For many of us, living a life of less – fewer clothes, fewer toys, fewer disposables, but equally fewer plans and activities – remains something for which we continue to strive. But for others – like London mother to three boys, Emma, it’s a philosophy she embraces on a daily basis. Emma and her family spend their free time whiling away the hours in the countryside; they book few dates into the diary; and they certainly contribute zilch to the fatbergs constantly clogging up London waterways. For Emma, going with the flow is conducive to a calm, content way of life.
Today, we step into the life of Emma and chat about the time she joined a parliamentary debate on nappies, why she thinks toilet training could be the best time to start using cloth nappies, and whether she thinks cloth nappies are attainable for everyone.
Welcome, Emma @mamalinauk
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m Emma. My husband and I live in London with our three boys, who are 6, 4 and 1. I spend my days bringing up the kids and writing for my blog. I write about things I feel passionate about, whether that’s parenting philosophies, the outdoors, cloth nappies or toys. The thread that goes through everything is that I don’t like boxes or hard and fast rules; I’m passionate about going with the flow when it comes to bringing up kids and day-to-day life.
What’s the best part about living in London?
Honestly, if it weren’t for my family, I don’t think I would live in London. I would want to live in the countryside, somewhere more remote. I wouldn’t want to leave here now though, and I love lots of things about living in the city – I love being able to walk 5 minutes and get a good coffee and, often, bump into friends. I love having access to great arts and cultural opportunities; though, I have to confess, I’m not great in terms of museums and galleries. When we get free time, we prefer to go out into the countryside. If they could put galleries into fields, that would be great! During lockdown, all we’ve been allowed to do is go for walks – which is pretty much my favourite thing to do anyway.
You have a considerable following on social media, including Instagram and your blog, Mamalina, – what inspires you to continue to share your story on social media?
It all started because I had children before any of my friends. I would be up feeding in the night on Twitter, connecting with other mums I didn’t know at all. We were all doing the same thing at the same time – eating biscuits and breastfeeding; it blew my mind! So the blog started as a way to connect and that’s why I carry on now. I feel super connected with people and feel I could be friends with so many of them in real life, and some have indeed become so.
I also garner a lot of information; I enjoy being creative; and, I enjoy keeping the memories. Doing this work means I get to selfishly create and keep these memories alive! For me, it feels very natural to communicate and share things. Finally, I also earn money from it so it’s a salary for me as well.
We’ll get to cloth nappies in a moment but, first, it would be great to learn a little about some of your other passions, generally, all of which focus around living a more slow and sustainable life. What does living and parenting slowly and sustainably mean to you?
The slowness for me is a lot around the idea of going with the flow. One philosophy I have, which I talk about a lot, is not having too many plans in the diary – for the kids and for us adults. I don’t think it’s conducive to a calm, content way of life. In lockdown, I’ve seen that so clearly because, yes, people have been frustrated and bored and in bad situations, but for a chunk of society living comfortably with access to food that we’re lucky to have, you can see how many people have felt less stressed and anxious because they’ve had so many plans and expectations taken away from them. For me, there’s a lot of joy to be found in less is more. We don’t need to pack our days with things and we don’t need or to take kids from activity to activity.
Do you think using cloth nappies is attainable for everyone?
When it comes to cloth nappies, there’s a barrier that tells us it’s too difficult but actually it’s so empowering when we try, and that feeling is so amazing. When I want to achieve something, I treat myself like a kid and, each day, I tick off what I want to achieve. It’s about thinking you can’t do something, breaking it down and embracing the feeling that comes when you overcome something. It’s so empowering! For example, when I challenge myself not to drink coffee, I tick it off each day when I don’t have it. At first, you miss the feeling you get from drinking coffee, but it’s so much less amazing than the feeling you get when you know you can resist the coffee; that feeling is so much more powerful.
I always say to people “umming and ahhing” about cloth nappies to try just using them for one a day and see how that goes, how that feels and to go from there. Little by little, you will see that it’s not that hard, and you will learn how it feels when you’re not rushing out to buy disposables all the time or emptying bulging sacks of dirty nappies into the bins. It’s a challenge using cloth nappies compared to disposable, but it’s so worth it.
You’ve written about your all-time favourite place to source your children’s clothes being from your parents’ spare room where your mum has held onto her children’s clothes for nearly 40 years. Have you committed to saving some of your children’s clothes for your grandchildren?
I definitely want to save some pieces, but most of the pieces I want to save are the pieces my mum has saved, so they’re double saves! I’m definitely keeping my eyes on some toys as well.
Your regular recaps of life with kids give me all the feels; I do something similar in my family whereby I send emails two my children on a 6-monthly or so basis. Do you have any tips for others who’d love to replicate something similar but are daunted by the prospect?
I’ve always kept a diary since I was young; I’ve got boxes of diaries so, for me, writing is really natural and if I don’t write about the kids then that makes me feel anxious – every so often I have to do a braindump about them! I just find it really cathartic. I would suggest writing yourself some prompts: you could use the same 5 questions every 6 months or so. You would find lots of little anecdotes that way.
Moving on to the topic of cloth nappies, what is the number one reason you believe families should be considering cloth nappies?
The environment. When we know that 8 million nappies go to landfill every day in the UK alone, it’s crazy. People campaign about plastic straws and coffee cups and other things, but, I’m like, “Guys – nappies!” This is not a luxury item that children are only wearing every couple of weeks; we’re going through millions of nappies every single day, and each of those is taking 500 years or more to break down. Nappies are an everyday essential item that we need to switch out now. It also gets me because our parents and grandparents used cloth nappies; it isn’t groundbreaking; why can’t we just go back to what we once did?
Using cloth on a newborn has been simple and satisfying for you. You go into all the details of which nappy to use, how many you need, and other things worth considering here. With so many options available to the modern parent, what advice do you have for those feeling too overwhelmed to even make a choice between cloth and disposable?
A lot of people say the newborn stage isn’t the right time to be using cloth nappies for them, but I find newborn cloth nappying, if you’re feeling strong mentally, the easiest time – the poo is washable and they’re so teeny tiny that you can wash a tonne at a time.
Despite being so passionate about cloth nappies and reducing waste, you haven’t used them from day 1, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for all of your children. Can you explain?
I didn’t use cloth nappies on my first son when he was tiny, but once I got into it, I haven’t looked back. Another exception for me was early days with my third when I was feeling completely sleep deprived; that’s when I would really advise mums, if you’re feeling depleted, to step away; no one is saying cloth nappies are more important than mental health.
In one of your posts titled A Totally Instinctive, Entirely Practical, Slightly Gross Thing We do with our Baby, Like 5 Times A Day, you explain how you change your kids’ nappies in and around the sink, including wiping them clean with your hand and a bar of soap. You mention the process is “pretty intimate”, but also reflect on parenthood necessitating getting up close and personal with your baby’s poo. This intimacy with poo is commonly reported as one of the reasons people fear using cloth nappies. What advice do you have for parents or carers facing this concern?
I don’t have a problem with mud and poo and bodily functions, and I feel it strange to be a mum and find these things icky! But, if you do, and everyone is different, there are implements that help in that area – poo sticks or brushes, bidets, shower heads etc. There’s no reason cloth nappying and dealing with poo can’t be a highly sanitised, clean process.
Stealing the question you asked in this post, I’d like to know what else you do as a parent that’s kind of odd but also just totally, utterly, super instinctive to you?
The one thing that comes to mind is when I give the kids their dinner in the bath. I find it practical and fun, and the kids eat really well. There’s no mess and it halves the time it takes to do the night time routine because you do it at same time. Some people find it kind of gross, but it’s something I do instinctively.
How do you use change time as an opportunity to connect with your children?
Our youngest is at stage now where he’s very much on the move, so there’s not much time to connect. But, interestingly, I was chatting to my mum about using prefolds and safety pins (because back in the day that was the only option) and how it worked when toddlers were running around, and she said it was different because the baby would just lie down. So, maybe if we used prefolds more akin to 50 years ago, there might be more opportunity to connect.
You subscribe to a slow and steady approach to toilet training which you’ve written about on your website here and here if anyone wants to check it out. What’s your number one piece of advice for families nearing this time of their lives?
I totally believe in elimination communication, and I’ve done early potty training with our kids. I don’t think there’s a toilet training age; you can start as soon as they can sit up. My one piece of advice is to put them on potty whenever you can. Even if they don’t get it, it saves loads of washing and it’s actually a great way to connect with your kid – storytime on the potty!
Is it ever too late to start using cloth nappies? [Find out why Emma thinks switching to reusables at toilet training age is a good idea here.]
No. I always say toilet training is one of the best times to use cloth nappies because you put a nappy on them at night and sometimes they’re going to wet it and sometimes they’re not. If you’re using disposables, you’re potentially throwing away a nappy even if it isn’t wet, so reusables are perfect.
Can you explain why you have declared wet wipes to be one of your least favourite items in the world?
I just don’t see a use for them. I don’t think they work well, and they’re obviously completely awful for the environment. In London, they clog up rivers in huge masses and create “fatbergs” – basically mounds of plastic yuckiness. Using cloth wipes of any type just makes so much more sense and crucially, they work much better too!
A common hesitation with using cloth nappies is having to learn the ‘right’ way to use and wash them. What’s your best advice on finding a routine that works for your family? [Emma has blogged about how she washes cloth nappies here.]
I think people overcomplicate it so much. At the end of the day, it’s just something absorbent and something waterproof over the top. There’s so much jargon and so many unnecessarily complicated words. You can just use a terry towel cloth with some plastic plants and that will do the job, or yes, you can buy a $50 nappy.
Find a washing routine that works for you and stick with it. Instinctively, I know nappies need to be washed quite hot and I know I need to strip wash every few months. You can look and smell and know if your wash routine is working or not.
Back in 2019 you took part in a high-level parliamentary debate to discuss the then newly introduced Nappies (Environmental Standards) Bill, as well as ways to tackle disposable nappy waste. Can you tell us a little about that?
There was an amazing energy in the room that day. Cloth nappies was a new topic to bring to that forum, proposed by Glasgow MP, David Linden. Obviously, I think he’s a brilliant guy; a real outlier. He came to the topic from a father’s perspective – he had kids, started using cloth nappies and saw how much sense it made. It overlapped into his working life, and he started pushing for it from there.
I was representing a mum’s opinion on the ground; a mum who also happens to have access to other mums and their opinions and experiences. Unfortunately, since then, environmental bills in general have taken a back seat; though, they are now coming to the fore again. Earlier this month I saw the MP writing about nappies, so he’s still chipping away at the cause very much. I’m massively behind him and I hope he keeps working on it.
Along with establishing an industry and government led campaign to promote reusable nappies that meet environmental standards, the Bill encourages incentives for local authorities across the UK to roll out reusable nappy voucher schemes helping to reduce disposable nappy waste and the circulation of single-use plastics. Do you believe the bill can impact the choices parents make around nappies?
There’s so much confusion and doubt around cloth nappies that making them accessible is key to making them mainstream. The bill is part of that.
What else do you believe needs to happen to reduce the amount of single-use plastics ending up in our environment?
It’s a lot to do with education, especially with educating our young. I see the message our children are getting from their school and it’s amazing. We need to seriously keep educating and making sure we have the right leaders in place.
If you had to narrow it down to only one piece of advice for families considering cloth nappies, what would it be?
Try to just borrow some from a friend or from a council; however you can get your hands on them. Don’t spend any money; just try them and you’ll see it’s pretty simple. Just give it a go.
Some families just aren’t going to be ready for cloth nappies just yet. Where should they look to reduce waste instead?
Cloth wipes would be the next best thing if you really don’t want to do cloth nappies. If you’re doing cloth wipes, though, you should definitely try cloth nappies.
Where would you recommend anyone begin their research if they’re hoping to make more changes for the betterment of the environment at home?
Just online these days; there’s loads of great blogs. There’s also a book that’s come out now – The Joy of Reusable Nappies by Laura Tweedale. Or, talk to your grandma or mum, talk to the elders. My Grandma still remembers all her nappy folds.
What can we expect to be the next step in your sustainable journey?
I’d like to stop using the car so much and start biking. I haven’t cycled in years, since I was in university, but I really want to get back into it for those short journeys. There’s no reason we should be using cars for short journeys. I haven’t taught the kids how to ride bikes though. It’s the downside of my parenting philosophy to go with the flow!