A paean to the joy of nappies

For weeks our group of volunteers have been asking questions, trying to choose THE ONES we will do experiments about. Those we’ve chosen are very practical and useful questions about the best ways to wash and care for your nappies. But some more whimsical questions got asked along the way.

One question that got a lot of discussion was, ‘Why does hanging nappies on the line make me happy?’

Many of us agreed that hanging our nappies on the line DOES make us happy. (“I’m glad it’s not just me!”) We suggested various factors that might be at play (from sunshine and Vitamin D, to the cognitive reward of completing a task), but Rowan Martin took it several steps further and wrote this about nappies and the experience of motherhood. What she wrote was so lyrical, so honest, and struck such a chord with many of us, that we thought it deserved a wider audience, so, with her permission, I’m reproducing it here.  

 For me this is a fascinating topic. Hence the rather long post I’m about to write. I really enjoy changing nappies. My partner thinks I’m utterly mad. He will change a nappy if it has to be changed, but he hates doing it. I am positively buoyant when I sniff a bum that needs changing – mostly with my kids, but I also look after two other babies every week and enjoy changing them too (hear me out, I’m not a weirdo).

I love the whole process of using cloth nappies – I used to use disposables on my first daughter and while I still found it satisfying to change a dirty nappy, it wasn’t the same at all. With disposables, the basic need is there to remove germs (poo and wee) from your beloved baby’s bottom and leave them clean (for the moment) with a fresh nappy. But with disposables you’re putting those germs in the bin along with a ticking time bomb of plastic and chemicals that will hang around long after your baby is an adult. Cloth is more satisfying.

I love seeing my cloth nappies all clean and ready to use, with pockets stuffed and liners queued up. I have a little unit in my daughter’s bedroom where I store them – with all their lovely colours peeping at me through the glass on the door. When it’s time for a change, I love spraying my daughter’s bum with cold chamomile tea before using a cloth wipe (recent thing we’ve added to replace buying baby wipes). I love rinsing the cloth nappy and chucking it in the nappy bin along with the wipe, knowing that nothing is going to be clogging up landfill, that it’s all going to be reabsorbed into the process and re-used. I love how there’s no chemicals in the wipe or the nappy. I love it when the bin is full and I have to wash the nappies – it all comes out lovely and clean to start anew.

It’s like a never-ending process of satisfaction that isn’t contributing to the destruction of our planet – perhaps it’s my little bit of smugness when I know that in other areas of my life, I contribute to landfill…I drive a car….I throw away packaging….

I think a fundamental part of being a Mum is the repetitive cleansing of children, whether it’s bums or faces or snotty noses. We clean them in the bath regularly. We wash their hair. We clean their clothes. We basically remove germs from them all the time and there must be an ancient instinct embedded in us that makes us feel good about that. I love putting my kids dirty clothes in the laundry bin. Nappies make me feel especially good as they’re the dirtiest things of all.

I love putting a wash on as my kids clothes are going to come out of it germ free and spanking clean, ready to put away and be available when my kids need them. It feels like an essential part of the job of Mum. I also think that because it’s so repetitive and has no goal (nobody is going to send you an evaluation telling you you’ve done well at keeping your kids clean) it has to have its own reward, mentally. The good feeling of cleaning kids must come from thousands of years of mums doing it – in an evolutionary sense.

I also feel like as Mums today, many of us have previously had jobs where our efforts were recognised by appraisals or pay rises – things that let us know we were performing well. When we have babies, nobody tells us how well we’re doing, and the work is often monotonous and repetitive and very far from what we’re used to – we don’t need to engage our brains to feed children or wash nappies or wipe noses….so we find ways to reward ourselves for the work of motherhood. Hanging nappies out on a line is the ultimate appraisal of all the work that’s been done to keep our babies clean. Each one is a badge or a star sticker on your reward chat. You are making a public statement about your capabilities as a mother – and a washing line is a very public forum (or it used to be when people lived mainly in terraced houses and lines were in the front yard, with the whole street seeing what you’d pinned up, hence the term ‘airing my dirty linen’).

Although I hang my nappies out in my back garden, I have had both neighbours comment on them. On one side, the lady in her 70s who has had 5 kids told me how lovely it was to see me using cloth nappies, and asked me lots about them, and was amazed how much easier they were to use than the terry squares of her day. My other neighbour was expecting her first baby and thought I was some kind of super-mum/goddess for using cloth – until I explained how easy it was and dispelled some of the myths about them (like I didn’t have to soak them in water or farm them out to some company to wash for me). I’ll admit that I liked the attention – very little about mothering small children brings any kind of tangible reward – I enjoyed people commenting on me doing ‘well’.

I guess putting your nappies out in the sunshine brings it all together. You’re getting out and getting a dose of Vitamin D, and you’re publicly showing the world how clean you keep your baby. There’s also the added satisfaction of knowing that stains on your nappies will ‘sun-out’ – again, getting rid of germs that might pose a risk to your baby.

I have friends that have been really late for things because they were waiting for their washing machine to finish so they could hang out their nappies. (I’ll let them out themselves if they want to!) I’ve been known to sit in front of the washing machine – especially when I recently got a new one – and watch the rinse cycle happening like it’s a soap opera. The more dirty water I see, the more satisfied I feel. There must be a mental tie that produces oxytocin in mothers when they see clean things for their kids – I love brand new nappies most of all, it’s very exciting to strap one around my baby.

Sorry for the epic post, but this is a subject that really interests and excites me. I’ve given it a lot of thought as I was obsessed with cloth nappies for a good few months after my second daughter was born. I would spend hours at night when I was feeding her, scouring nappy sites for offers and new things to try. When they arrived in the post, it would be the high point of my day and I couldn’t wait to try them and incorporate them in my system. I guess I was starved of a project since I’ve been educated and/or employed since I was 4. Now my daughter is 18 months, I’m only occasionally excited by a nappy offer and I only occasionally buy new things. I do feel afraid to think about the day that she potty trains and I no longer have any children in nappies. What on earth will I do then?

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