I’ve been pestered a few times to write a post on elimination communication (or EC), because even among the “crunchy” set, it’s pretty uncommon, and we were “successful” with the Boychick: he’s been diaper-free (by his choice) since he was 9 months old, and more or less continent and “toilet trained” since around a year and a half. This is probably not the post they were expecting, because I have no desire to do a how-to, or even a story of what-we-did. While I am most definitely a fan and an advocate of EC, it’s one of those topics that gets a whole lot of people a whole lot of defensive, and really, that’s the last thing I want. But I finally thought of how to write about it in a way that might be of interest even to my non-parent blog readers.
For a basic explanation of EC, please see the glossary entry on EC /elimination communication. There are many advantages to this practice (communication, reduced crying, reduced diaper rash, earlier toilet independence, reduced waste or waste water, etc), as well as disadvantages and challenges (especially in this universal-diapering culture), but what I want to talk about is its role in kyriarchy. For to be sure, it does have (a highly complicated) one: while it’s not true that only “stay at home moms” can practice EC — even part time EC at home and conventionally diapered in child-care is beneficial for infants –, there are several factors of privilege that play into the ability to choose this parenting method.
First, it is much easier when one is able to be at home (or otherwise) with one’s child full-time: for ease of pottying, to meet the child’s expectation of being pottied, and in order to be “in tune” or entwined with the infant — and when one’s home has flush toilets, and running water, and a clothes washing machine. It’s also easier when one can wear little, or things that won’t get ruined (or ruin one’s day) for getting baby urine on them: it’s not necessary, but having baby naked or wearing just a thin layer of absorbency does increase the “success” rate, even as it exposes the family to the consequences of any misses. That’s a lot easier when one can stick close at home, or otherwise not need to be “presentable”.
Secondly, a hell of a lot easier when one is white, and middle-class, and physically-able, and cis, and has apparent straight privilege. Here’s the thing: practicing EC draws a lot of negative attention in a culture that expects — demands — universal diapering for at least the first two years of a child’s life (such expectation growing ever longer as we, thankfully!, abandon the punitive, shaming, stressful “potty training” methods of yesteryear, and, not so thankfully, diaper manufacturers grow ever more successful at selling bigger and later stages of diapers). Weathering that attention is a thousand times easier when one exists in a place of privilege — that is, when one is not already under excessive and unreasonable scrutiny, due to one’s ethnicity, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and so on. Existing in a body privileged by kyriarchy also makes much of the attention neutral-to-positive, where someone without that privilege would receive more judgment and more negativity.
There’s also a uniquely racist aspect to much of EC advocacy — inadvertent, perhaps, but no less damaging therefore. The cultures perceived in the white Western world-view to have not yet universally adopted full-time diapering (rightly or not) are the poorer areas of the globe — “brown” areas. Thus when white, middle-class, privileged parents look for modern examples of this age-old practice, we look to, and glorify and exotify, people of color. It becomes about “those brown people”, who are so “natural”, so “unspoiled by modernity”, so “primitive”, and it becomes about using them (or rather, our white idealized vision of them) for our own ends (instruction, objectification), rather than recognizing and honoring their own personhood, their own culture, their own struggles and oppressions, their own dignity.
(Of course, opposition to EC often takes racist forms as well: “It’s all well and good for those people, who don’t mind getting pissed on, who are too poor for carpet, who already live in dirt and filth and poverty. Really, they’re just jumping at the chance to get disposable diapers!” — once again Othering people of color, as well as ignoring the roles kyriarchy, internalized racism and colonialism play in that poverty, and in that desire for “modernity”.)
Yet I do not believe that these problems, as serious as they are, are inherent in the practice: rather, they arise from the placement of the practice in a kyriarchal culture. Like breastfeeding, elimination communication is the biological expectation: it cannot be racist itself, because it is universal to our species. But like breastfeeding, the current kyriarchal culture — with its racism, its power imbalances, its dearth of examples of each in modern white cultures –, combined with the distorting lenses it shoves on the eyes of those of us with privilege, creates an environment in which said racism (and classism, cissexism, ageism, etc) is nearly inevitable.
And as a further complication, elimination communication also works to subvert the kyriarchy: we reduce our reliance on capitalistic consumption of products; we reduce the amount of waste designed to be shat on and thrown away in landfills; we raise our children more in touch with and aware of their bodies and their needs; we teach them by modeling to listen to and honor the needs of those with less privilege. EC is obviously not necessary for many of these things: one can, of course, reduce consumption, respect one’s child’s autonomy, have a loving relationship, and so on, without practicing EC. Nor is EC a guarantee of any of that. Like so many other things, it is but a tool — one which can be used by the kyriarchy to maintain hierarchies of oppression as well as by activists to reject the strictures kyriarchy has placed on us.
In this way, EC is much like breastfeeding, like many aspects of biologically appropriate parenting, like many choices which are possible due to and often prop up privilege — for this is a pattern recognizable across an array of stuff white people do; this is a function of kyriarchy: privilege allows people more choices, more autonomy (yet still a highly imperfect, highly constrained simulacrum of autonomy) than those without, and so we are freer, comparatively, to choose those options which the kyriarchy opposes; and when we do, our privilege practically guarantees we enact those choices in ways which contribute to the oppression of those who, by lack of privilege, are unable to.
Would I recommend EC, regardless of this catch-22? Oh yes, absolutely. But do I pretend it is a choice devoid of consequence, unconnected to our assigned and enforced role in the world? Do I pretend its pursuit is uncomplicated, as simple for everyone as it was for me? No. I maintain that anyone who can care for an infant can do it; I maintain, all things equal (which they never are), it is the right choice for babies; I do not maintain that therefore everyone must. Like with so much else, I will continue to advocate for it, and to educate about it, but I will not engage in the prescriptivism, the arrogance that would be so easy for me to slip into as a person with so much privilege, that alienates so many.
So them’s my thoughts on EC. I did tell you it wouldn’t be what you expect: mine is not a how-to parenting site. There are lots of great sites out there that will help teach you about how to practice elimination communication. And when I was pregnant, I ate those up with a spoon, fast as I could; having come out the other side, though, this is what I was left with: EC was absolutely the right choice for our family, and especially now, in the third year of life, when I see so many struggling with the transition from diaper dependence to toilet use, I am so glad we put in the early effort to listen to and honor the Boychick’s communications. But I also see, from this vantage, just how privileged we were that it was an option for us at all, and a relatively easily chosen one. It’s not an entirely comfortable realization, but then, awareness of privilege shouldn’t be.