spots, including the Science Centre, installed counter-style change facilities after hearing about the situation. “Once establishments were made aware, most of them wanted to and did make the change,” says Meriano. Here’s how to make your protest heard:

• Mention the problem to the staff on site. Even if a manager isn’t present, word will eventually make its way up.
• Write a letter to the manager, and ask for a response. Follow up by phone and see if you can get a promise of change. Be friendly. Point out that with comfy chairs and change tables, word will quickly spread among parents.
• Move up the ranks if you’re not satisfied. If the head office of a fast-food chain or a government office gets enough complaints, you could effect broad change.

Honour Roll
We asked Today’s Parent readers across the country to nominate their favourite family-friendly facilities. What do you love most? Long change counters with built-in sinks, comfy nursing chairs and kiddie-sized toilets. Here are some of the winning washrooms:

Orchard Park Mall, Kelowna, BC
The Parenting Room has a stroller parking area with lockers for stuff parents don’t want to lug around the mall, and nursing chairs, a high chair, a TV playing kid-friendly videos and a toy box. Two adjoining washrooms each include kid-sized toilets and stepstools at the sinks.

Chinook Centre, Calgary
The family room includes a slide and play mats, a microwave, leather couches and adjoining family washrooms with adult- and kid-sized toilets.

Market Mall, Calgary
The women’s washroom has stalls with car-seat-like carriers attached to the wall to keep babies and toddlers from crawling or running away. There are four changing stations and a tranquil nursing room with microwave.

The Pen Centre, St. Catharines, Ont.
A spacious nursing room has comfy rocking chairs, a long changing counter and toys to amuse toddlers.

Upper Canada Mall, Newmarket, Ont.
Private nursing stations have one-way glass doors from which moms can watch their older kids in an enclosed play yard.

Place d’Orléans, Orleans, Ont.
Its Place Bébé has secluded nursing stations with gliders and individual volume controls for the soothing music that’s piped in. Change tables are equipped with free wipes, diapers and breast pads, plus a bottle warmer. The two family washrooms include kiddie toilets.

Scarborough Town Centre, Toronto
Several enclosed family washrooms each have multiple toilets, change tables and enough room for strollers. In the adjoining nursing room, there’s an enclosed play area for older kids.

Mic Mac Mall, Dartmouth, NS
Family washrooms on two floors have comfortable change tables and rocking chairs for nursing. Stuck for diapers? They’re available from mall management or the information booth.

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