About 30 percent of low-income parents can’t afford to change their children’s diapers frequently enough, according to a Yale University study. My organization, National Diaper Bank Network, helps distribute diapers to those families in need. But in the course of doing this work, we sometimes encounter people who are appalled by our effort: One man called me screaming that impoverished moms should “just use newspaper!” to diaper their infants. In letters and phone calls, others have accused us of encouraging mothers to keep “breeding.” (Barnyard animals breed, mind you. Women have babies.) Our critics believe the women who come to us are bad mothers who should not have had children in the first place. (We rarely get criticism of fathers, as if women become pregnant all by themselves.) They find the fact that we are helping these mothers offensive.
It’s not just diapers. The tendency to brand low-income moms as “bad” extends to how they feed their children (no candy!) and entertain them (no swimming!). But these perspectives make me wonder: What makes a mother bad?
I’m a middle-class mom who has absentmindedly sent my kids to school without lunch and missed deadlines for permission slips. And, like low-income parents who struggle to pay for diapers, there are aspects of motherhood that I wasn’t prepared for, either. I had a child with a chronic illness, and we had her on ineffective treatment for a long time. Most would agree that making sure your child gets proper medical care is fundamental to being a good parent, but it took years before we got her the care she needed.
And yet, no one has ever accused me of being a bad mother. Money covered my many shortcomings. Those late permission slips could be faxed in because I had a landline and a fax machine, and because I was fortunate enough to send my kids to an adequately staffed school that had the time to help out busy parents. And because we could afford it, my husband and I went to specialist after specialist until we found the best care for our daughter. In many small ways every day, middle-class resources eased the pressures of raising three kids. I’m proud of the people my kids grew up to be, but while some of that is a result of them being inherently terrific human beings who were loved and supported, it also comes from simply having enough money and resources to keep our busy lives running relatively smoothly.
Contrast that with the moms who rely on diaper banks to keep their babies clean, dry and healthy. Most child-care centers require a family to provide a supply of disposable diapers. Families who can’t afford them can’t get child care, which means the parents can’t work. And so parents are branded as lazy and unmotivated, and are accused of exploiting the system. Kids from low-income homes miss school because their parents can’t afford detergent to clean their uniforms, or because they need to babysit younger siblings while their parents apply for jobs. If you don’t send your kids to school, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad parent – it often means you have only bad options.
America is big on the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But raising a family on a low-wage job can leave you strapless. Diapers for one infant cost an average of $18 a week, or $936 a year. For parents with minimum-wage jobs, making $15,080 a year, diapers alone eat up about six percent of their paychecks. Meanwhile, public support has provided less and less help, even as diapers and other child-care prices have risen. Some forms of federal assistance have not kept pace with inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The nonpartisan research institute, in a review of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (established by the 1996 welfare reform law), wrote, “The amount of cash assistance provided to families has eroded in almost every state, leaving families without sufficient funds to meet their most basic needs.”
When families cannot meet their most basic needs, kids show up to school looking “neglected,” because they aren’t wearing the proper clothes for the weather. Parents miss school appointments because they can’t afford bus fare. And babies go an entire day or longer without a diaper change because families need to make their diapers last. child-care providers even have developed a phrase — “Monday morning rash” — to describe how babies from low-income families sometimes arrive after a weekend of infrequent diaper changes. These problems are not evidence of bad parenting but of bad public policy.
None of this, of course, satisfies those who say that people should not have kids they cannot afford. They don’t acknowledge that poverty often comes after the children are already born. I am struck by how often I encounter families who were financially stable before a catastrophic illness hit. (Medical costs are the most common cause of bankruptcy in the United States.) My organization also talks with families who have been brought down by long-term layoffs and with women who were pulled into poverty when they left abusive relationships. Everybody has a story, and passing judgment based only on what you see a parent buying at the grocery store or picking up at a diaper bank is never a good idea.
On Mother’s Day, many moms do not get taken out to brunch or presented with potted plants. For them, Mother’s Day is just like any other day – a struggle to get by. There is one gift we can collectively give them, though: We can stop judging. We can throw away the good mother/bad mother distinction. We can recognize that most mothers genuinely want to do what is best for their children. It is simply much easier for some of us than for others.
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