Learning Goes Both Ways

February 28, 2017

A more tightly edited version of this column was originally published in the February 2017 issue of ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.



As soon as children begin verbal communication they learn to divide the world into categories. Things with wheels are automobiles. Things with four legs and wagging tails are dogs. Children’s books and programming focus on the importance of recognizing opposites. Things are hard or soft, hot and cold, big or little, open or closed.


Those of us who have spent a lot of time with children know that sometimes they have trouble recognizing our adult distinctions. The difference between an apple and a pear may obvious to us, but to a young child the differences are less apparent. Likewise, abstract concepts like big and small are very much situational distinctions and it takes a while for children to grasp that our way of naming things is highly contextual. In other words, what’s big in one situation is pretty small in another.


One of the greatest joys of working with children is watching them discover the things we forget. They love to find the moon and the sound of thunder fascinates them. We adults may not pay a bit of attention to the bird on the limb, but it gives them unspeakable joy to be able not only to see it but also to name it. They speak with pride when they can identify a dog, or a cat, or cow. They are learning to divide the world up into ideas and characters and categories and they can’t wait to show us.


I’m a mother of three young children and I work with toddlers for a living. It’s an honor to help them learn what makes red, red or how to name concepts like fast, funny, and happy. I teach them songs about opposites and I help them learn needed structure in the classroom. But while I’m helping them find the words for expressing the difference between, say, water and grass, they’re busily teaching me that sometimes we adults get a little too hemmed in by our divisions.


Children see commonalities in the most unexpected places. Give them a chance to dress themselves (without laughter or judgement from adults)  and they’ll go for a combination that defies any adult’s sense of fashion. If you ask them why they chose that particular get up they almost have an answer about why the plaid looks great with the flowers or why mismatched shoes are actually a good idea. We often laugh and write it off as they not understanding how color coordination works. Which is true, I guess. But what’s also going on is they’re making their own choices in a framework that hasn’t been socialized to see certain things as natural companions. Clothes are a simple example, but an important one. After all, if you’re two you have very little freedom to make choices. Clothing is usually one of the first places we see choices emerge.


They’ll combine foods in unorthodox ways; they’ll take a toy out of the package and have little use for “correct” way to use it. If you pay attention you begin realize that this experimentation is more than just cluelessness about the world. It’s the way they learn. It’s the way they become themselves. They are scientists, inventors, artists, storytellers. They have their own sense of what is beautiful, and if we think we have nothing to learn from their freedom and creativity then we’re the ones in need of some direction.

I learned long ago that sometimes we adults often treat children as receptacles for our pain. We have a lot of unresolved issues and heartache, regardless of who we are. So often I see adults down right obsessed with this notion that children are just waiting to get something over on us, even children who haven’t learned how to speak.  Children are seldom out to get us, at least not at this age. They’re just trying to figure out the world and see things we’ve long since forgotten.

We need to be there to show them these distinctions. We are their teachers. But as any good teacher knows, real learning always goes both ways.

They didn't make it.

They didn’t make it.

This column was originally published in the October issues of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.


This past week we moved to a larger house. This is the fifth move we’ve made since we started gardening about a decade ago. We’ve gardened in the Ozarks, in western Kentucky, and in both large and small towns near the Arkansas River. We tell ourselves our next move — the one where we build a house in the country by the creek at the foot of the mountain — will be the last time we box up our belongings and set out for larger spaces. We’ll see.

Moving boxes is tedious and sometimes backbreaking. Moving a garden is a process of letting go. You have to weigh the risks of removing each plant versus leaving it behind. The day after we’d moved our belongings over to our new house I sat in my front yard with spade in hand running through my options: Should I move this rosemary? Would digging it up kill the roots? What about this foxglove? Will the next people who live here care for the plant? If not maybe I should just dig it up and take my chances?

Some decisions were easy to make. I quickly dug into the roots of the yarrow. It’s easy to move, hardy and always defies the odds. The echinacea, too. The lavender is a bit more delicate, but I decided it was worth the risk. As expected, the milkweed and marigolds have made the move just fine. But I think I killed the mums.

My favorite thing about Chrysanthemums is their ubiquity. By October they’re in full bloom, lining the garden beds with deep shades of red, orange, and burgundy. They’re simple, colorful, and — despite my own recent experience — terribly easy to care for. When temperatures are dropping and leaves are falling from the trees, mums help close out the flower garden.

These particular mums were at least four-years-old, a bright orange variety that matched the pumpkins. In theory they should have lasted several more years, but I’ve been gardening long enough to know that sometimes plants just die. I haven’t been gardening long enough to always know exactly why this happens. In this case, I probably didn’t get enough of the root. Of course, you can never garden long enough to know all the whys. Gardening is just like that. Sometimes things die. Sometimes they live despite the harshest of odds. This is why gardening is both a release from and an immersion into life itself.

Since the mums bit the dust I’ve started thinking back on all the mums in my life. My husband and I were married on a cold November day over a decade ago, and we filled the Civilian Conservation Corps building where we said our vows with mums of all shades. We gave most of the plants away, but took a few home and planted them around the alley near the house we rented from Marcia, our wonderfully eccentric, cat-loving landlord. When we moved to Kentucky we took the brightest red mum with us and left it there when we moved two years later. I like to imagine it’s still adding color to that little yellow house on High Street.

My mother always loved mums. She loved autumn in general. As the air begins to change I find myself daydreaming about how we used to pick out a pattern for a Halloween costume, the smell of soup on the stove as I walked through the front door, or her front porch filled with hay bales and kitschy seasonal decorations. She died during an October. The mums that were given to us for her funeral I planted in my own garden the month after she died. When we moved to Little Rock I started fresh with several new varieties, most of which are still safely in the ground awaiting a new renter. They’ll be blooming just in time to welcome in the new folks. Except that orange one, of course; it’s a goner.

After we get settled in at this new place I think I’ll probably go pick a few new mums from a local grower. I can’t imagine a fall garden without them. I’ll let my sons pick out the colors, and I’m sure my toddling daughter will want to help dig up a place for flowers or eat some of the dirt while I’m busy digging the hole. I think when it’s time to move again — you know, to our dream home with nearby creek and water catchment system and six dogs and three goats and a donkey and mule running around in the yard — maybe I’ll just leave the new mums here. I’ll buy some from a Yell County grower for the new place. I kind of like the idea of leaving a trail of fall flowers across the state.

tiny creatures bookThis column was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

As a child, I never did very well in science classes. I passed the classes with decent grades but something always felt so out of reach, so disconnected. Now that I’m well into my thirties I find myself craving a more solid foundation in biology, botany, even physics. I’m discovering that my children are the best science teachers around.

At five-years-old, they’re enamored with the way anything and everything works. They’re fascinated with the idea that numbers can have no end and that things appear smaller the further they are away. They’re curious about how water freezes and how it boils. They want to know all about the body parts of a grasshopper and how ants poop. They ask questions about meteors and stars and the sun and the moon. Finding a spider or praying mantis in the garden shuts down all other activities. They make inventions and suggest hypotheses, their curious minds lighting a spark in my own. Together we explore.

As a young child my mom always took me to the Dardanelle library, making sure I made it to story time and took part in all the summer reading programs. She taught me about inter-library loaning and always encouraged —or at the very least, tolerated — my short-lived reading obsession with everything from horses to pirates to historical fiction. She believed in the fundamental power of childhood reading. Even when she was confused by or disapproved of my topics of interest, she always encouraged me to learn more. Because of this curiosity she honored in me, I can honestly say that as an adult I don’t ever get bored. Should I ever happen upon some free time (hahahaha), there is always a book waiting. I consider this inoculation against boredom one of her greatest gifts to me.

This summer my sons are taking part in the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program, and we’ve been plowing through the hardcovers left and right. We’ve read picture books about Frog and Toad and the twins Ling and Ting and the Good Dog Carl series and pretty much anything we can find written by Mo Williams (be sure and check out City Dog, County Frog, even if you are 68-years-old and there are no kids around. It’s a book for the ages). We read books to their little sister about bushing teeth and the importance of going to sleep. But more often than not we read science books.

I love our time reading together, and not just because I get to watch their excited faces or hear their joyful exclamations or any of those other clichés everyone always says about kids and books and discovery. I love it because I am learning so much.  So far this summer I’ve learned how to make a wormery for compost, everything I could ever need to know about the life cycles of bees, dragonflies and grasshoppers, and how people go to the bathroom in a space ship. I’ve learned about the secret life of microbes and the details of pollination and the hibernation habits of bears and how owls make pellets. I have learned how wind makes weather and how microbes multiply.  Just this morning I learned about Antarctica.

I’m taken aback by the spark of hope and creativity I am finding in a 20 page book on how sea salt is made. And I’m throughly impressed with all the information that can be packed into a large font publication on bulbs and roots. Thanks to the generosity of several dear friends who sent us boxes of math-focused books, we’ve even started reading about fractions and basic math, and I am finding that maybe I have more of a math brain that I originally thought. Children’s books leave so much up to the imagination, and maybe that’s what I was missing all those years in science classes.

After all, when you have less than 20 pages, there is no time to wallow in the minutia of a subject. The authors get straight to the heart of the matter in simple and straight forward sentences. I keep thinking of the well-worn but useful quote from Einstein:  “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”So hats off to children’s book authors. Anyone who thinks there just simple little books is missing out on what might be the most important thing we can ever come to know.

Below is a list of just a few of our favorites, all checked out from the Arkansas public library system. What are you reading this summer? Visit me online at http://www.boileddownjuice.com or http://www.tendingthebittersweets.wordpress.com and tell me about your favorite kids books this summer.

What Are Bulbs and Roots?
by Molly Aloian

World of Insects series – What is Pollination?
by Bobbie Kalman

by Denise Fleming (a book about ants)

The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turner

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes
by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

How Does Weather Change?
by Jennifer Boothroyd

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

This pice was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

We were somewhere between Conway and Maumelle when my son asked, “ Where does outer space lead to?” It was around 8:30 at night and there were few cars on the interstate. Out the windows empty fields stretched in either direction and thousands of stars filled the sky. Our other two children had already drifted off to sleep. As per usual, our middle child (only a minute younger than his twin brother) was fighting sleep by asking the deep, existential questions.

We had spent the previous few days in Yell County and were headed back to Little Rock. Stars were on the brain. The night before—far away from the light and noise of the city—we’d looked up at fuzzy clouds of stars overhead, trying to pick out some of the constellations we’d been reading about in an old book I’d found about space. My sons are often taken aback by what they perceive to be more stars hanging over Dardanelle. My husband and I explained how the same stars are also overhead at our home in Little Rock; we just lose sight of them in the glow of so many streetlights. I felt dizzy that night looking up into the deep expanse. I remembered how, as a child, I used to love to take a flashlight and shine it up into the sky, baffled that the light never found something upon which to land.

As we drove toward home we talked about the solar system and the theories of an expansive universe. We talked about rocket ships and gravity and orbits and, per request, we talked about ideas of heaven and the mysteries of life after death. I dug deep into my brain to try and pull up what I could remember from that astronomy class so many years ago. I think I can speak for both my husband and myself when I say that it was one of those moments when you realize how inadequate your understanding really is. In the end our answers came down to that frequent parental confession: “I don’t know.”

20150101_112021As my children grow older and ask increasingly complex questions, I find myself saying that phrase a lot. But I am usually able to follow it up with, “let’s look it up!” But this time I had the pleasure of explaining that even those who study space don’t know exactly what lies beyond. With the universe always expanding the beyond is still being created. We let the silence and the weight of the question hang in the car, a “beautiful mystery” as we like to call it in our home. I’ve always encouraged my sons to find hope in the unknown. After all, even with our advanced scientific exploration (something for which I also teach them to have great respect), there our limits to our understanding. I’ve always operated under the conviction that a reciprocal relationship with God can’t be built upon an evasion of mystery. It wasn’t long after that he drifted off to sleep and my husband and I turned our adult conversations toward more earthly topics like world affairs and plans for the following day.

There are a lot decisions I’ve made as a parent that I later question. And I’m thankful each day for the opportunity for a do-over from the day before. But our bedtime rituals aren’t in that list. Over the years I’ve learned that connecting with children around bedtime is one of the more magical parts of the day. As they drift toward sleep they lose their shields, employing their growing vocabularies to ask questions that would baffle even the elderly. I’ve always seen this to be such an act of bravery on their part. As humans, being able to lay down in the night, in the stillness of our bodies, and look into that which we don’t understand isn’t for the weak of heart. As a parent I try to give space to this process and stick around whenever they want me near. My gut feelings is that encouraging this contemplation will likely serve my kids well as they grow into adults attempting to navigate a world filled with injustice and complexity. I welcome the chance to tell my children there is so much I don’t understand. Most importantly I feel these moments are one of the many ways in which they’ll learn to develop a relationship with things they can not see.

20141110_204857Oh don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every bedtime is a peaceful, mystical exploration of life’s greatest questions. In their fatigue sometimes they’re extra grumpy and fight about how their brother’s foot bumped against their foot or how they want the pajamas their brother picked out first. Sometimes they fight sleep by requesting yet another glass of water or arguing with their brother about who the blanket belongs to. In other words, it’s not all magic and mystery. I don’t think these are specifically childhood traits but rather human ones. After all, how often do we adults find ourselves thinking, even talking about, the importance of human connection and the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity only to get sidetracked into speculating on the worth of another human’s heart just because they spoke to us with a tone we didn’t like. It’s not as if kids have secured the market on being petty. In the end we’re humans with human brains and human bodies. We get sidetracked. But sometimes, whether we’re 50 or five, we manage to cut through it all and reach toward something beyond ourselves. There is something about the darkness that encourages this reach. I want my children to feel unafraid in that balance.

A few more miles down the interstate, nearing the lights of the city, it occurred to me that I’d been so busy trying to answer my sons questions that I hadn’t offered him the chance to explore his own thoughts on the matter. When we got back into town and he began to wake back up I asked what he thought. “Where do you think it leads to?” The moment had passed, he was groggy, and he didn’t really have much to say on the matter. But I’m glad I asked. I know he’ll file the question away, knowing that there is room in this world, and in this family, for his own ruminations. He’ll sit with them as goes about his days and they’ll likely resurface some evening when he’s staring at the stars, or the ceiling of his room, making his way toward rest. I look forward to learning from his ever-evolving answers.

Why I write about caregiving and community.

Why I write about caregiving and community. Photo by Rachel Townsend.

When I first started writing stuff about grief and parenting and gardening such, I had very distinct lines of delineation. My public, published pieces for the Boiled Down Juice and the regional publications kind enough to run my words were always about cultural studies and intergenerational work and justice and such. And they were all told at a distance.

On the other hand, this space right here was all about babies and mammas and plants. My babies and mama and plants.  For a short time I wrote a parenting related column for a local magazine and housed that here. But basically what you find here are rambles of the personal sort.

Well, lately I have found that my Seed and the Story column and my column for ABOUT the RIver Valley sometimes touch on parenting and plants in an increasingly personal way that can make me feel uncomfortable. I’m losing a sense of these strict lines I used to have.

Sometimes I can’t figure out if something I’ve just written is more of the personal variety or more of the distanced, public kind. I think about it for a while and then someone yells “Mama!!!” and I get distracted.

From the piece "Runny Dry."

From the piece “Runny Dry.”

Sometimes I want to step in and stop this overlap. Go back to my clear-cut lines. Quit talking about the personal and the public in one breath. But I’m a busy mom, and I’ve come to the shaky conclusion that I’m going to write what seems to make the most sense to me, even if I can’t figure out where to put it  and the lines are all blurry. Such is honesty, I suppose.

So, with that thought in mind, here are links to some recent pieces that I’ve run on the Boiled Down Juice and regional publications. I keep writing about care giving and what it means to come together as caregivers. It seems honest to me, so I guess I’ll keep doing it.

Here are some recent pieces.

As always, you can keep up with my contributions to the Boiled Down Juice here. You can learn more about our McElroy House work here. 

“Kabtt–Zinn and the Importance of Caregiving and Intergenerational Connections” 

“Running Dry: A Creek Discovery”

“Something for the Kids: Simple Salt Dough” 

“Ella’s Song: The Importance of Coming Together as Caregivers” 

“Prayer Shawls and Homemade Quilts”

August Born

September 3, 2014

Always running.

Always running.

This column was written for the September issue of ABOUT the RIver Valley Magazine. Read the original post here. 

My twin sons started preschool this week. They looked so tiny yet so grown up as they ran to the front door of our house with their giraffe and fox backpacks precariously balanced on their small bodies. It seems everywhere they go these days they run. “Use your walking feet!” I catch myself saying over and over again. They’re still young and clumsy, and in their never-ending excitement they often crash into one another, their legs and feet tangled together as they trip and fall in the quest to get to…anywhere.

Days spent with these near five year olds are filled with laughter and endless questions: “Want to hear my joke?” “Can you read this book?” “Can we go for a an adventure walk?” “Can I use these scissors to make a hole in the tree?” “Can I borrow the hammer to build something in my room?” “Do you think the ants stare at your feet when you put them in the creek?” “Are there sharks in this water?” “Why does it take six hours to freeze a popsicle? “Can I have a snack?”

These days of endless questions are punctuated by sharp moments of intense sibling rivalry only later to be soothed over in still, calm silence where one or both boys become silently enraptured with an ant hill, or a pile or rocks, or a lego project. No matter how I try to make the most of each moment, there is an intensity and an acceleration to their existence. It makes me dizzy.

Always sleepy.

Always sleepy.

Then there is my two month old daughter. She eats; she poops; she sleeps; she wakes for short periods of time to smile and make the most beautiful babbly sounds. But then she’s back to eating and sleeping again. Though I know from experience just how fast these baby days go by, when I am feeding her on the living room couch or dancing her around the kitchen as I sing her to sleep, the moments pass in a hazy languor. Regardless if we’re sitting down at busy restaurant or at a park filled with screaming four year olds, when I hold and nurse this fat, little person, there is a stillness to our interactions, a momentary pause that proceeds the lively days of endless exploration ahead.

This week I was looking out over my overgrown garden, frustrated that I can’t keep up with everything. It needs weeding, harvesting, watering, and maintenance of all kinds. It happens this way every year. During the spring when things are just beginning to come up it’s so easy to savor each new sprout. I keep the garden tidy and somewhat neat. I tend to each little growth. But by summer everything just gets out of control. The whole thing becomes organized chaos at best. My daughter feels much like an early spring in my arms (at least for now). In my hands I hold on gently to the growing hands of my August-born five year olds as they run into the world growing, growing, growing. My boys are so clearly the summer.

Messy garden.

Messy garden.

Seasoned parents are forever telling new parents to enjoy these baby and preschool days. “They grow so fast,” everyone says. My mother died just a few months before I realized I was pregnant with our first children. I entered into parenting hyper aware of the swift passage of time and our inability to slow it down, bottle it, control it. When the days are hard and long and everyone is having a meltdown and the cat throws up in the floor and I am behind on my work and someone has a sick stomach that results in major accident in the front yard right right as I realize I’ve locked myself out of the house, I try (emphasis on the word try, of course) to remind myself that this moment is still joyful. We’re together, we’re safe, our basic needs are met and there’s an abundance of acceptance and love. Everything else is just detail. Somedays I manage to live in that reality and the days are magic. Somedays I get caught up in the details. Parenting is a process of endless learning and growing in its own right.

There was a time when I thought my awareness of time might somehow save me from time itself. After all, I told myself, I know what it was like to face unexpected loss. I thought, perhaps, that by living each moment fully I could make it through my children’s growing up years with my heart in tact. But here’s the thing fellow parents forget to mention: It doesn’t matter how much awareness you bring to each moment: the time still goes by faster than you can prepare for or even comprehend. Yes, it’s fundamentally true that living fully in each moment reaps great rewards and builds deep connections. But I have come to realize that no matter how intentionally we live in each moment it’s a fundamental part of the human experience to look around at the other humans with whom we share our lives (whether they be old or young) and wonder where time has gone and how we all wound up here.

If my garden is any indication, growth slows down and it speeds up, and it slows down and it speeds up, and goes on forever this way with or without our input. Though it may feel terrifying at times, I think it’s possible to reject our own adult desires to slow down time and instead allow ourselves, with child-like enthusiasm, to be swept up in the endless rhythm of it all, doing our best to love them just as they are, in just the place that they are, as they grow and grow and grow.

My sons in cloth a few years ago.

Most of the stuff on this blog is about the intersection of joy and grief… and plants.  And babies.  And mothers.  But sometimes, most of the time really, life is about, you know, the daily stuff.  I’ve always wanted to do more posts about simple living (whatever that means), and so I thought I would post one of my recent freelance pieces here.

Lots of people ask me about cloth diapers, and so a few weeks ago I wrote up this article for Savvy Kids magazine in Little Rock, Arkansas.  There’s no online component to the individual articles other than the link to the current issue here, so I am reprinting the article via the blog, including the title Savvy Kids gave it, “Dare to Compare: Cloth Diapering Really Isn’t All That Bad.” Ha.   Hope you find it useful!  I’m going to be doing more articles about practical, frugal, simple, green parenting, so if you have any suggestions of topics you’d like me to cover, please let me know! Thanks!

Dare to Compare: Cloth diapering really isn’t all that bad 

By Meredith Martin-Moats

When you hear the phrase cloth diapers perhaps you imagine clumsy diaper pins, a poop-filled washing machine, and a general sense of inconvenience. Just like the car seats, strollers, and cribs of yesteryear, cloth diapers have come a long way in the last few decades. When I was pregnant with my twin sons and considering investing in reusable diapers, I’d hear my friends rattle off phrases like, “all-in-ones,” “pre-folds,” and “PLU covers.”  Cloth diapers have advanced so much in recent years that they have their own language.  And for those just entering the world of diapering it can be overwhelming to figure out what to buy, where to buy it, and how to use it once you get it home. 

At almost three years old, my sons are almost (fingers crossed) potty-learned.  Over the years we’ve occasionally used disposables, especially when traveling.  But, for the most part, we’ve used cloth and I can honestly say that I never felt overwhelmed with laundry, never had a leak, and never regretted the money we invested.  Along the way I’ve experimented with different brands, shopped online and in stores, and traded diapers via diaper swaps, and I’ve come up with this trusty guide examining how and why to use cloth diapers, where to buy them, and how to make sense of the dizzying array of options out there.

Why Cloth?

Let’s first tackle the why question. For many families, using cloth is the answer to their baby’s sensitive skin and the allergic reactions caused from the synthetics and petroleum byproducts in disposables.  For others it’s an outgrowth of their commitment to reducing waste.  It is estimated that each disposable diaper takes about 200 years or more to disintegrate and that these diapers make up over five percent of total landfill waste.  Just to give you an idea of how much waste they create, homes with children in diapers create approximately 50% more waste than homes without them.

When I was pregnant I knew I wanted to reduce our household waste, but what truly drove my dedication to cloth was sitting down with a calculator.  As I worked up a budget for our expanding family, I soon discovered that the average baby goes through $550.00 worth of diapers in their first year alone.  And that’s for the cheap diapers.  The name brands can run you as high as $800.00 a year.  Most babies aren’t potty trained until at least two or longer.  So when I added that all up multiplied it by two for twins, I realized that disposable diapers would cost us a total of $2,200.00 or more.  As a family on a tight budget, that struck me as a needless, and totally preventable, waste. 

So we pooled all the money from our baby showers, used some of the Walmart gift cards we received from family and friends to order cloth diapers via their online store, and made a $350.00 investment in over 30 high-quality, reusable diapers.  Sure, $350.00 sounds like a lot, especially when you spend it all in one chunk.  But in the end that investment saved us around $1,400.  I consider that a pretty good deal. 

First let me make clear that cloth diapers are a bit more time consuming than disposables and if you’re working full-time the money saved on cloth diapers may not be worth the extra minutes it takes each day to stay on top of the laundry.  However, it is important to note that once you develop a diaper-washing routine, and invest in handy tools like a diaper sprayer to help make the job easier, using cloth becomes nothing more than a few extra loads of laundry. In some cities you also have the option of hiring a diaper service that will pick up, wash, and return clean diapers.  We never tried this, but for some busy families this is a solution, even if it does bring on an added expense.  In the end you’ll still end up saving. 

The Language of Cloth Diapers 

So first let’s talk terminology.  You’ll probably need about 10-15 (20-30 for twins) diapers.  You can get by on less, but that would mean doing laundry every day rather than every other day.  What kinds to buy, you wonder?  Here’s a condensed list of many of the cloth diaper terms you will encounter. 

All in Ones:  These diapers come in various sizes, including adjustable one size fits all and function just like a disposable.  They are lined with absorbent microfiber cloth that pulls wetness away from the baby’s skin and lined with a PLU (polyurethane laminated fabric) exterior. Velcro tabs or snaps function just like the tabs on a disposable.  Once the diaper becomes dirty or wet you just shake off waste into the toilet and throw the diaper into the diaper pail to await washing.  They come in all colors, patterns, and hundreds of brands.   They typically run anywhere from $12-15 per diaper and can be purchased in package deals for reduced rates.

Pocket Diapers:  These also come in both all sizes and the adjustable one size fits all. On the outside they look much like the All in Ones, but instead of the absorbent cloth sewn into the diaper, these diapers contain a back pocket where you stuff absorbent cloth inserts.  These are especially great at preventing leaks and you can double up on the inserts for nighttime use.  Inserts come with the diapers and are available in a variety of materials ranging from hemp to bamboo.  They are considered the “gold standard” of diapering and tend to run around $20 a diaper.  These also come in package deals.

Prefolds: These are much like the diapers our parents used.  They’re absorbent pieces of cloth, hemp, or other natural fibers that can be folded in a variety of different ways.   When paired with a waterproof cover these are as effective as a disposable and surprisingly easy to use.  They’re also one of the cheapest options available.  If you choose a brand like Econobum, which offers a basic pre-fold start up kit, you can diaper your baby through potty training for only $100.

Diaper Covers:  Coated with waterproof PUL, these are used over prefolds to prevent any leaks.  Unlike All in Ones, you only need to change the insert when the baby gets wet and therefore can used over and over again before washing.  Additionally they wash and dry very quickly and come in a wide array of colors and designs.  Look for covers with snaps rather than Velcro, as the snaps tend to last longer.  These come in all prices from $5-20. 

Tools of the Trade: 

Diaper Sprayers:   In my opinion, a diaper sprayer is what makes cloth diaper truly easy.  Essentially it’s just a sprayer attached to your toilet that allows you to spray off the dirty diapers before throwing them into the diaper pail to await washing.  You can make one of these yourself or buy one from a company like Bum Genius for about $33.   If you do a little research, you can often find these used for half the price.  I was given one from a friend and I can’t imagine cloth diapering without it.

Diaper Pail:  This is your holding bin for the dirty diapers.  You can keep it in the bathroom right by the diaper sprayer and toss the dirty diapers in when rinsed.  A sturdy trash can works just fine.  You can also find things like waterproof pail linings that you can throw into the wash with the dirty diapers.  This cuts out any residual odors.


Washing Machine: Once you’ve got all these things together all you need is a reliable washing machine.  Most cloth diapers use very little detergent and require no special care.  Make sure you read the labels on each brand to ensure the best results.  If you really want to channel your inner grandmother, hang the diapers on a clothesline to dry.  We often did that, which allows the sun to bleach any stains.

Where to Buy

When you’re trying to decide which ones to buy people will often tell you that you need to experiment and see what works for you.  I agree with that sentiment, but that costs money and what if you buy something and don’t like it?  Thanks to people like Rebecca Taylor, owner of Natural Bambino store in the Green Corner Store on Main, you can attend events like cloth diaper swaps where cloth diapering moms get together trade their children’s outgrown diapers, talk shop, and try out new styles.  She began the store two years ago to provide education and purchasing options for local moms. She now offers store credit for gently used diaper trade ins and a handful helpful classes that cover everything from the terminology to diaper care. The store recently hosted the “Great Diaper Change” event in connection with Earth Day, an event attempting to set the record for the most cloth diaper changes and raise awareness about the world of cloth diapering.  

Once you get a sense of the options, you can also take advantage of online shopping including supporting the online like Arkansas-based Terra Tots in Fayetteville.  You can also go straight to the diaper companies to buy in bulk and score some great sales.  Popular umbrella companies include Cotton Babies and FuzziBuns, which offer literally thousands of diaper varieties and extensive information about how each style works. And for those thrifty mamas who love to find the best deals, check out the online community diaperswappers.com.  Essentially an online market, you can find diapers for sale, trade, and even giveaway.  It can take some time to navigate the site, but if you’re pregnant and taking a break on the couch to decrease those swelling ankles or you’re a nursing mom who finds yourself perpetually attached to the recliner, prop up a computer in front of you and take some time to poke around the site.  I both purchased and sold used diapers there and always had good experiences with the site.

And don’t forget sites like Target and Wal-Mart.  Both companies offer diapers in their online stores, including the hybrid G diapers, which come with disposable liners.  Chances are you’ll get gift cards at your baby shower and why not use that money to buy re-useables online rather than disposables? When shopping for these diapers online be sure and type in “reusable diapers,” (rather than “cloth diapers”) to turn up the most results.   And finally, don’t forget to let people know you’re wanting to use cloth and ask for their support.  If you’re planning a baby shower for someone who’s interested in cloth you can set up a cloth diaper fund or register for cloth diapers at Natural Bambino.  And if you’ve already started out with disposables, it’s never too late to start experimenting with cloth!  Many people, myself included, used disposables for those first hectic weeks after birth then slowly transitioned to cloth.

Now that my sons are using the potty I’m happy to say that my large basket of cloth diapers are no longer being used.  Almost all of them, even the ones I was given as hand me-downs or I purchased used, are still in great shape. Should we have another child we won’t need to buy a single diaper.  And someday I’ll pass them on to another expecting mom.  That $350 just keeps paying off and is, by far, the most durable and lasting purchase I made during those fleeting baby days.


Mary Caroline

February 28, 2012

My grandmother holding my father.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately.  She was a mysterious woman and remains an engima to me many years after her death.  I love this photo of her and my father taken somewhere in  Sulpher Springs/Harkeys Valley, Arkansas in the mid 1940s.

A friend of mine posted a link to this story.  I loved it so much I thought I’d pass it on.  I don’t know a thing about this blogger or video games,  but I love the crux of the story and hope we’re raising sons who’ll have similar characteristics:  the bravery to be themselves and the willingness to stand up for others who are being themselves.

Here’s the first part of the blog, with a link to the full story.

Yesterday I had a pair of brothers in my store. One was maybe between 15-17. He was a wrestler at the local high school. Kind of tall, stocky and handsome. He had a younger brother, who was maybe about 10-12 years old. Thy were talking about finding a game for the younger one, and he was absolutely insisting it be one with a female charcter. I don’t know how many of y’all play games, but that isn’t exactly easy. Eventually, I helped the brothers pick a game called Mirror’s Edge. The youngest was pretty excited about the game, and then he specifically asked me.. “Do you have any girl color controllers?”

I directed him to the only colored controllers we have which includes pink and purple ones. He grabbed the purple one, and informed me purple was his FAVORITE.

Continue reading here: http://mohandasgandhi.tumblr.com/post/15242464246/dear-customer-who-stuck-up-for-his-little-brother

A Christmas Tree.

December 24, 2011

My mother. 1957.

I love everything about this photo: The haphazardly decorated tree, the frame hanging crooked on the wall, the way my mother is crouched down as if she’s about to leap up and run away, the reflection on the thick glass windows, the fact that she’s wearing jeans…all of it, really.

If my mother were still living she’d probably kick me for posting this.  She liked everything to be polished.  I so much didn’t turn out that way, so it’s kind of nice to see a photo of a tree I can relate to.  Plus, it’s endlessly interesting to think of my mother as a child.  When I look at my kids and wonder how it is that I ever a.) became an adult and b.) became a mother, I remember that she must have felt the same way.  She must have often looked at me (as I do with my own kids) and thought to herself,  “How did I wind up here?”  Children, generally, have no idea how pleasantly overwhelmed their parents are at their mere existence.  And this is as it should be, I guess.  They’re marveling at the world.  We’re marveling at them marveling at the world.

I think the thing I like best about this photo is the simplicity of the house.  But let me be clear in saying that when I say “simplicity,”I have no desire to romanticize poverty, nor do I want to suggest that things were somehow better back in the days when my mother was a child.  Life has always been complicated, poverty has never been sustainable, and while I am indeed quite a Luddite about many things, I’m happy to be living in this generation with all its beauty and struggles.  I love me some internet, after all.

What I like about the picture is that there are presents under the tree, but not too many.  There are decorations on the tree but it looks like someone had fun decorating that tree and wasn’t these least bit worried about it being perfect. Mostly what I like is thinking about my mother as someone who’s gone through many phases in her life:  baby, a child, a teen, young adult,  young mother, middle-aged woman.    We all wind up being so many different versions of ourselves.  Somehow this helps me accept something of the concept of death and really does bring me some kind of peace.   I also recently lost someone who was very, very dear to me, like a grandmother really.   I remember looking at her childhood photos before the funeral.  There is something magical about remembering that those that die old were once children.

As a mother of twins, I often have strangers come up and  tell me to “enjoy every minute” of my sons’ childhood.  I appreciate this suggestion, but little do they know how often I think about how short our lives are or how I often focus on how important it is to embrace every moment with my growing sons.   I’ve never been much of a holiday decorator.  But my sons are in love with Christmas trees.  Who can blame them?  I’m coming to love them myself, especially the messy kind.

Here’s a photo of them with the tree.  Very blurry but representative of the endless motion of our house these days.

G and E