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What It's Really Like Not To Be Able To Afford Diapers

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Years ago, before I had kids, I knew a mother of two baby girls. She was unemployed and struggling to give her daughters the best and most she could. One day, while we were all hanging out, I noticed that one of the girls had a wet diaper. I mentioned it to the mother because I figured maybe she forgot to change her. But it wasn’t that she forgot. She told me not to worry about it, that she was simply trying to make the most out of the diaper. It struck me as odd then. Years later, I would find myself in near the same predicament: struggling to afford diapers.

During his last year in office, President Obama pledged to do all he could to close the “Diaper Gap,” which is, essentially, the roughly 30 percent of parents in this country who cannot currently afford diapers according to the National Diaper Bank Network. That means 1 in every 3 babies might end up with a diaper rash or infection from staying in a wet or soiled diaper for too long. It means that 1 in 3 parents struggle not only financially, but with their mental health on their line, doing their best not to become depressed or anxious due to their inability to provide properly for their child. Sadly, while the Obama administration did their best to support non-profit organizations with providing more diapers to low-income families, it certainly wasn’t enough. And so far, the Trump Administration has stayed silent on this issue.

'I had to really start getting picky about how wet a diaper could be before I changed him.'

How exactly does this happen? Shouldn’t this sort of thing be covered under SNAP (what we term "food stamps"), WIC, CHIP, or any other government assistance program for low-income families? These are the kinds of questions that come to mind when you have a robust belief in the social safety net. But when you live it firsthand, you know that it happens in a multitude of ways. It happens to the mom who got fired for being pregnant, and barely scrapes by working customer service from home in her spare time. It happens to the family whose neighborhood was gentrified and now find themselves struggling to make the rent, let alone pay for anything else. It happens to the father whose wife passed away giving birth, who can barely hold it together at work to make sure he can feed his child. And, for a short time, it happened to me.

When my son was born, he spent a couple months in the NICU. As such, my husband had some difficulty with maintaining steady employment. We were extremely fortunate in that we were currently staying with my parents, who weren’t requiring rent. But that didn’t mean we were getting everything else free and clear. I remember worrying while we were in the hospital about diaper costs once he was released, though his nurses gave us a fair amount to take home. I had seen the price tags on diapers and they were mind-boggling considering their sole purpose is to retain waste and then get sent immediately to the dump. And the thing is, in those early days, babies pee and poop all the damn time.

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In those days, I was able to get most of my nutritional needs met with what we got through WIC and food stamps, but it was always frustrating that none of these covered the second most expensive item in a baby’s life (the first being formula). I got by on what little income we had, and what I was gifted from family. On especially trying days, I sold things on Facebook to make extra cash and buy more diapers.

Facebook is a fairly popular platform for struggling parents. Amber, a single mom from Denver, Colorado, shared her story with me about her struggle to afford diapers for her 2-year-old son. Facebook has been something of a blessing and a necessity in her life.

“It’s always been a struggle. But at 11 dollars an hour, it’s hard,” she says. Amber works at a Qdoba, and because she makes roughly $11 an hour, she only receives $90 in government help for food stamps. But food stamps, as we’ve established, don’t buy diapers. I asked her how she manages to keep Pull Ups on her son.

“I haven’t bought diapers from a store in a long time. I usually check in different Facebook sales groups and [on] Craigslist because I can get them cheaper,” she says, adding, “I ask for diapers and wipes for Christmas presents and birthdays.”  

Amber isn’t alone. Thirty-seven-year-old Harmony is another single mom who struggled hard to afford diapers for her child. Thanks to her baby shower and extra diapers from the hospital, she was able to keep her kiddo comfortable for the first three months of his life. But then things got tricky.

“I had to really start getting picky about how wet a diaper could be before I changed him,” she says.

“I … got to a point I had three [diapers] left and no money. I ended up going to Human Services for help. They gave me a day’s worth and said, ‘Good luck.’”

Harmony turned to Facebook mom groups as well to ask for help.

“I had to beg for help a few times after that as well.”

One person donated $70, which she used to buy diapers and fill her gas tank so she could drive to work and afford more diapers in the future. It was completely demoralizing for her.

“I felt worthless and useless as a parent. I hated that I struggled to provide the most basic of things. I was embarrassed as well. Here I was, a woman in her thirties, struggling just to diaper her child … I felt like a complete failure.”

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In recent months, celebrities like Kerry Washington and Drew Barrymore have taken to social media to remind the world that this is still a problem that many families face. Washington made a post applauding the work of Baby2Baby, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that distributes diapers and other essentials to families in need. And there are other organizations like it, which can be found via the National Diaper Bank Network, or by calling 2-1-1.

The fact remains, though, that not every parent can get themselves to a diaper bank. And even if they can, that’s not to say the diaper banks will always have supplies readily available.

“I think if WIC could give a dollar amount towards diapers [per] month, that would help. Or if we could use food stamps toward diapers,” Amber tells me. And I agree.

Maybe instead of cutting helpful programs like CHIP and WIC, the government can step up their game and help moms like Harmony, and Amber, and me, so we can focus on working toward the American Dream instead of worrying about whether our babies can sleep comfortably and dry. And maybe the rest of us can continue to support both the programs and the representatives working toward making that happen.

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