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I Paper-Towel-Stuffed My Son's Diapers

In 1998, I gave birth to our first son, turned 18, got married and moved to where my husband was stationed with the United States Marine Corps. It was a big year for me.

It was also the year that I experienced some of the worst economic hardships I'd ever known. I grew up initially poor, but over the years my parents were able to increase their success and before I left home, our family could be considered affluent.

But by choosing to drop out of high school at 17, give birth, marry my husband and eschew all the expectations my family had for me, I also chose to navigate the adult world on my own, without any outside financial or physical support.

What did that mean for me? It meant that I lived alone with my son while I waited to turn 18 and legally marry my husband, who at the time was a new recruit in the Marine Corps. He supported us the best he could, and sent us the majority of his monthly income, which ended up being $800 a month.

As a breastfeeding mother, I had about $33–$37 left over per week to feed myself, provide adequate nutrition for a growing baby and cover any bus tickets we might need to get to and from the pediatrician's office. I often went hungry.

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Rent for our tiny studio apartment was $450, followed by an average electric bill of $80 and a telephone bill of $50. At the time, brand-name disposable diapers were about $17 a week and off-label brands were about $12. That meant every month I spent an additional $52 to $73 on diapers alone. Wipes, baby creams and powders were all extra, often adding up to another $30 or more per month. What was left (between $138 and $159, depending on the diapers I bought) was our entire food and transportation budget for the month.

Let that sink in for a minute. As a breastfeeding mother, I had about $33–$37 per week to feed myself, provide adequate nutrition for a growing baby and cover any bus tickets we might need to get to and from the pediatrician's office.

I often went hungry.

By the time our son was three months old, I had lost all the weight I'd gained during pregnancy and an additional 15 pounds. People thought I looked fantastic, but the truth was that I was wasting away.

I wanted to work, but with no regular transportation, no family support and no way to pay for daycare, I had no way to bring in additional income. I often felt desperate.

If I made bad choices while grocery shopping (easy to do when you're still a teenager), I wouldn't have enough money left to cover the bus fare, let alone all the diapers needed in a month. When you have a fast-growing infant, diaper sizes can change in a week and if you don't have money to buy the right size, well, that's too bad.

At barely 18, I was living in extreme poverty, doing my best to raise my son on my own and failing miserably. These are times I don't talk about with friends and rarely with my family. They weren't just hard; they were humiliating.

Because I was on my own, and so very young, I didn't know about programs like WIC or that I could qualify for SNAP (food stamp) assistance. At barely 18, I was living in extreme poverty, doing my best to raise my son on my own and failing miserably.

These are times I don't talk about with friends and rarely with my family. They weren't just hard; they were humiliating. This time in my life caused me to doubt my ability to parent. The stress I felt when it came time to buy new diapers, or find a way to eat when the money ran out, was overwhelming at times.

I recently read about a study done at Yale about mothers, mental health and the cost of diapers. It's a weird correlation, but researchers discovered 30 percent of the participants in the study admitted to struggling with diaper costs, and a little over 8 percent claimed to leave their child in a dirty diaper longer to budget their diaper supply.

Latina mothers had the highest reported rate of diaper need, which doesn't surprise me given that Latinas are the lowest wage earners in our country, averaging just 61 cents for every dollar a white male earns in the U.S., according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. The Yale study also found that the incidence of mental illness and treatment for mental illness were "strongly related" to a mother's inability to buy diapers.

The study results hit home for me, as I vividly remembered the feelings of inadequacy, stress, fear and shame when I was unable to provide for my child. My son, Alvaro, struggled the most, having frequent diaper rashes caused by ill-fitting diapers or prolonged use of dirty ones.

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To remedy the situation, I remember often cutting the insides of his used diapers and after throwing away the swollen centers, stuffing them with toilet paper or paper towels. Other times, I just simply stayed home and let him go without a diaper, which led to frequent messes (and more stress).

What many people do not realize is that programs like WIC and SNAP do not provide assistance with purchasing diapers. While they can help alleviate some of the burden by providing access to nourishing food, they often don't provide enough to lift a family out of poverty — meaning those same stressors are still there, impacting both parent and child.

Today there are programs that didn't exist when my son and I experienced hardship, and they can make a difference for families struggling in the same way we did. Places like the National Diaper Bank Network, which was founded in 2011, provides access to clean diapers as a way to "increase the well-being of babies, families and communities."

Similarly, churches, social service agencies and even food banks may offer additional support.

Nowadays, cloth diapers are also easily accessible, and may be a more affordable and effective way to combat the problem of diaper-need among low-income families. However, it's important to note that if you don't have a laundry machine at home, some communal laundry centers won't allow you to wash used cloth diapers, which can create an additional stress as well as cost.

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If you're in need of assistance with affording diapers, don't be afraid to speak up the way I was. I remember thinking that admitting to having a need meant I was an unfit parent, and I'm sure many families struggle with that belief, particularly in minority communities. By asking for help, you're doing everything you can to provide for your child and alleviate additional stress that can contribute to mental illness. That means you're doing a good thing for both you and your baby.

For more on diaper need and The National Diaper Bank Network, please visit nationaldiaperbanknetwork.org.

Photograph via Twenty20/ovilab

Explore More: baby care, stress, advice, tips, newborn, diapers, mamá a mamá, Latina Mom
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