Parenting lessons from Honduras

I am not sure if I've already written about these two issues here, but in preparing for a paper I needed to write this week, I had to get this out. I'm not including it there, as it turns out, so I'll put it here instead.

In early 2012 I had a conversation with my friend Marcela, a midwife who had come to visit me for a checkup and massage during my pregnancy the previous year. I asked her why so many poor Honduran women used disposable diapers, when they were so fabulously expensive—even for me, a gringa on a U.S. professor's salary.

In my mind, I already had the answer worked out, and it was along the lines of Nancy Scheper-Hughes' argument for why mothers in Northeast Brazil refused to breastfeed their children. Scheper-Hughes examines the history of the introduction—via early Peace Corps volunteers like herself—of instant baby formula to her field site. Initially provided for free, it symbolized a new scientific motherhood understood to be central to modernity. Soon, the formula ceased to be free, forcing no-longer-lactating mothers to purchase a fetishized commodity to replace the milk produced by their own bodies, which was healthier for their babies. Among this racially-marked and self-consciously "unmodern" population, in a short period of time women came to believe themselves biologically incapable of nourishing their children. Meanwhile, the provision of formula—which now depended primarily on the activities of male wage-earners—came to signify fatherly (and partner) love. This corporate-cultural mothering transition thus weakened women's status, subjugating mothers further not just to a capitalism steeped in colonialism, but to the patriarchy.

The choice of cloth diapers vs. disposables is not the same choice as breastfeeding vs. using formula. Neither diaper product depends on biological constraints of the mother, and a parent or caretaker can go back and forth more easily between them. The health of the baby is not at stake in the same way as it is when choosing between breastmilk and formula, in particular where water supply is impure. Certainly the environmental concern vis-a-vis waste is serious. But in my assessment I attempted (unsuccessfully) to remain non-judgmental about the broader health impacts of disposable diaper disposal, which in Honduras means incineration—often in a controlled bonfire right outside of the homes where babies live. Given the structural, economic and political violence that define the lives of most Hondurans, I assumed that the environmental threat posed by diaper disposal was not a top priority in decision-making.

Still, having observed a number of families and their diaper usage at a time when I myself was newly discovering the trials and tribulations involved with both types of diapers, it seemed to me that the cost of disposables outweighed the benefits. I didn't feel like I could afford them (although I also had a strong aversion to disposables related to the consumerist environmentalism and guilt that seemed an unshakeable part of my bourgeois habitus), and I knew I had a lot more disposable income than my friends. Even accounting for the hard, distasteful work of handwashing cloth diapers, I could not come up with a "logical" economic explanation. So I turned to culture.

I knew of several young fathers who regularly bought diapers and formula for their babies, and the fathers' contributions were mentioned with apparent pride often enough in casual conversation by the diaper-wearers' mothers and extended families that it seemed significant. So despite the differences between infant formula and disposable diapers outlined above, I thought I was onto a pattern similar to what Scheper-Hughes had encountered; the masculinization and commercialization of an integral part of infant parenting that further diminished the mother's value in the home, while increasing her poverty and/or her dependence on a male (co-)provider, the ultimate and only real beneficiary being the diaper corporation.

I theorized that it had to do with a fetishization of cleanliness as symbolic of modernity; most Hondurans are both tidier and more hygienic than most of the gringos who make it to Honduras, and most Hondurans I know aren't shy about commenting on that as being somehow ironic. I thought about Mary Douglas (poop out of place) or George Orwell's brilliant essay in The Road to Wigan Pier about why the lower classes smell. I thought about morality and the embodiment of a Protestant Ethic that motivated Hondurans to attempt to effect a bourgeois habitus in an effort to actually improve their economic status, as I have written about previously in discussing evangelical Christianity and Alcoholics Anonymous in that country. It seemed to make a neat package, and as far as I was concerned, I had it pretty much figured out.

So I asked Marcela what she thought, expecting to confirm my suspicions. Marcela nodded and told me she understood that cloth diapers were more affordable, better for the environment, and served to channel the meager earnings of the poor into the hands of large corporations (in more or less those words). She agreed that they were a more ideal option, in a perfect world. But, Adriana—she said—the thing is, in a neighborhood like mine, where there often is no running water, it's impossible to use cloth diapers. You can't wash them.

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A few months earlier I had another conversation with my friend Marco Tulio. I was explaining to him why so many gringos refused to give their babies vaccinations. That—in contrast to my own reading of the evidence—many parents believe that infant vaccinations lead to autism and other diseases. I described some of the history, telling him about how vaccination methods used to be much more invasive and dangerous and were opposed by social movements in Victorian England as being part of a larger government program of controlling and subjugating the poor. I said that there seemed to me to be more legitimate concerns about some newer vaccines used on adults, like the anthrax vaccine mandated for US soldiers. Marco Tulio listened, and then replied "Debates about whether or not to vaccinate infants only make sense in a place like the United States where people have no idea what communicable diseases really look like."

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Both of these conversations stuck with me, and served as a reminder to write against culture—as Lilia Abu-Lughod has argued anthropologists attempt to do. Although in some cases I do believe that my original analysis of diaper selection applies, Marcela's comment made it clear that it was stark material conditions—not false consciousness or symbolic violence linked to a fetishization of the modern or colonial mindset—that formed the primary determinant (if I can call it that) of many Honduran parents' decision (or lack thereof) to use disposable diapers instead of cloth. Similarly, the lack of resistance by Hondurans to vaccinating their babies is not due to an ignorance of scientific debates (many Hondurans know, for example, of the Guatemala syphilis experiment), but rather to a first-hand knowledge of the public health risks posed to their children by contagious diseases. Conversely, we could say that the opposition to vaccinations among groups of U.S. parents relates in part to a lack of familiarity with the nature and severity of the communicable diseases being vaccinated against.

In addition to bringing to the fore material realities (embedded of course in structures of colonialism and capitalism), my discussions with Marcela and Marco Tulio reminded me that I was in no position to judge another parent—or even to comprehend other people's parenting decisions—until I really understood their particular situation.

As I was learning, parenting was damn hard work. And Hondurans seemed know what they are doing. Hondurans I met on the street were eager to teach me how to care for my daughter, and for the most part, I was grateful for their advice.