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Diaper Rush

It’s two a.m. The teething baby and the needy toddler are asleep at last. The spouse is snoozing and the dishes are done. It’s time to indulge in what the parenting magazines call “me time.” But my hobby is, you might say, a bit dirty: I’m into diapers. Naturally, I get online.

First, I cruise a few message boards to see if anyone is posting any photos. Then, I head over to eBay and list an auction: four used diapers, very slightly stained. Before I go to bed, my listing garners eight “watchers,” fellow night owls who have checked out my diapers, deemed them attractive and decided that, of the 987 available cloth diaper listings, mine is worth bookmarking.

Before the sun rises, one tentative soul places a bid. Yes, she hopes to put these diapers my child has repeatedly insulted upon the precious bottom of her own sweet baby. But she won’t. Seven nights later, in a frenzied last-minute smackdown, she is outbid eleven times over. The diapers sell for $42.

“It’s completely insane,” says Millie Adelsheim, owner of Peapods in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the few bricks-and-mortar stores in the country to carry a sizable cloth diaper selection. “Used cloth diapers are selling for sometimes ninety percent of what they cost new.”

Until recently, only the most eco-minded or penny-pinching parents chose to cloth-diaper their babies, but within the past decade, design innovations have led to a renewal of interest in cloth. In fact, cloth diapering is now, freakishly, cool. On parenting message boards, the same moms who buy thousand-dollar strollers get giddy about “fluffy mail” – slang for a fresh package of web-ordered cloth diapers. And the market for used cloth diapers is remarkable. In fact, some highly coveted “designer” brands actually appreciate in value, and, depending on the maker, fabric, and design, new cloth diapers can fetch as much as $40 each, although the ones I sold – Kissluvs, purchased new at Peapods – were only $12 new.

Clearly, these are not my mother’s cloth diapers. My mother, in fact, would say that the white cotton diapers (called prefolds) she used on five kids were perfectly fine, and maybe ten cents each. And then she’d marvel at my idiocy for paying so much for such a mundane item. But the retro diapers I stewed in as a tot were a soggy, saggy drag, while the sleek, high-tech diapers my babies wear perform in rain or shine.

“Diapers have a come a long way,” says Adelsheim. “Even just ten years ago, if you were doing cloth diapers, you were doing prefolds. But now there are more sophisticated products that really give people the performance they need.”

Performance? Yes, diapers are now gear, designed for what you might call the elimination round. To score a dry butt and a chic, trim fit, you can package your kid in fitted, multi-layer diaper systems that are as easy to use as disposables. With soft fleece interiors and water-repellent outer shells, they resemble REI’s most practical foul-weather gear. The truly crunchy breeder, however, may opt for virtuous hemp fleece diapers, more absorbent than cotton, boasting natural anti-bacterial properties, and as earth-friendly as all get-out.

But it’s the diapers made by WAHMs (work-at-home-moms, and at least one dad, a crusader who wants to educate the world about disposable diapers and dangerously high scrotal temperatures) that inspire bidding wars, devoted fans, and a collect-them-all mentality. On diaper blogs and sites such as Mothering.com, the Diaper Pin, and the Diaper Hyena, parents research, review, and brag about their latest WAHM acquisitions.

The making of a WAHM business starts when a thrifty mom decides to make her own diapers. She comes up with a great design and a noxiously cute name inspired by butts (Fuzzibunz, Loveybums, Ecobunz, Bitty Bums, Happy Heinys), bugs (Fireflys, Little Beetle, Swaddlebees, Dragonfly Boutique) or tooth decay (SugarPlumBaby, Sugar Britches, Sugar Bums, Sweet Cheeks Boutique). The cloth diapering demographic embraces yuppies (Clothmopolitan, G Diapers, Bijou Baby Gear, Bella Bottoms) as well as hippies (Sage Mama Designs, Kindhearted Woman, Slightly Crunchy.)

Others are named after children, like Luke’s Drawers, Ella’s Diapers or Wild Oats Diaperz, a WAHM-diaper business owned by Andrea Marrapodi. Marrapodi estimates that there are a few hundred serious home-based diaper-making businesses worldwide. She became one after Otis (“Oats”) was born. “We knew paper diapers in the U.S. have traces of dioxin in them and tons of other horrible crap, and didn’t want them on our kid,” she said. “So I bought a serger and made some diapers for him, and people said, ‘Wow, you should sell those.’” And another WAHM website was born.

In addition to fitted diapers, Marrapodi sews custom appliqued wool and cashmere diaper covers for romantic types who want “the diaper you can put in a shadow box as a keepsake.” These art diapers put her in a small subset of WAHMs who make diapers both absorbent and transcendent. Although Marrapodi’s business is a modest supplement to her family’s income, and most WAHMs barely break even, she says a few, like FussyButt Diapers, do very well. In a FussyButt, your child is a walking, aromatic art gallery, displaying fine embroidery. They sell for around $70. Each. Even more dear is the work of Storm in the Attic, a Dutch WAHM who knits elaborate stories about fairies and wild animals onto waterproof wool pants.

A handful of larger diaper makers exist, but the cloth market remains mostly an underground, mom-to-mom economy, which somehow adds to the allure of the product. Many of the WAHMs take on a celebrity status, and collectors of their work discuss them as if they were friends – or enemies, as in the case of a diaper-maker whose work became shoddy, and whose husband started threatening customers who complained on public message boards. On the Diaper Hyena website, a regular feature called “Behind the Diapers” profiles hot diaper makers about their lives and work. It’s not the cover of Rolling Stone, but for some parents (who may be years away from seeing another a rock show), it’s even better.

Yes, but these diapers are loaded – as are the people who buy them. “In all honesty, I think some people take it way too seriously. It’s very trend- driven. The hot thing this week is the old thing next week,” says Adelsheim. “At the end of the day, it’s a diaper.”

Yes, but these diapers are loaded – as are the people who buy them. Although $100 will cover a simple trousseau of quality covers and prefolds that are easy on the environment and leave a little bit of cash leftover for the college fund, the truly couture diapers come at a price. A fitted designer diaper can cost between $10-30 each, which could still be a deal compared to disposables, when factoring in use by subsequent children and an eBay afterlife. But diapers – like the creatures that wear them – are a highly emotional, fickle, and volatile market.

And it’s not just the babies hanging their psyches out to dry. On message boards, cloth-diapering moms refer to themselves as “addicted,” and many engage in the conceal-and-deny behavior associated with compulsive gamblers or alcoholics, such as hiding the amount of money they spend on this supposedly budget-minded product from their spouses. On a recent Mothering.com discussion forum, the addicts gathered. “I actually spent a whole hour talking to my therapist trying to figure out why I am so obsessed with everything cloth diaper,” one mother wrote. “I spent three hours surfing the web looking for my next fix this morning instead of cleaning up the house or doing my paperwork,” said another. “If my husband only knew how much time I spend dreaming about diapers, organizing diapers, debating different diapers, planning a newborn diaper stash for a baby that isn’t even in the works yet,” admitted another poor soul.

But despite the legions of sleepless cloth-diaper fans trolling the internet on what Marrapodi calls “the hunt for Red Dipetober,” cloth is still the underdog. An estimated ninety-five percent of babies wear disposables. Of course, whether parents choose cloth or disposables, they’ll eventually come together at the toddler underwear display, staring down the rows of Dora, Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine underpants. These have virtually no resale value. And yet, even the most avid diaper collector is happy to see them.

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