Diaper-free, but kyriarchy-laden

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.

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13 Responses to Diaper-free, but kyriarchy-laden

  1. Great post!

    I don’t consider myself an ECer, just a diaper-er who was often too lazy to get diapers (part-time EC? Maybe? Eh.) But still, thank you for this. I’d say similar issues also float around in the cloth diapering groups. It’s easier to do when one sits on the privilege of being white, straight, etc … There’s also a bit of cultural/racial issues where white women are praised for being super-moms if they do it, yet conversations often point to WOC in other countries who use cloth as the good example.

    Who knew parenting choices could be so controversial? ;)

    Thank you so much for writing this!

    • Cloth diapering, babywearing, attachment parenting in general: yup. All good things of themselves, but all fraught with usually-unacknowledged issues of privilege and racism and classism and so on. And if we don’t acknowledge them, we can’t work to eliminate them, and our advocacy will not only perpetuate oppression, it will simply fail to be effective.

      And I KNOW you know just how controversial parenting can be! ;)

  2. Having just gone through the horror of toilet training, I can say that if I were to do it again, I’d be all for EC. Potty-training made us all crazy. And the amount of mess an EC baby can make on your carpet is not more than the amount a three-year-old who is struggling to make it to the potty on time can.

    But. In order to do EC, either my husband or I would have to stay home or hire a nanny willing to go along with the program. No daycare on earth would ever consider it. Though I guess, if my kid was pottying at 9 months or so, we might come out ahead. But that’s a lot of maybes.

    Which is to say, that, like breastfeeding, EC is a good thing for kids but attracts hostility for all the ways it doesn’t allow you to slot kids into a 9-5 schedule. Why we are so enamoured of this schedule is the real mystery. People can be very productive working from home/on flexible schedules/with onsite daycare, but god forbid we try to make work fit people’s lives and not vice versa.

    • While it is a lot easier with at a one-on-one caregiver willing to potty during the day, a lot of people have done EC just when they’re home, and done conventional diapering with traditional caregivers during the day. Most babies adapt well, and most parents find it worth it.

      But yes, it is a hell of a lot harder on a “9-5″ schedule (really more like 7-6, what with commute and lunch hours!). Babies do take time and concentration, so it’s not as simple as just saying “bring babies to work!” but there are so many possibilities that would allow for both work and babycare, if only we would think creatively, and not enforce such rigid, family-unfriendly policies.

      But that’s a rant for another day…

  3. Excellent post! EC taught me many things about my children, myself, and my relationship to my children, but I only had a dim awareness of some of these issues, like the idealization of “primitive” cultures, the privilege of owning my own home/carpets/mattresses!, and the privilege of being able to be present and attentive most of the time. The last one was shown to me more sharply after having my second child. We had a great success with EC with our first, but with our second, our attention was more divided, and we were on the road from age 4 months to 12 months with her – a trip of our choosing, but it was obvious that living in rented housing or motels was a barrier, long days on the road was a barrier, even being an isolated SAHM away from my social networks and with two small children was a barrier.

    The point we’re at with our younger child now is that she has been absolutely consistent with #2 in the potty since 18 months, but she couldn’t care less about #1 – we can take her on a schedule and she’ll be dry all day, but she doesn’t care to let us know. Oh well, it’s better than the alternative, but it’s disappointing to know what could have been, minus some barriers.

    I will say my first child was in a daycare center part time from 14 months to 20 months, and they were willing to take him potty on a schedule or on verbal/sign cue from him, even though he was in the infant room not the toddler room. I think it would have been harder for them to do with a non-walking child, and they didn’t have the attention free to pick up on his nonverbal and non-signed cues. I found it hilarious that they even went and got the potty reward stickers from the toddler room to put on his report sheet for the day when he had successful pottyings – what did he care at 14 months!? But I so appreciated his caregivers responding to him in this way! (They also rocked him to sleep, where other daycares in the area asked you to train your child to fall asleep on his own, even at that age.)

  4. Very interesting post. I have a friend and a web acquaintance that are both doing EC with their infants. I love the idea of it… though to be completely frank I’m not sure I’d have the patience/energy to do it. I am very much ok with saying I took the easy way out with diapers. Then again, I’m getting close to embarking on that wonderful journey of potty training my almost-2yr old, so we’ll see what I think once I’m on the other side of that…

    • See, I think EC is just like breastfeeding, or babywearing: we’re used to the way our culture does things, so we think all these “radical” ideas are so hard, but the truth is, they’re not really. It is something new one has to learn, and that can be a big hurdle — but the act itself? Just like breastfeeding, it’s actually, generally, way easier than the alternative.

  5. I left you a comment earlier, but I think I may have vanished/never appeared/blackberry failed.

    Thank you for this blog post, so very much. We have been planning on EC our ‘one day’ baby, whenever that time comes. I know I will be coming back to this post again, and again.

    And, I’m a care provider who has tried (ie very part-time EC) with the little girl I care for. Whilst in diapers, starting at 12 months. Sure, it isn’t going to lead to being out of diapers within the year, but her awareness alone will make the process easier. It is about communication. So, don’t dismiss working parents finding a solution that works for them.

    Thank you again for this post.

  6. I started trying to EC with 2 babies and between depression & perfectionism, just couldn’t do it. I’d get upset I couldn’t do it “properly” which would just make me feel like a failure, which made me more depressed. It was a bad cycle and I still feel guilty for failing.

    • That is an important point. The perfectionism thing can be really damaging (to the caregiver), especially if we’re also dealing with postpartum mood disorders. This is one of the many reasons it’s important to emphasize that it’s the process that matters, not the outcome (if you’ll pardon the almost pun). And part of the process is relaxing about it all. Of course, when dealing with anxiety and depression and perfectionism, that is a lot easier said than done, as I well know…

      *hugs* It really is OK.

  7. I like this post.

    I didn’t do EC; partly because the ex would never have gone for it (and *right there* we have the “privilege of having a supportive partner” thing I touched on in my WFPP post) and partly because I didn’t even hear of it until B was about half a year old, by which time although I know it’s never “too late”, even if the ex had allowed it, it would have been much harder.

    One of the things I’m coming up against now, with my two and a half year old, is that he’d *love* to be nappy free, and he can, if he’s not wearing anything on his bottom half, use a potty.

    But … it’s winter here, it’s cold, and I simply cannot afford to have the heating on. (The irony; my ex husband can afford it, but doesn’t really approve of him going around with nothing on his bottom half *sigh*). So… yeah, kyriarchy laden.

    Excellent post.

  8. What an interesting examination of that particular question.

  9. I hadn’t even heard of EC’ing, until I went to a breastfeeding support group when my daughter was about 6 weeks old and I say a mother there holding her 7 month boy over a bowl to wee. It took me a couple of weeks to pluck up the courage to ask her what she was doing and then – wow – nothing ever made more sense to me more quickly. Having said that, we’ve been through phases of full-time, part-time, at night, not at night and until recently I’ve never had the guts to take her out of the house without a nappy on as a safety-net.

    With childcare, we’ve found it fine to be EC’ing at home whilst the nursery does their own thing. That said, they’ve always been happy to sit her on a potty after her midday nap, if nothing else. The one consequence of that mixed environment though is that she is now dry at home, but not a nursery, so we’re now trying to work out some kind of half-way house between EC’ing and “training” for the nursery.

    So, having said all of that – you’re absolutely right. It’s from a position of privilege that we’ve been able to do. Affording the cloth nappies in the first place, whichis much more expensive as a bulk purchase than an on-going outlay of cheap disposables (plus there was a local council money-for-using-cloth-nappies scheme that we had the resources and knowledge to know about and claim). Having the time to wash nappies and the space to hang them out to dry. Being able to afford the heating to have her running around bum-out a lot of the time. Having wooden flooring that made the clean-up so much easier. Etc etc.

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