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Paper or plastic? Cloth or disposable?

August 8th, 2003 · No Comments

Ah, choices. And the responsibilities that come with them. They weigh heavily on us Americans. This freedom we cherish! Do we use our choice for our own convenience? Or determine impact on others, such as the environment? How do we choose?

For example, the classic paper or plastic debate over grocery bags…Kill trees (paper) or create trash (plastic)? Here on the island I’ve come to my own resolution. There are two grocery stores on Bainbridge. At the Town and Country, I ask for paper, since the sturdy bags have handles and stand by themselves – very useful for a variety of projects. At Safeway I usually get plastic bags and I try to remember to recycle them, either by taking them to the store’s recycle bin or by using them for another purpose such as garbage or lunch bags.

As parents, we face the diaper dilemma: disposables or cloth? Again, another debate, this time about economy, environment and convenience with hygiene and health as well. The disposable option is very convenient, clean and about as antiseptic as one can experience with such bodily functions. There is though the specter of all the landfills clogged by piles of Pampers and Huggies. Cloth feels healthier, the touch of soft cotton on a baby’s bottom, although it is awkward and bulky, requiring cleaning, and thereby much water and electricity. The debate is whether the paper and landfill space required for disposables outweighs the cost of water and electricity for cloth: is cloth really more economical or environmental? Certainly, cloth diapers are not as convenient, requiring more frequent changes or else Baby – and everyone else! – gets soggy and smelly. It doesn’t travel as well. Washing and using one’s own cloth diapers though, is more economical to the family budget: reusable, and recyclable for other children or for rags.

Recently – in my five years of parenting history – I’ve started washing my own cloth diapers. In the past, at different times, I have used both diaper service and disposables. So I’ve experienced a wide range of diaper options. With our first child, in California, we used the excellent Tiny Tots. When Michaela was born, I started with the service here but had bad experiences. After nine months, I noticed that her yeasty diaper rash cleared up well with disposables during an East Coast trip, and, already dissatisfied with our current service, I decided to switch to paper.

That brings up the issue of health and hygiene, for me the ultimate matter. I’ve read studies showing concerns about paper diapers and the development of little boys bodies. With my daughters, however, my concern has been for their sensitive skin that easily develops rashes. Doing what my pediatrician prescribes, and slathering their baby bottoms with feminine anti-fungal ointment – made for women! – disturbs me (it says “not for use in children under 12” on the label). Even using a lot of Bag Balm (for “udders”) bothers me. To me, this constant exposure to medication in a sensitive area seems counter-productive to the healthier option of cloth: is this really better for my baby than disposables?

During a recent hot spell in July, I came close to putting the cloth diapers away in the closet. Elisabeth’s bottom was miserable: raw and red. she would cry as I wiped her. I also had concerns about her mobility. At ten months, she was not yet crawling, and I wondered whether the bulky cloth diapers were hindering her hips. I was using lots of ointments, constantly, to no avail except to the disturbance of my conscience. And our laundry room stank in the heat!

And in those hot July days, I confess, I had to come to terms with my own pride, with the feeling that I was finally indeed being the best mom and doing my diapering the best way. All these years inside I’ve had guilt that I wasn’t washing my own diapers, a secret sin I had committed as a mother. Even diaper service wasn’t “the best” in my book, and I had always envied those who washed their own. Economy and environment aside, cloth diapering to me was one of the ultimates of motherhood. What a sacrifice – all that extra work for your baby. And the hard way, the old-fashioned way, is always the right way. A decision that saved money, gasoline and trees: how efficient. Switching to disposables, while I was willing to do it if it was best for my baby, would cut into my pride, into what I thought motherhood meant.

Silly, isn’t it, but true, I confess. Sometimes I have to look pride in the eye before I recognize it. And I realized that motherhood is more than what I do, much more than my identity or perspective, it is loving my children, doing whatever is best for them, at whatever cost to my pride. The sacrifice of stinky hands and dirty diaper pail, the work of washing and folding, is nothing compared to the sacrifices of true love.

Right now the weather has cooled and Elisabeth is doing great, crawling around all over, attempting new feats of mobility, with a clean bottom in her cloth diaper. Today we blew raspberries at each other while I fastened the diaper and cover around her bottom (using a Snappi clip!). It was a fun memory.

For the moment, I’m continuing my choice of cloth. I’d like to continue to use my own diapers, but I will wait and see what my little girl needs. I will continue to learn to choose Love.

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