The XX Factor

What Do You Do If You Don’t Have a Diaper?

Are diapers a basic need? Looked at on a food-shelter continuum, it feels iffy. A baby, after all, can survive without a diaper. But in practice, in this country-how? A mother could stay in and rush her infant to the toilet all day (and clean up a lot). She could wrap the child in some cloth and plan to head home. Often. She could-well, actually, I don’t see that many other options, other than getting someone else to do the same. She can’t travel. She can’t work. She can scarcely leave the house.

Suddenly, diapers are looking like a basic need after all. Most mothers agree-95 percent in the United States, according to a study authored by the Director of the Institute of Human Development and Social Change at New York University and commissioned by Huggies . That isn’t such an earth-shattering finding (unless you’re Kimberly Clark), but it gets more interesting. In the United States, the average mother spends 2 percent of her household income on diapers. For a third of U.S. women, buying those diapers is a financial hardship, and requires cutting back on food, child care, or essentials. One in five U.S. women reports running out of money for diapers-and when women run out of money for diapers, they don’t have many choices. They can borrow, they can leave diapers on for longer, they can wash out a poopy diaper, or even dry out a wet one, and make it go around again. Or they can stay home. Keep the kid out of daycare (and if you’re even thinking of suggesting that cloth diapers would help here, please consider that many day-care facilities don’t accept them and that may laundromats don’t permit them-and that you have to buy them in the first place). About 20 percent of U.S. mothers report doing one or more of those things. None of them make it easier to get by.

Looking for work is a full time job-and so is holding a family together on any form of state assistance. You can’t do either if you’re stuck at home, trying to figure out how to get something on your kid’s bottom so that both of you can get on with the day. “Diaper need” (the Huggies phrase for it) doesn’t sound that overwhelming, but enduring it daily would leave anyone overwhelmed. You can’t buy diapers with food stamps, although you can with other forms of assistance. “Diaper banks” offer help, as do churches and other parents-but maybe, the next time you see a food bank box, you might think about tossing a couple packs of disposables in along with the peanut butter.

Photograph of baby courtesy of Getty Images.