Can you imagine how humbling it was for two college-educated young people to be looking for their first apartment as a married couple, trying to go out into the word as “real adults,” and having to ask if our parents could co-sign because we had no jobs?
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
My husband-to-be had waited to propose until he had his first job, and in fact, sharing that exciting news with me was the beginning of the proposal. We were just out of college, and he promised to provide and care for me as we began our lives together.
That was October, and I was student teaching for a full year. We began planning a wedding for July, but in March, the wrecking ball hit his company. The end result was a jail sentence for his boss and catastrophic closure of the business, which makes a great story to tell at parties but was certainly a crisis at the time.
I was applying for teaching jobs, but the market was bloated at the time, so in June when we had to nail down an apartment to live in after we got married, we were two very young adults with no jobs.
I can still remember the exact place on the freeway when the call came in on my old Sprint flip phone with the broken arm. It was my eventual boss offering me a job at a Catholic school, teaching third grade. We had just left our umpteenth apartment complex of the week, a beautiful one that we knew was way out of reach for our current, ahem, salaries.
I felt like the Holy Spirit Himself had buzzed, offering us a new lease on life.
Becoming Real Adults
We drove directly there to sign the contract and get proof of employment so we could stop the devastatingly humiliating, “Do you accept a parent co-sign?” conversation in all the apartment leasing offices around the city. We leased a very inexpensive apartment, used rabbit ears and free dialup Internet through our university logons, and were overwhelmed with gratitude when we saw the final tally of our monetary wedding gifts.
It went right in the bank, in case we needed it for living expenses. A first-year Catholic school teacher salary is enough to get an apartment, but barely enough to pay for it.
My husband didn’t end up getting a job until October, so our first few months of marriage were very simple and sparse. We used that wedding money to buy exactly two new pieces of furniture: a couch and a mattress.
In all other areas, we bought secondhand, got hand-me-downs or did without (and in fact hardly bought any new furniture for the next ten years of our marriage, actually), but we decided that we would spend the most time on our mattress and wanted a quality night’s sleep, and that we’d be keeping the couch for years as the centerpiece of the main public room, and it should at least be decent.
We took days to shop, laying down on mattresses in store after store (no jobs, remember?), wondering how we would genuinely like it for 8 hours at a time (no kids yet, so that was realistic!). We agonized over making the perfect decision, and we spent about $7-800 on each item, so not cheap, but not luxurious by any means.
Amazingly, we still have and love both items. It’s good to make a big decision and get it right!
I’m not sure how we lucked out so much with our mattress purchase, really, because we have truly loved our mattress. Whenever we go to visit family and have to sleep on someone else’s (usually old) mattress, we can’t wait to get home to our bed, a pillowtop Serta queen mattress with partner disturbance protection, amazing edge support, and a little stuffed sheep that came with it. (That became the kids’ toy pretty quickly, but the mattress was ours, and we cherished it.)
Our babies slept in that bed with us, we nursed sicknesses in that bed, and we even brought it with us when we lived 5 months with my in-laws, and we stored the mattress that had been in the room they were graciously letting us use. (We’ve never been happier than with that decision, too!)
But there was so much I didn’t know back then.
The Hidden Enemy in Mattress Shopping
We tested a LOT of mattresses. We balanced cost, brand, delivery charges, pillow top vs. individual firmness vs. memory foam, interlocked or individually coiled springs, who liked firm vs. soft and whether we could agree on one style…but there was one major category we completely missed.
What’s IN that mattress?
Because we were shopping in 2003, I now know that there’s a decent chance that our perfect mattress was laced with PBDEs, a class of environmentally persistent flame retardant chemicals now banned as health hazards.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers might have protected our mattress from a “flashover” in a house fire, but they also made the dust in our house toxic, increasing our risk of thyroid disease, infertility, and birth defects along with learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and delayed puberty onset in our children. (Four children. We didn’t have the infertility issues…hopefully they don’t either!) PBDEs are persistent in the environment, which means they get into groundwater and the air (and our bodies) and stay there for a long time.
They are particularly toxic to developing brains, are found in human breastmilk, and tend to be measured in higher concentrations in children than adults. I’m picturing all the times my infants slept on my bed right now, and my breath gets caught in my throat.
And that foam that made wonderful edge support, that we smashed with a bedrail so that our older babies could lay right up against it and not fall out of bed? Don’t even get me started on how that crushing probably increased the toxic off-gassing-directly-into-my-babies’-faces that was going on there.
This is NOT what we should have spent our precious wedding money on.
It makes me so angry that those chemicals were in my mattress, that I didn’t know it, that the government mandates that mattresses have to pass flame tests and doesn’t tell companies they can’t just use the cheapest hazardous chemical they can find!
We were real adults trying to make good decisions, but there was so much ignorance. We just didn’t know what to ask. (Wish I had read my own post on flame retardants in mattresses on that old dial-up connection…)
The Marriage Bed Advice
Since we got married right out of college, we were the trailblazers among our friends and watched many of them enter into engagements and marriage in the years following our own wedding. I was always brimful with advice for happy new couples, including what to put on wedding registries and what to buy for their first home together.
I always said that investing in their marriage bed, both physically and metaphorically, was the most important thing they could do for each other.
A good night’s rest would help them have more emotional stores to be civil to each other on a daily basis, and a comfortable, brand new mattress was paramount to making that happen. Marriage and family would happen in that bed, and I’d tell any new couple that they should spend serious time choosing the perfect mattress and not worry about spending money on a new one. It should be new for their posture and new as a symbol of their union, not some old mattress that one of them had slept on for years before their wedding.
In other words, my advice to newlyweds was always to buy a good mattress.
I would still give the same advice – you should love being in your bed (together!) as a new couple – but I’d also be the voice of caution about flame retardants, foam, infertility, children’s brains and the importance of the mattress investment for the whole family’s health.
Nothing is simple in this convoluted, fallen world we live in.
But a good mattress and a good night’s rest are still important, and the big box brands we bounced around on ten years ago still aren’t going to offer a non-toxic night’s sleep. So what do we do?
The Saga of Chronic Coughs, Old Mattresses, and a 20-page Document
When we moved to our current home three years ago, we of course brought our wedding mattress with us, had a first grader on an old, old, old hand-me-down twin mattress, a 3yo in a toddler bed on an old hand-me-down mattress, and a baby in a pack-n-play (and quickly got him onto an organic, non-toxic crib mattress thanks to my gig here at Kitchen Stewardship).
I knew that even though we swapped out our plastic food storage containers for glass, bought organic meat and drank from stainless steel water bottles, the family was spending half our lives on likely-toxic materials, and it slowly drove me nuts.
My oldest son actually started a weird throat-clearing/little cough thing soon after we moved into the house, the kind of thing that happens quietly every ten minutes that moms worry about, and it lasted pretty much until the school year ended. I never figured out what the cause was but always wondered if the school had something to do with it.
He was the next to get a better mattress, a twin Naturepedic brand (found here on Amazon) that wasn’t cheap, but I was done compromising on safety and health in our sleep. Who knows if it was related, but that cough never came back.
Our daughter slept on that darn hand-me-down crib mattress in the toddler bed until Gabriel was born this fall, when it was passed to 3-year-old Jonathan. We knew we needed to buy her a new mattress, and she was going to have the double bed that would be given to overnight visitors, so it was the biggest investment yet.
I’d been researching mattresses for three years and had a massive file on my computer with my findings so far, including a somewhat local company that could make them without flame retardants with a doctor’s note. With a new baby coming any day, a new family doctor, and the fact that I’m terrible at making decisions, we realized we wouldn’t be able to turn around on that issue before Gabe was born, so we set her up on the old twin mattress on the floor and called it good temporarily.
Then her cough started.
And I had that déjà vu feeling all over again.
We yanked that mattress and let her sleep on a folded up adult sleeping bag with a twin mattress pad and sheets, a DIY mattress of sorts, like a pallet on the floor. It was fine for a 6-year-old, and we knew that as soon as I could handle it after Gabe, we would be mattress shopping for real.
Enter the 20-page document.
I spent most of October shopping for as much safe sleep stuff as I could without buying the actual mattress.
Our oldest got a new organic blanket for his bed from Amazon, the 6-year-old girl got a pink clearanced organic blanket for her new bed-to-be from Organic Grace (no longer in stock, but they have others), the baby got these organic crib sheets and the mattress pad I told you about HERE, and Mighty Nest sent us a wool puddle pad while Healthy Child sent a Naturepedic mattress pad to review.
Want to Shop with Me?
When I do “shopping” like this, there’s so much research to be done, both on materials safety and product satisfaction. I read a lot of web pages, a lot of reviews, and a lot of company about pages, and I take a ton of notes (hence the 20-page document). You don’t want to see the whole thing, trust me, but here’s a glimpse of the mattress companies I had collected over the years via IRL friend recommendations, readers, and Internet searching.
Links are not affiliate links and prices are simply what I’m seeing today, 4/2/2015. I tried to list the available materials for mattresses. Seems like most “safe, non-toxic mattresses” use organic cotton, wool and latex, so you’ll see that a lot. Only certain materials can pass the federal flame retardant regulations…
- Healthy Child – Naturepedic, EOS and Royal-Pedic Organic. Organic cotton/wool, latex. Free shipping. They are experts on product safety! Also futon mattresses available. Queens range from $1600-2700
- Mighty Nest – carries Naturepedic (where we got our twin).
- Moss Envy – Naturepedic and Savvy Rest mattresses and accessories. Dunlop and Tallalay latex, organic wool, organic cotton. 20 year warranty on Naturepedic, looks like about $2500 for a queen. Small business in Minnesota, gets involved in blogs and has high standards!
- White Lotus – Dunlop latex, organic wool, cotton, “evergreen foam” – can buy parts and DIY, tons of choices for mattresses, from “green” cotton with boric powder flame retardant ($914 queen) to organic cotton/wool/latex ($2834 queen) to an organic cotton mattress with no flame retardant for which you need a doc’s prescription ($1915 queen). Too many to list!
- FloBeds – organic and conventional latex, organic wool, Talalay latex available – $1800-2900 range for queen
- My Green Mattress – Organic cotton, Joma wool, Tallalay and natural latex. Carries Pure Echo, 4 options ranging from $679-3300 for a queen. Free shipping. I think you can visit Quality Sleep Shop in the Chicago area to test them out if you’re nearby.
- Berkeley Ergonomics – Latex, Plein Air wool, cotton – the mattresses open with a zipper so you can see what’s in there. US made. Find them at The Mattress & Sleep Company in Canada, Sovn in Dallas and likely others.
- The Natural Sleep Store – Latex, organic wool, organic cotton, futon mattresses, carrying Bella Sera, Green Sleep, Savvy Rest, Sueno, Eco Baby crib mattresses and more brands. $2100-7300 range for queen
- Open Your Eyes Bedding – totally DIY – twist buckwheat hulls into special fabric – a queen would run around $750
- Soaring Heart – organic wool, organic cotton, latex – $2200-4500 for queen
- Lifekind – custom-made organic wool, natural latex, rubber – $3000-6500 range for queen
- CozyPure – Dunlop latex, wool, organic cotton, fully assembled – about $3000 for queen
- NaturalBed.com (formerly TheNaturalBedStore.com) – latex, organic cotton, organic wool, have adjustable beds – queens starting at $1295 up to “call us for pricing”
- DIY Natural Bedding – Choose your own fill, cover, and DIY it. Natural latex, wool, organic cotton
- Nest Bedding – Bamboo, “natural memory foam” (???) (60% natural plant oils), silica fire blocker, also carries organic cotton/organic wool/latex mattresses – $1000-3700 range for queen
- New Living – (located in Houston, TX) organic wool and cotton, latex. Carries OMI, Naturepedic, Royal-Pedic, and Savvy Rest. OMI mattresses and bedding are produced in the nation’s only large-scale 100% organic factory – even their employees don’t smoke, wear fragrances, or use fabric softeners. Might not be the best for shipping, queens seem to run about $2500-9000 maybe?
- Pure Baby and Child – sells the Cocomat crib mattress and pure latex twins. $399-999
- Ikea may have a few that would fit the bill made with latex, wool and cotton (here and here), but you’d have to make some phone calls to find out if they’re treated with additional flame retardant chemicals (and which ones). Quite a few of their “latex” mattresses, including the crib mattress, also contained polyurethane foam; read the product descriptions. Usually foam indicates a need for chemical flame retardants. Queens run $899-999
- Many people opt for a plain cotton futon mattresses, especially for young children. Here are some ideas on how to do that or DIY.
- More good ideas in the comments at Kelly’s mattress post (although I’ve referenced most of them except the small, local-only niche recommendations).
- Other brands you might look into that look like the right stuff: Natura (is this even found at Kmart?), Moonlight Slumber (for kids and cribs), Nook Sleep (just for kids and cribs, I think?)
- No Feathers Please is an interesting site I found for blankets, sheets, and pillows, naturally made but without down.
The trouble with ordering a mattress online can be the inability to test it out. Some of these shops have storefronts, so if you’re in the area, lucky you! Also, many offer generous return policies so you really can test it out for a whole month, and if you don’t like it, send it back.
For your research, The Mattress Underground is a decent source of info.
What About a Used Mattress?
I used to hopefully believe that perhaps older items, like secondhand PJs, may have already off-gassed all their toxins. In reality, it’s more likely that the flame retardants and foam are both breaking down as the item ages and may off-gas even worse. Serious bummer. Here’s a little more about that (also a good company from which to buy an organic mattress).
I wish I could have tried out all those mattresses above to give you a real breakdown of how they feel, not only how they’re made, but it’s not as easy to have 30 mattresses as it is to try out 45 natural sunscreens or a dozen reusable bags!