Thursday, January 10, 2013

Misadventures in cloth diapering

It's a typical tale: you start motherhood with the best of intentions.  You're going to be kind to the earth, your baby and your wallet.  And given those high minded ideals, it only makes sense to jump into the cloth diapering trend.  You do the considerable research this seems to require.  You stock up on the colorful gear. You bask in your earthmama goodness.
See?  Enticingly colorful.  Like jelly beans.

And then you have a baby.  Who poops.  Runny, yellow, stinky, sometimes explosive infant poop.

At some point - probably after 5 public blow-outs, 3 laundry disasters, 1 too many condescending question from older relatives, and 6 months of sleepless nights - you find yourself staring wistfully at the disposable diaper display, wondering if this could be just the thing to give you a much needed respite from your now chaotic life.  At this point your the need to simplify a too hectic life trumps your once coveted ideals. You buy that gateway Pamper.

A lot of moms stick with cloth diapering through the years (and great for them) but I've heard of just as many who've abandoned the practice.

We were counting ourselves among that camp.  Until now.

With our first, we too wanted to be good to the earth, our baby and our wallet.  But we lived in a minuscule Boston apartment with a shared washer and dryer.  It was enough that we were going to add a screaming infant to the entirely childless complex, but placing human feces in a communal machine seemed more like a stunt a college prankster might pull than something good neighbors would do.  We wanted to keep our lease, so we settled on the "gDiaper" hybrid approach.  

The gDiaper has a reusable outer diaper and a biodegradable flushable insert.  You simply drop the baby waste along with the baby maxi pad into the toilet and voila!
Nifty, huh?  

Well, not exactly.  The gDiaper start kit came with a large wooden stick, which we looked at the  puzzlement cavemen might give an iphone.  Were we supposed to beat the poop out of the baby with it?  Did the makers of the gDiaper assume we'd need it for our next drum circle?  What?

We read the instructions and learned that we were supposed to use it to swirl around in the toilet water to break up the biodegradable insert and the "waste."  You know, turning our toilet into some kind of fecal witches cauldron.  The reason:  the flushable insert is only flushable with a powerful toilet and a good stirring.  We could do the stirring, but our mid-century plumbing did not have the flushpower to eliminate the eliminations.

So, we sheepishly returned to good "old fashioned" disposable diapers, declaring: "These things are awesome!"   We gave a nod to our environmental ideals by buying the no-bleach Seventh Generation version.  But, honestly, the statistic that it takes 500 years for a diaper to decompose stuck in my head every time I bought a package.

Still, my too hectic life trumping my ideals - as per usual - coupled with inertia, meant that once we started buying disposables it was hard to turn back.

Then we moved to Kenya.  And had another child.

I'd like to say moving to Kenya, living in closer proximity to the kind of pastoral vistas which typical inspire environmentalists, turned us around to revisit cloth diapering, and that's part of the reason.  We are a lot closer to the waste removal system here in that trash is generally burned in the back yard or moved to the municipal trash dump, situated directly behind our favorite sandwich place.  We can no longer pretend that it is a sanitized affair.

But the truth is also that diapers costs twice as much here.  In Kenya, diapers are truly the luxury item something with such major environmental externalities should be.  And, just as my Econ 101 professor might have predicted, it was the price that ultimately tipped the scales and pushed us to revisit the cloth diaper option.

So, we did the research, sent for the colorful gear and basked in our earth parent goodness.

Only one remaining problem:  we didn't have a washing machine.

We had hired a lovely woman who washes and hangs out to dry our clothes by hand. Now, I have an uneasy relationships with the whole concept of house help, and I already washed out my underwear by hand for fear of inadvertently offending.  Could I really make someone else clean our poop stained diapers?

I polled my Kenyan friends who generally thought I was making way too big a deal out of this.  I'd hear, "We're used to it" or "We're not as squeamish as you about these things."  Though they probably didn't say squeamish.  They probably said "funny," which is a catch-all adjective exceedingly polite Kenyans use when they don't want to insult someone.

Still, I didn't want to just drop a bunch of human waste in a bucket, and make it someone else's problem.  So, we devised a system.  I'd scrape off the poop into the toilet (now, where's my gDiaper stick?), rinse off any remaining bits, and then soak it in a bucket of soapy water.  Then, I'd wash away any remaining guilt by giving Mary* a raise for the extra work.

So, for me, it's a bit more work than someone with an actual washing machine might have to do, but still far from doing it all myself.

I'm a lot more intimate with the poop (much of it does not scrape off easily) and half of the time I feel like a scatologist in training, but I'm actually getting used to it.  Instead of thinking guiltily of landfills, I feel a near smug sense of pride, mentally tallying the global and personal resources we're saving.

Still, I imagine that some Kenyans who understandably pine for the ease and convenience of disposables, might scratch their heads and wonder why we, relatively affluent foreigners, would willingly go back to the the labor intensity of cloth diapers.  I imagine them saying, "funny wazungu."

*not her real name


  1. or, with all the money you are saving (not buying disposable diapers), you could buy a washing machine.

    1. Oh that is such a loaded issue! First of all we're not saving THAT much money. ;) Plus, since we have someone who comes in just to do the laundry, if we did buy a machine it would put someone out of a much needed a very difficult to find job.

  2. I always want to go cloth... and I get so scared.

    1. Oh, I felt the same way, but it's actually not all that bad. And there's a ton of support online where you can find tips and advise. You really do save a lot of money over time AND I've heard that it makes it easier to potty train since they actually feel wetter in the cloth diapers so there's a more incentive for them to get to the potty...

  3. Love this! When we bought our cloth diapers I considered g-diapers but didn't really understand how they worked. I love your explanation. We cloth diapered much the same as you. No washing machine. I did the first wash in the toilet and then soaked them until it was time for them to be hand washed. I also hired someone to do that job and I also felt guilty about it even though I explained that was part of the job at the interview and was assured it really wasn't a problem or a big deal.

    1. Oh, I am SOOO glad this resonates with someone!! : ) I thought this would be a pretty un-relatable post. I too felt guilty about having someone else clean the diapers, but really everyone said I was making too big a deal about it. Still, it means I basically wash them out before they get a thorough washing. Still, I'm getting used to it and cloth diapering has officially been demystified for me!

  4. I went straight to disposable. Felt guilty about it every single day. But not guilty enough to stop. All I can say is that the day son #2 gave up his last (poopy) diaper...was a joyful, joyful day.

  5. I am already going crazy over the disposables(cost) and yet I dont know a single store that stocks the cloth diapers.I dont mind washing off poop anyway coz my baby had been doing the projectile kind of poop that seeps through the diaper and into his clothes...suffice that to say I learnt the hard way.
    So mamamzungu is there any way you can hook me up with clothe diapers rather how I can get some?

    1. Rachael, there are no stores in nairobi selling the washable diapers but i do sell them, i import in bulk and sell them. my email is if interested ..a sample below

    2. Rachael, there are no stores in nairobi selling the washable diapers but i do sell them, i import in bulk and sell them. my email is if interested ..a sample below

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  7. Hi Rachel, we actually ordered ours from the US from Green Mountain diapers. But I'm not sure where to get these particular kind here in Kenya. I would guess Nairobi would have something on offer there. I have a friend in Nairobi who is using them, and I can ask her if you like. Where do you live?

  8. I need these washable diapers please. +254715737398

  9. Thanks mamamzungu for the article,i sell the cloth daipers good price retail and wholesale 0718127127,Mary

  10. How you are going to stock all this extra stuff is dependent upon the closet space, drawers or cupboards you already have or plan to purchase in the future.
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