Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


JANUARY 9, 2010 2:30PM

A Woman of the Cloth (or not...)

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Disclaimer: Unfortunately I am not receiving free samples or payment of any kind to review products.  I would be very happy to do so (especially outdoor gear).... crickets..... moving on:

I have previously discussed the competitive nature of parenting among certain subcultures (also herehere and here). Many parenting decisions feel like irreversible alterations in the fabric of the universe.  Most are not that serious and you can try something else if the original choice isn't working out. Diapering is one such decision. 

One marker of status among some parents is the way mothers diaper (or not) their babies. 

 On one end of the spectrum is the fringe but growing diaper-free movement. Here's an argument in favor from Mothering Magazine:

"Like breastfeeding, EC has a powerful impact on our relationship with our babies, opening up new levels of communication and understanding, as well as keeping us finely tuned to our baby's their wavelength. EC highlights the mutuality that is, I believe, what our babies most need from us as mothers, and which can be lost or diluted in modern child-rearing practices. [...]


In my daily practice of EC, I had a lot of support from Emma (then ten), Zoe (seven) and Jacob (five) who told me how much they disliked sitting in wet or soiled diapers as babies. Some believe that we set up our society for sexual problems by encouraging our babies to dissociate, or switch off, from unpleasant sensations in their genital areas.

EC has also made a beautiful contribution to my experience of mindfulness in my mothering. Like nursing, EC has kept me close to my baby, physically and psychologically; ensuring that I remained present to my baby's needs; and providing very immediate and practical feedback when I was not tuned in!

As well as these advantages, EC has given us less washing and less waste, and a better time for Mother Earth. And it's been fun! After three babies in diapers, I have been constantly delighted at Maia's ability to communicate her needs, and to keep telling me until I understood. I was also blessed with more of her skin to stroke, especially at sleep time, and of course — no diaper rash."

Note the implicit value judgement on mothers who do not practice EC. Also note the unsupported claim that parents who use diapers are setting the stage for sexual dysfunction.


On the other end of the spectrum is the efficient, convenient, use of disposable diapers.  In the middle are various combinations of cloth/disposables as well as eco-friendly disposables like these:







When my first child was born six years ago, I flirted with cloth.  I just didn't have the patience to deal with the mess, the laundry, and so on.  It looked like a great deal of extra work with a lot of potential for frustration, exhaustion, and E. coli contamination. So, with some guilt about the gigantic environmental impact, I chose disposables.  (The less-expensive generic, bleach-filled kind.)  While I was unable to participate in the sisterhood generated in discussions of cloth diapering logistics, I felt like I was justifiably preserving my own sanity. 


The diapering dilemma is no joke.  According to Diane MacEachern: "Symbolically, using cloth diapers makes a great moral statement." This speaks directly to competitive parenting, where cloth is the "virtuous" choice and can confer higher status within a parent group.


Her environmental analysis reveals: "The environmental consequences teeter between the amount of energy and water used to wash diapers and the amount of waste diapers create."  In my defense of disposables, I cited the equivocal benefits of cloth given the water shortages here in the West. To be fair, the water usage impact might be somewhat mitigated with contemporary efficient washers/dryers. 


When my second chid was born, I stuck with disposables but switched to the Seventh Generation brand.  It seemed like a reasonable trade-off between preserving my sanity and using a slightly less environmentally damaging diaper.  Except that I get them from Amazon, and the shipping has its own environmental impact.  


My daughter is now 17 months old, and will likely continue in diapers for at least another year.  (Even if she wants to shed diapers today, her tiny tushie is much too small even for the training potty.)  


A couple of weeks ago, I saw an ad for a cloth diapering system that included a biodegradable overlay for easily removing and flushing "solids."  Suddenly cloth diapering didn't seem bat-shit insane.  I checked out a hybrid system from a company called gDiapers. Here's how I described the system to a friend:


 "gDiapers are a hybrid: soft cloth pant, biodegradable/flushable inner pad (think obstetrical/maxi pad) and removable breathable waterproof layer.  There's no way our old plumbing could take flushing the pad even if it breaks down pretty well; however, you can also compost the pads that are just wet or toss them like a disposable diaper.  The flushable pad part is expensive, and doesn't look like a ton less waste unless you compost the wet ones. Anyway, Gdiapers now has a reusable fabric inner diaper option, and I thought I could pair that with the biodegradable solid-collecting overlay.  We'll see how it goes.  

The sample pack has 10 of the flushable inner pads, and I can see how that system could work really well.  However, the refills are expensive.  The system I'm going to try should pay for itself in about three months.  We'll use a combination of cloth/disposables depending on what makes the most logical sense at a given time.  
If we hate it, I'll try to just hang in there for three months and then walk away without guilt.  It seems like it would be easier now that she's older, rarely has blowouts, and her schedule is a bit more predictable.  It's an evolution (or not)."

I read the gDiaper reviews, and checked again with Diane MacEachern, who claims that "...the Natural Resources Defense Council says, 'gDiapers seem to have the environmental edge over more conventional choices because they send no material to the landfill, use no elemental chlorine or plastics, and require much less washing (therefore, less water and energy usage) than regular cloth diapers.'"  Well, my system will actually require laundering, but I hope not as much as conventional cloth diapers.  


I've now used up the samples and the flushable pads actually fold up to about half the volume of a regular disposable, so even tossing these produces less waste.  The fabric pads are on order.  I'll give it a try.  Although my primary reasons for trying this system are environmental, if I end up adopting it I will get a major social boost on the playground. 

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diapers, parenting, culture

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not a mother, but those look like a very practical way to go
Thanks for the comments!

Stellaa: Exactly. It's a false dichotomy, and it sets up every parenting choice to become an entrenched political statement.