Messy Bottoms: The Secret Life of Diapers

In Florence, there’s a building called the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Operating as an orphanage from 1445 until 1875, it was designed by the big dog of medieval architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi. One of its features was a rotating door, similar to the out-of-hours deposit boxes banks once had, which allowed parents to drop off their children without being seen.

The exterior of the building features 12 images of a child in various stages of swaddling. No single image is the same. It’s a Renaissance “Diapers for Idiots.”

I visited Florence before I had a child. I remember staring at these kids in the same way I gawp at pictures in galleries. That is to say, I only look to say I’ve looked. Yet even then — young, thin, childless — I could see the appeal in tying up your infant so tightly that it can’t move.

The secret to a swift diaper change is having a kid who doesn’t struggle. In 2017, swaddling means to pull a single cloth tightly around your child. But in Brunelleschi’s age, as seen in the frescos, a number of strips of cloth would be applied, similar to the plaster of paris casts wrapped around broken limbs. This swaddling would last for several days. It would not only keep the kid calm, but also protect your Florentine carpets from wee and poo.

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My youngest son is two years old. It seems like only two weeks ago that we were in the delivery room: me, his mother, him (a bit later). There were a dozen orderlies. An unseen radio played pop music. When J finally turned up, there was blood and laughter.

“Ginger hair!” said a midwife, and my smile faded a degree.

Newborns soil their nappies repeatedly every day. This new poo is called meconium and looks hellish. It’s composed of all the stuff the kid absorbed while in utero: intestinal epithelial cells, lanugo, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile, and water.

(There’s a café in Hackney, East London, that serves up a brunch with similar ingredients.)

Meconium aside, putting a nappy on a newborn is easy, because they’re often asleep. You don’t need swaddling cloths. As long as you get the knack of the elasticated sticky strips, all is fine. It’s when the thing (the child) is able to move that the operation becomes awkward, like wrapping a puppy in Christmas paper.

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I’m no English-English purist, but diaper is a particularly American word. Racism and misogyny aside, I don’t have a problem with the States. I may, in my most honest moments, even admit that “color” is a more appropriate spelling. Fall is a lovely word to describe autumn. (The term was, however, originally coined on this side of the Atlantic.) But nappy, the British equivalent to diaper, is undeniably the more pleasant of the two.

Articulate it: Say “nappy.” Go on. Your co-workers won’t notice. An open-vowel AAAH, followed by the EEEE. It sounds childlike. It sounds right.

It derives from napkin, the Old French word for a tablecloth being nappe. Diaper has even older origins, coming from the Ancient Greek — “dia” meaning across (as in diaspora) and “aspros” meaning white.

Etymology aside, there’s something unpleasantly clinical to “diaper.” I think that’s my problem with it. Let’s organize for two cute kids, one American and one British, to take turns saying the words. Nappy will out-cute diaper every time. Guaranteed.

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I once arrived at J’s nursery when he was getting his nappy changed. I watched in stunned silence as he lay completely still, smiling even, as the swift hands of the nursery worker whipped his tiny jogging bottoms off and on, dirty diaper swapped for new, bum wiped clean, and all in fewer than 30 seconds. It was a particular betrayal and made subsequent battles to get his nappy changed all the more hurtful.

According to Bernice Krafchik, in her “History of Diapers and Diapering,” we have the Industrial Revolution to blame/thank, because “it was at this time that the working class began acquiring furniture for the first time and did not relish their infants dirtying their new possessions.”

Having had my son wee all over a Raymond Carver first edition, I can well empathize with the working classes.

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The invention of the safety pin, in 1849, made it easier to keep the baby’s backside in chaise-lounge-protecting cloth. William Hunt created the device to pay off a $15 debt to a friend. He sold the subsequent patent for $400 to W.R. Grace and Company, which went on to earn millions from the nifty invention.

Like a careless application of Hunt’s invention, that’s got to hurt.

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As annoying as it is to change a diaper, having a sofa covered in urine and excrement would be more irritating — in both a dermatological and aesthetic sense.

Of course, disposable nappies are a relatively new thing. Krafchik explains the mysterious origins of the first iteration:

It is unknown who designed the first disposable diaper with both Paulistrom in Sweden in 1942, and Marion Donovan in the States in 1946 being credited with the initial concept.

When J wakes, his saturated diaper droops like part of his body is falling off. He doesn’t care. Possibly because he understands these heavy, paper pants are linked to the satisfaction of being able to wet himself in his sleep.

Depending on who’s won the battle of wills, either I or my wife will lie morning J on his back. We’ll grab whatever’s closest to distract him. He particularly likes cables — a bonus if they’re attached to something valuable and/or life-threatening.

He won’t struggle throughout the whole operation. He’s too canny for that. Initially, he’ll fool us into a false sense of competency before rolling onto his stomach or kicking his legs.

The subsequent frustration is underpinned by the sharp knowledge that, at any given moment, J might start weeing. Here’s another reason to hate the patriarchy: Men-children can spray their urine in a veritable fountain. Rare is the parent of a boy who, leaning over their kid, mouth gaping in dismay, hasn’t had piss splash into their mouth.

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The Chuckchi, a Russian tribe, had a novel solution to their babies’ business. They would fill the kids’ pants with moss. When the kid cried, you got new moss.

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The bravest decision any parent can make is to potty-train their child, to surrender the diaper/moss. You’ve not experienced anxiety until you’ve taken that first trip out with a nappy-less kid.

Foolhardiness is a shade from bravery. Why I took my eldest son to East London on that fateful day, I shall never know. I’d already experienced him shouting “IT SMELLS OF WORMS” in a trendy pizza parlor a few months back as I asked the maitre d’ if there was a table for two.

(Following my son’s contribution, there wasn’t.)

On the day of the great flood, I’d had fun wandering about ridiculous shops as my son moaned. Come lunchtime, I decided that Mexican street food would be the way forward, despite D’s restaurant order always being the pizza/chips binary.

We were led to our leather booth by a waitress so cool that her presence reduced the restaurant’s temperature. As ever, D charmed her. He’s got a nice smile. He sat opposite me and asked if they did chips.

“Do you want to go to the toilet?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “Can I go on the iPad?”

“May,” I said. “May I go on the iPad?”

I searched for the tablet and, on giving him the thing, saw a strange expression on his face. His muscles had tightened, forcing his mouth into a letter-box shape.

Instantly, I knew what was happening. I flew from my seat. Already, a puddle had formed. Liquid filled the leather’s creases, flooded trenches of urine. I snatched D from the seat and airlifted him from the piss.

As I carried him to the bathroom, he left a trail of water that darkened the minimalist concrete floor.

“For God’s sake,” I said, locked safely in the cubicle as D started to cry.

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Pampers are to nappies what Hoover is to vacuums and were designed in 1961 by an employee of Procter & Gamble. This fellow wanted to produce a comfortable diaper for his grandson. His creation was a milestone in diaper development, as it possessed a cellulose pulp core for extra absorbency. Other, earlier disposables employed paper, which was neither particularly comfortable nor absorbent.

Subsequent innovations came in the 1970s, including the tape fasteners and a change of shape from rectangular to hourglass, yet until the mid-’80s, disposable diapers remained bulky products.

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A solution to this had already been around for 20 years, from back when research scientists Carlyle Harmon and Billy Gene Harper independently filed patents that described using a highly absorbent polymer to line nappies instead of the rolls of pulp core.

Manufacturers delayed using this technology until the patents expired in the mid-1980s. Why? Because it was marginally cheaper to wait, proving that capitalism, like diapers, is often full of shit.

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RealDiapers.org says that 7.5 percent of American babies have their bottoms wrapped in cloth. For research, I suggested to my wife that we could experiment with reusable diapers.

I told her that real writers do research, and I want to be a real writer.

“And it’ll save money. And J won’t get nappy rash. And it’s good for the environment.”

(Google had revealed these to be the key reasons people use cloth.)

“Who’s going to wash them?” she asked.

It was subsequently decided that it would be easier to read about cloth diapers instead.

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There’s a company whose name is BumGenius, which I love, and it produces cloth diapers. Its website describes how the business came about:

In 2002, Jimmy and Jenn Labit were living on $30 a week for groceries plus a WIC check. That certainly wasn’t enough to buy very many disposable diapers when their first child was born, but thankfully they were given three months of diaper service and previously loved cloth diapers from a friend. Without these gifts, they wouldn’t have been able to use cloth OR disposable diapers.

Compare this to Juan Delgado’s “Diapers,” a poem about a raid by immigration officers. In one stanza, a young mother describes her use of cloth diapers:

Can you imagine how many diapers

We went through with the twins?

The disposable ones were way too expensive,

So we switched to cloth. They were great. No,

We didn’t wash them. Thank God, we had a service.

We just put the dirty ones in plastic bags,

And they picked them up and dropped off clean ones

Right on our porch every two weeks.

You can see the link between Delgado and BumGenius: money. Because disposable nappies are great. If you can afford them. If you can’t, you’re stuck with regularly washing urine and excrement from your child’s cloth diapers.

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The Real Diaper Association’s website says that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the United States. Of these, 92 percent end up in the landfill. Every year, according to the RDA, “300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks, and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby.”

Still, disposables are a lot more convenient.

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Of course, it’s not just kids who wear diapers. Brides do, too. Because it makes sense. I had a friend whose job was to dress as a monkey. He worked in a jungle soft play area or something. He would wear incontinence pads to avoid the hassle of removing his monkey covering. In the short-term, this was fine, but he ended up resigning on health grounds after he developed some terrible sores. Before this, though, parents often congratulated him for “getting the smell right.”

True story.

A quick Google (a little research) suggests that there are more people writing about bridal diapers than selling them. Because practical solutions aren’t always the most romantic. You don’t want your partner’s enduring memory of their wedding day to be the way you stank of piss. Reserve that for your ruby anniversary.

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At bedtime, I lean over J to fix his night nappy. And it hurts. Me. Right in the small of the back. The nursery has it right. They change the kids on an elevated shelf.

Parenting websites are awash with links to advice from masseurs and back specialists. They all suggest not bending over to be the best way to avoid back pain.

In the same way my mother used to warn me about pulling silly faces — the wind will change and you’ll be stuck — I worry there’s a finite amount of nappy changes before my back refuses to straighten out again and I’ll be like Crooks from Of Mice and Men. My children will refuse to have me pick them up from school, ashamed of my posture, their father resembling a capital C.

Still, should they mock me, I’ll remind them of when I would change their nappies, back when they could control neither their bladder nor their bowels, the idiots. That should shut them up.

Either that or I’ll let my wife change the diapers from now on. Her back’s fine.

Dad, Writer, Teacher

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