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‘Down to My Last Diaper’: The Fear of Parenthood in Poverty

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For parents who live in poverty, “diaper math” is a familiar and agonizingly pressing everyday calculation. Babies in the US need six to ten disposable diapers a day, at an average cost of $ 70 to $ 80 per month. Branded, high-end absorption diapers sell for half a dollar each and can cost more than $ 120 a month.

One in three American families cannot afford enough diapers to keep their babies and toddlers clean, dry, and healthy, according to the National Diaper Bank Network. For many parents, this means that they are spoiled for choice: diapers, food or rent?

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation, both with rising unemployment and supply chain disruptions that have resulted in higher prices for a wide variety of products. including diapers. Diaper banks – community-funded programs that offer free diapers to low-income families – distributed an average of 86% more diapers in 2020 than in 2019, according to the National Diaper Bank Network. In some locations, the distribution increased by as much as 800%.

But no federal program can help parents pay for this important childhood. The government’s food aid program does not cover diapers or most government aid programs.

California is the only state that funds diapers for families directly, but funding is limited. CalWORKS, a financial aid program for families with children, provides $ 30 per month to help families pay for diapers for children under 3 years of age. There might also be changes in federal policy in the works: Democratic lawmakers are pushing for $ 200 million for diaper distribution in the massive budget adjustment package.

Without adequate resources, low-income parents must find ways to get the most out of each diaper. This stressful endeavor is the subject of a new article in American Sociological Review by Jennifer Randles, Professor of Sociology at California State University-Fresno. In 2018, Randles conducted nine months of telephone interviews with 70 mothers in California. She also tried to recruit fathers, but only two men responded.

Randles spoke to KHN’s Jenny Gold about how diaper costs weigh on low-income mothers and how many low-income women use “inventive mothers” to protect their children from the harms of poverty. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do diapers address the daily anxieties of low-income mothers?

In my sample, half of the mothers told me that they were more concerned about diapers than about food or housing.

I started asking mothers, “Can you tell me how many diapers you have on hand at the moment?” Almost everyone told me exactly how many they had – five or seven or 12. And they knew exactly how long those diapers were for based on how often their children defecate and urinate, whether their child was sick, whether they had diaper rash at the time. So just all the emotional and cognitive work that goes into keeping track of diaper supplies so carefully.

They worried and said, “Okay, I’m almost on my last diaper. What do I do now? Should I find some cans? [to sell]? Should I sell some things in my house? Who on my social network might have some extra cash right now? ”I’ve spoken to mothers who sell blood plasma just to get diapers for their children.

Q: What coping strategies did you notice?

Those of us who study diapers often call them diaper stretching strategies. You left a diaper on a little longer than you normally would and let it fill up completely. Some mothers have found out if they bought one [more expensive] the diaper held more and dripped less, you could leave the diaper on longer.

They also did things like letting the baby go without a diaper, especially when they were at home and felt that they would not be judged for letting their baby go without a diaper. And they used all the housewares imaginable to make makeshift diapers. Mothers use fabric, sheets, and pillowcases. They use things that are disposable, like paper towels with tape. They make diapers from their own menstrual products or adult incontinence products when they get a sample.

One of the questions I often get is, “Why don’t they just use cloth?” Many of the mothers I spoke to had tried cloth diapers and found them to be very expensive and laborious. If you’re paying for a full starter kit of cloth diapers, you’re looking at between $ 500 and $ 1,000. And these mothers never had that much money. Most of them did not have washing machines and dryers in the house. Some of them didn’t even have homes or constant access to water, and many laundromats and public laundries make it illegal to wash your old diapers. The same conditions that would prevent mothers from easily affording disposable diapers are the same conditions that would prevent them from using fabric.

Q: You have noticed that many women’s concept of being a good mother is entangled in diapers. Why is that?

Diapers and the use of diapers were so fundamental to their identities as good mothers. Most of the mothers in my sample got by without their own food. They didn’t pay cell phone bills or bought their own medication or menstrual supplies to save diaper money.

I’ve spoken to a lot of mothers who said that if your baby is hungry, it’s awful. Of course you will do whatever you can to prevent that from happening. But there’s something about a diaper that covers that vulnerable part of a very young baby’s body, this very delicate skin. And to be able to do something to satisfy this human need that we all have and to maintain dignity and cleanliness.

Many mothers have gone through the social system and therefore live in this constant fear [of losing their children]. This is especially true of black mothers, who are much more likely to be wrapped up in the child welfare system. People can’t necessarily see when your baby is hungry. But people can see a sagging diaper. That will be one of the things that mark you as a bad mother.

Q: Has your experience as a parent influenced your work on diapers?

When I did these interviews, my daughter was about 2 or 3. So she was still in diapers. When my daughter peed while changing diapers, I thought, “Oh, I can just throw this away. Here, let me get another clean one. ”This is a really easy choice. To me. This is a crisis for the mothers I interviewed. Many of them have told me that they have an anxiety attack every time they change diapers.

Q: Do you see a clear political solution to diaper stress?

The ironic part is how much physical, emotional, and cognitive work is put into managing things that society and lawmakers don’t even recognize. Diapers are still not really recognized as a basic need, as evidenced by the fact that they are still taxed in 35 states.

I think what California is doing is an excellent place to start. And I think diaper banks are a fabulous type of community based organization that has huge needs that are not met by safety net policies. So public support for diaper banks.

The part of the direct cash grants of the social security net has almost been reduced in the last 25 years. California is pretty generous. But there are some states where the cost of diapers alone would use up nearly half the average state TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] Advantage for a family of three. I think we really need to deal with the fact that the value of cash aid is so much less than it used to be.

Q: Your work on marriage and family is fascinating and unusual. Is there a single animating question behind your research?

The common thread is: How do our safety net policies support the educational goals of low-income families? And do they balance the conditions of parenthood? I see it as a reproductive justice issue. The ability to have a child or not and then raise that child in conditions that meet the child’s basic needs.

We like to say that we are child and family friendly. The diaper problem is just one of many, many topics that we don’t really put our money or our policies into when it comes to helping families and children. I think my work tries to get people to think together about taking social responsibility for all families and for each other. No country, especially the richest country in the world, should have 1 in 3 very young children who do not meet basic needs.

I interviewed a father who was imprisoned for writing a bad check. And as he described it to me, he had a certain amount of money and they needed both diapers and milk for the baby. And I’ll never forget, he said, “I didn’t make a good choice, but I made the right one.”

These are not fancy shoes. These are not branded clothes. This was a father who needed both milk and diapers. I don’t think there is much more basic than that.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit foundation that provides the country with information on health issues.


This story can be republished for free (details).

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