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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A worrisome trend in this country illustrates in the starkest terms how a mother’s income affects not only her baby’s health but hers, too.

Child Trends — a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center — reported in 2013 that low-income parents, especially single mothers, have higher rates of depression and depressive symptoms than mothers with higher incomes.

What does that mean exactly?

A researcher for the Yale School of Medicine asked women in New Haven, Connecticut, one question: “If you have children in diapers, do you ever feel that you do not have enough diapers to change them as often as you would like?”

About 30 percent of the women said yes.

Keep in mind that these mothers are not allowed to use the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, aka WIC, or food stamps to pay for diapers or baby wipes. This restriction must surely comfort those Republican state legislators around the country who’ve been busy trying to stop these same women from buying such things as steak, seafood, sharp cheddar, and anything organic for their families.

That’s another trend these days: making it easier to pick out poor people in the grocery line. It’s a full-time hobby keeping the lives of those people from resembling ours.

In a story for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan described some of the ways those mothers in New Haven stretched the use of their babies’ diapers:

“Mothers would take the diapers off, dump out the poop, and put the diapers back on. They would air-dry the diapers. They’d let their kids sit in wet diapers for longer than they should — a practice that can lead to UTIs and other infections. Other moms have reported potty training infants who are less than a year old — at least six months earlier than is recommended — in order to save money.”

Under the best of circumstances, motherhood has a way of introducing you to fears and insecurities you didn’t know you had until you laid eyes on your new baby. Surely, those of us who never had to worry about the annual diaper bill — Pediatrics journal currently estimates the cost to be $936 a year for disposables — would be outraged by what those mothers in poverty are going through. I’m certain this is most mothers’ — most parents’ — reaction.

But then there’s that other group of people, and they always seem to have so much time on their hands. These readers’ response was fast in the comments section — and furious in its scolding. Use cloth diapers, many said. After all, it was good enough for them in the 1970s … their mothers in the 1950s … their grandmothers in God only knows when.

Forget that most day care centers require disposable diapers. Forget, too, that you need a washer and dryer to clean them. And forget that if you don’t, you need a car, or else you have to take public transportation to the laundromat, where you’ll spend more money.

Too many readers had another solution: If you can’t afford a baby, don’t have one.

There you go. Let’s add babies to the list of things poor people shouldn’t be allowed to have.

I was so discouraged by the reader comments on The Atlantic‘s website that I posted a link to the story on my public Facebook page. Many readers brainstormed about how to help these mothers. A few shared links to diaper banks in their communities.

To my disappointment, a sub-thread took off lecturing women in poverty to use cloth diapers — and to stop sullying our gene pool with babies they can’t afford.

It’s amazing what can come out of our mouths when we’re convinced of our own superiority and enduring good luck. Nary a word about the need for comprehensive sex education, affordable birth control, and protecting a woman’s constitutional right to safe, legal abortions. I know, I know.

I woke up the next morning thinking about my parents. They certainly could not afford to have a baby when my 19-year-old mother discovered she was pregnant with me. Dad got their marriage license and a union card in the same month. After I was born, they lived with an aunt for a while before they could afford to rent a house. Pictures from that time show a family barely scraping by.

In 1987, my mother stood next to me as I fastened a disposable diaper over the bottom of my new baby girl. “I wish we’d had those when you kids were little,” she said. “I was so tired at the end of the day, but I still had to wash those diapers.”

As I noted in my journal that evening, my mother could afford only so many diapers. She had no clothes dryer and no car to drive to a laundromat. Skipping the laundry was not an option, no matter how exhausted she might be.

“On my worst day, my life is easier than my mother’s,” I wrote, grateful to the woman who couldn’t afford me but had me anyway.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo: Gabi Menashe via Flickr