Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Choices that Matter

The LAT newsroom is so lean these days, they don't have much time to do real journalism.  Mostly, I just read the press releases sent out by PR agents masquerading as news reporting and shake my head in disgust.  This article about a new diaper merchandising trio was unintentionally funny.
On a recent Friday night, a very pregnant Sheila Dos Santos and her husband were two-thirds of the way through an hour and a half cloth diapering workshop, trying to wrap their heads around the myriad diapering options available to the modern parent.

Laid out on the large coffee table in front of them were dozens of types of diapers and covers and inserts, as well as a plastic baby doll to try them on.

"I'm so overwhelmed," said Dos Santos, looking down at the 11-page booklet she held in her hands.

The workshop was being given by Lena Hill, Lisa Hubbard and Jennifer Rodriguez, three new-ish moms who are planning to open Los Angeles' first cloth diapering store, Tush (, in early June.
For those moms who do plan to use cloth diapers, making the correct choice can be fraught with anxiety. Are hemp inserts a better bet than bamboo? What type of diaper cover breathes the best but will also eliminate leaks? Which ones are the most environmentally friendly? What is the most organic choice?

These decisions feel all the more important because, according to the Tush handout, a reasonable supply of newborn-size fitted diapers and covers can cost close to $700. And that just lasts for the first six months of the baby's life.
But the article redeemed itself by injecting a dose of credulity.
According to Sharon Hays, a professor of contemporary gender studies at USC, an hour and a half diapering workshop falls neatly into what she calls "the extraordinary pressure of intensive mothering."

"Intensive mothering" is a term she coined in 1997 in her book "The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood." She describes it as a "child-centered, expert guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive, financially expensive ideology in which mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture and development of the sacred child and in which children's needs take precedence over the individual needs of their mothers."
I would also like to add that most daycare centers require disposable diapers. Only stay at home moms or people with in-home nannies have the luxury to choose cloth diapers.

It's not clear that cloth diapers are the environmental choice in water-starved southern California. I fondly recall a Sierra magazine article doing the environmental impact study about "cloth or disposables". It was an environmental tossup EXCEPT in arid areas (such as LA) and places running out of landfill space.

In water-scarce areas, it was better to import disposable diapers than to import the water to wash them.

Cloth diapers using a diaper service were the better choice in a handful of densely populated cities (mainly in the northeast), where they had exhausted nearby landfill space.  Diaper services have economies of scale when washing tons of poop-filled diapers. But diaper trucks spew pollution and burn gas (or diesel).  They were not a good environmental choice unless there were large numbers of other diaper service users in your area. 

In no case was washing diapers at home with bleach a good use of water and energy.

If you bought specialty diapers from Tush, you wouldn't be able to use a diaper service. So you'd have to wash them at home, adding a hefty dose of bleach to your sewage.

This is a really long preamble to a mother's choice that really matters, and a damn fine piece of reporting in the LA Times by Joe Mozingo, In Haiti, aftershocks of a mother's wrenching decision.

This mother had to make a decision that matters.
Marie Lud's recollection of what followed that night of the earthquake comes in fragments: Running through the smoke and dust for half a mile to the National Palace. Seeing it collapsed like a smashed wedding cake. Standing all night with her children and tens of thousands of others in the open plaza of Champs de Mars. People clutching whatever random items they escaped their homes with. Chanting hymns. Swatting mosquitoes. Thinking that Bernard [her husband], who had been downtown on business, was dead. That ghostly scream with every aftershock.

The next morning, Marie Lud was desperate. It was as if all her points of reference had been wiped clean: no work, no school, no market, no home, no government. She didn't have food for her children, and was frantic about losing one of them in the crowd.

Just down the street all the inmates of the main prison had escaped. She had long had a fear that some thug would one day try to rape one of her daughters and Bernardo would be killed trying to protect her. 

She kept the three children within arm's reach. A woman noticed them all, and introduced herself as a social worker. She told her that she knew of a local orphanage that sometimes fed, schooled and sheltered children whose parents couldn't do it themselves.
They both started crying. "Where are they taking us?" Bernardo screamed. "I don't want to go!"

Marie Lud couldn't hold back her tears. Her eyes always betrayed her emotions.

"Cherie, things are going to be OK," she told them. "It's only for a short time and I'm going to pick you up."

They got in, sniffling and wiping their eyes, and the car pulled away. They stared at her as they drove off.

Marie Lud didn't sleep or eat that night. She just kept thinking of the betrayed look on those two faces that were as much a part of her as her bones.

Bernard appeared the next day, his face swollen and caked with dried blood and dust. He had been knocked unconscious by the falling blocks of a hotel, and then had wandered through the chaos in a daze.

When Bernard didn't see Bernardo or Barbara, he immediately panicked, thinking they were dead. She told him what she had done. He didn't understand.

"Why did you do that? he asked repeatedly. He was furious. He wanted his children.

Later that afternoon, some thugs started screaming that a tsunami was coming, setting off a stampede. Some children were separated from their parents in the chaos, and the thugs stole whatever valuables were left behind: pots, toys, radios, portable televisions, picture frames, shoes, Sunday clothes.

Bernard then understood her decision. 
Read the whole thing to find out what happens to this family.  It breaks my heart.

I initially read this story in the hard copy format.  But newspapers can't tell if people read ambitious stories like this.  It's all very nice to collect Pulitzers, as the reporters at LAT have done in the past, but the management cares about page clicks.

Click on that link.  Hit refresh several times.  Send it on to friends and family.  The LAT management spends a lot of time and energy analyzing page clicks. They are not going to do more meaningful stories like this unless you click on that link!

And I absolve you from enviro-guilt if you use disposable diapers in LA.

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  1. I clicked on the link. And read the story. I want to go hug my babies now.

    The "intensive mothering" stuff is right on. It drives me nuts- it means that working moms get sanctimony from the political right AND left, because no working mom has time to do everything "right".

    I, too, did a bit of research before choosing what diapers to use at home (as you say, day care requires disposables, although I think there may now be a law that says they have to use cloth if you provide them with enough preloaded cloth diapers to last the day- but don't quote me on that).

    I came away with the decision that in my perpetually drought-stricken area, disposables were better. However, I know that some people choose cloth because they can be cheaper over the long run, especially if you have more than one kid. I certainly don't judge them for that decision.

    Actually, I think the flushable gDiapers are a good idea, but I find myself too lazy to use them with regularity. The wet ones really do compost, although a little more slowly than my husband would like. And the poopy ones flush, even down our low water use toilets. I wrote a post awhile back about how weird it is that I can't make myself use them more often, given that we're fairly green in most ways and they aren't actually that much more work. And they are super cute. I don't know what my issue is, but I've decided to give myself a pass on that and spend my energy on things that will make more of an impact.

  2. This is a fantastic blog post, thank you! I clicked the link and read the article. So sad.

    I LOVE that description of intensive mothering. Spot on. You are my inspiration for free range parenting.

    But I do feel the need to hurry up and potty train my toddler. In Boulder I think we have the landfill space and not the water, so - disposables all the way. (Which we would have done anyway due to day care and general laziness.)

  3. Whoa. How do you find these ideas to juxtapose so perfectly. Thanks for sharing. Diapers so don't matter after that story.

  4. I think I've read that study, it was flawed because it didn't consider the water use in growing the wood to pulp for the disposables, or in the pulping process.

    But compared with other choices, it's not the most major thing. I'm off to read the article you linked to now.

  5. @Rebekka
    No the study assumed that the diapers were made in the
    SE US, where trees are farmed w/o additional irrigation.
    That's where most diapers sold in the US come from.

  6. Of course you know that i am currently in the thick of making all these decisions for my own family....
    and I am going to give cloth diapers a try!
    I would be interested in reading more scientific evidence regarding environmental impact(if you have links or resources, send them my way), but that is not the only reason I am going to try cloth. I am actually going to try BOTH cloth and disposable.
    And, they don't cost anywhere near $700 for 6 months worth if you are washing at home. That must be the designer premium of keeping up with the Tushies:)
    I also read the entire article of the Haitian mother's plight when it appeared in the LA Times. It is heartbreaking.


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