Many of us likely remember how panic purchasing during the early days of the pandemic led to empty shelves in toilet paper and hand sanitizer aisles in stores across the country. Less surprising to me was the run on baby care items, including formula, wipes, and especially diapers. What many parents took for granted—abundant diaper supplies in a range of types, sizes, and brands—was no longer a given.
The one in three parents who struggled to access diapers pre-pandemic already understood this dilemma all too well. Diaper need, not being able to afford enough diapers without foregoing other essentials, has increased exponentially since March 2020. Due to pandemic-related job loss, financial hardship, and disconnection from others parents could previously rely on to help fill their diaper gaps, diaper banks have reported three- to six-fold increases in diaper requests.
Despite the tireless efforts of a growing network of diaper banks and pantries across the United States that distribute free or low-cost diapers to families in need, they can meet only a small fraction of our country’s diaper need. Although diapers are a basic need of early childhood, existing public programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), do not cover diapers. Welfare cash aid support is rarely enough to cover families’ other essentials, much less the $75 average monthly expense to diaper one child using disposables. Cloth diapering is infeasible among most low-income families due to prohibitively expensive start-up costs, limited access to in-home washers and dryers, and price-per-load for using public laundry facilities. For many families, lack of access to disposable diapers can perpetuate a cycle of financial hardship, whereby daycare center requirements for disposables lead to work and school absences when parents cannot afford diapers.
What, then, are parents to do when they face diaper despair? My research based on interviews with dozens of mothers who experienced diaper need revealed a variety of innovative, labor-intensive strategies caregivers pursue to provide enough diapers for their children in the context of poverty and limited public support for basic essentials. The women I interviewed did three types of what I call diaper work, the physical, emotional, and cognitive labor involved in managing diaper need and related anxiety and stigma. Mothers carefully tracked limited diaper supplies, asked others they knew for diapers or diaper money, and went without their own basic needs to afford diapers.
Mothers could tell me exactly how many diapers they had and predict within hours when they would use their last diaper. Maria, a 30-year-old, Latina mother of four, kept a chart to monitor her infant son’s liquid intake by the ounce, log every diaper change, and track a daily diaper quota based on whether her son had diarrhea or diaper rash. In describing her track-and-budget diaper work technique, Maria told me: “Diapers are lasting longer because I know when my son pees, how many times, how much he pees each time, and how many times fill up a diaper. . . . Diapers [are] the number one concern for me right now because I don’t want to struggle more, so I have to think about stuff in this way, and I can’t go over my daily limit. It’s hard living paycheck to paycheck, living diaper to diaper.”
“[L]iving diaper to diaper” often meant participating in an informal diaper economy that emerged through mothers’ efforts to manage their diaper need. Their strategies ranged from common money-saving tactics like couponing and asking for free diaper samples, to more extreme approaches such as theft, trading food stamps for diapers, and even selling their blood plasma. Mothers sold household items, cleaned others’ homes and cars, babysat others’ children, and collected recyclables all to earn diaper money. They bartered for, borrowed, and exchanged diapers and figured out who in their social networks could be relied upon to help with diapers or diaper money. Diapers were a unique form of currency for which mothers were willing to do almost anything if it meant their babies were clean, dry, and happy. As Natasha, a 35-year-old, Black mother of four explained to me: “My neighbors help with diapers because they know I’m trustworthy. If you don’t have a job, then you won’t be able to get Pampers, and you need someone to love you, help you get them.” For mothers like Natasha, diapers had a unique practical and symbolic importance that conveyed comfort, dignity, and love.
Mothers’ diaper work also involved deciding what their households, and especially they, could go without to afford diapers. Well aware of racist, classist, and sexist stereotypes about “welfare queens,” some emphasized foregoing what others might think were vanity goods or vices, such as hair and nail grooming, cigarettes, and alcohol. The most common stories, however, were of mothers regularly sacrificing or severely limiting their own basic needs, including food, medicine, clothing, and period supplies. Many had even used the latter, along with paper towels, pillow cases, and toilet paper, to create makeshift diapers when they had no other options.
One mother I met, Aisha, 20 years old and Black, showed me the growing hole in her thinning flip flops. As her daughter’s first birthday approached, she was still wearing the same shoes purchased for a few dollars during her second trimester of pregnancy. Subsisting on a diet of mostly tortillas and cereal, Aisha managed her diaper dilemma as many mothers did, by making household purchasing choices based on a per-diaper exchange rate. Just as mothers could tell me exactly how many diapers they had, they could also quickly tell me how many diapers in their child’s size could be bought for the price of a new pair of shoes they needed but went without.
Aisha was one of the mothers whose fears of entanglement with the child welfare system influenced her diapering choices. Beyond lacking ready access to a washer and dryer, the main reason Aisha could not use cloth diapers was because: “[T]hey might see it as a kid in rags. . . . If you go in front of a judge and be like, ‘Well, I didn’t have diapers or diaper money, so I used cloth,’ and your kid pees and soaks right through it, . . . they’ll say you’re not taking care of your kid.” The diaper work of mothers of color like Maria, Natasha, and Aisha went beyond the physical labor of stretching limited diaper supplies and the cognitive labor of tracking every diaper and expense. It also involved coping with the constant stress and anxiety associated with each diaper change and the stigma directed at mothers of color parenting in poverty.
What do we learn from studying mothers’ experiences of diaper need and the diaper work they do to manage it? It reveals how intersecting race, class, and gender inequalities intensify certain aspects of parenting and why we need to revise existing theories of parental labor to account for that. The theory of “intensive mothering” developed by sociologist Sharon Hays highlighted societal expectations for mothers’ parenting to be child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. As a theory used mostly to understand the experiences of middle-class, white mothers, intensity in parenting has primarily come to mean the work relatively privileged women do and the sacrifices they make to promote their children’s educational success and high-class status.
Focusing on diaper work reveals how marginalized mothers engage in what I call inventive mothering, which goes beyond being self-sacrificial, time-consuming, and child-centered to include strategies that are necessarily resource-stretching, dignity-protecting, and stigma-deflecting. Poor mothers are often regarded with pity and contempt, rather than admiration and respect, as they struggle to meet their children’s basic needs. Yet a close look at their perspectives and experiences of managing diaper need reveals highly innovative and laborious strategies that are just as deliberate, complex, and attuned to inequalities and providing children opportunities. These opportunities include clean, dry diapers, something every child requires and deserves, but not every family can easily afford.
Lifting the veil on mothers’ diaper work is an imperative to reevaluate our frayed social safety net and consider how deliberate policy choices have consequences like diaper need. As controversy stirs over President Biden’s proposal for a $15 hourly minimum wage, we should keep in mind that a single mother working full-time for the current $7.25 minimum wage must spend at least six percent of her annual gross income just to diaper one child. Most states still tax diapers, and only California offers diaper vouchers as part of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare cash aid program. Changes to TANF, the only form of direct public aid families can use to purchase diapers, have also exacerbated diaper need. Due to time limits and eligibility restrictions, most families in poverty do not receive TANF, and states now spend only about 20 cents for every dollar of TANF funding on basic assistance that can be used to buy diapers.
State spending on cash assistance for families’ basic needs is lowest in states with higher proportions of Black children, which exacerbates racialized poverty and its myriad effects, including diaper need. We must address this need as part of our nation’s ongoing efforts to reckon with deeply entrenched structural racism. Mothers of color are more likely to experience diaper need and, according to the women I interviewed, more likely to be judged when they struggle with and seek help for it. Within the folds of a diaper may not seem a likely place to look for racial and economic justice. Yet, given diaper need’s close connection to adverse social, economic, and health outcomes for both children and parents—including intensive diaper work—it is a need we have a moral and political responsibility to address.