Wednesday, January 21, 2009

There's Freedom in Babywearing

This post has been a long time coming. I had a draft saved from November and am now taking the time to write about the one thing that has so powerfully influenced my experience as a mother: babywearing.
Now, "babywearing" is just the new, modern term applied to something that is ancient and original to African peoples (as well as to other people all over the world). In many places, the primary form of transportation for babies is not strollers, "bucket" car seats or cars. It is mama's back. There's nothing new under the sun and today "babwearing" is all the rage. You can even find designer baby carriers and, at the risk of sounding snarky, folks who get all on their high horse about how much better carrying babies is for the baby as if we, the original peoples, haven't been carrying babies on our backs for millenia. As if they've just "discovered" a la Christopher Columbus style, something new and fascinating in it's "primitiveness".

You see, carrying your baby on your person is just practical. In our traditional African society (and in many other traditional societies), women didn't leave their babies to go to work. Your baby went everywhere with you. And the way this was achieved was through babywearing. When baby was ready to nurse or use the bathroom, you just undid the fabric and tended to his/her needs. It was simple. Fluid. Part of every day life. Not a part of "attachment parenting" or any kind of showy demonstration of how "in touch" a mother was with her child. It was natural. It was original. It was naturally and originally and authentically attachment parenting.

Since I had been born and raised in the U.S., I did not know many aspects of Igbo culture. The food we ate was predominantly foods we would have eaten in Nigeria but for the most part, culturally speaking, I grew up as an American with Nigerian parents. As a child, my grandmother spent extended time with us on two occasions: once when my little sister was born and once when my little brother was born and it was during these times that I learned a lot about the culture I came from. "Mama" would sometimes go outside to hang clothes on the line (after washing them by hand because she felt the machine didn't get them clean) without a top on, breasts exposed. My mother promptly told her that here in America, that would be indecent exposure. Mama found underwear (panties) to be extremely uncomfortable and wouldn't wear them. My mother told her that here in America, people wear underwear. Most importantly for me to see, though, was Mama carrying my brother on her back with a wrapper, a simple piece of fabric, part of an old dress. She carried him to do everything: cook, clean, wash clothes. He would fall asleep back there and be most comfortable and content. I didn't think about that again until I had my first son.

After giving birth to Z1, I was immediately impressed by how much he needed to be held. Other babies seemed to sleep and sleep some more. Z1 slept for 5 minute intervals and then would wake up screaming and inconsolable. For one month, I was completely unable to do anything other than hold Z1. I'd try to do things one handed or else leave him in his bouncer screaming just so I could get something done. My babywearing was a result of necessity. We'd tried the Baby Bjorn and if he was angry before, he was positively irate at being placed in that thing. Add to that the fact that to me, it felt cold and mechanical with all the straps and buckles. It didn't feel right. So I went online and started to search for something that would hold him close to me so that he'd feel secure and tight. That's when I realized just how many various kinds of ways there are to wear your baby. The theme though is that they are all just pieces of fabric. Some are more complex then others but all of them keep baby close and secure. I won't try here to talk about every kind of baby carrier because there are fabulous resources online where you can learn anything and everything you ever wanted to know about babywearing. I'm just going to speak on the the types of carriers I've used.

The first type of carrier I bought was a stretchy wrap called a Moby Wrap. A wrap is basically a long piece of narrow cotton fabric (about 5 yards long). There are two main kinds: stretchy or woven. I opted for the Moby Wrap because it was cheaper than any of the woven wraps on the market at the time and I loved it for a newborn. It was soft and pliable. Z1 also loved it and spent the majority of the day in his wrap. It was perfect for him as a newborn. As he got older though, the stretchiness of the wrap made it difficult for me to wear him comfortably. Also, because of the length of the wrap, I couldn't put him on comfortably if we were out without the fabric dragging all over the floor. By the time he hit 16 lbs (at 16 weeks), I was on to the next carrier.

The next carrier I used was a sling. I bought an Ellaroo Lightly Padded Sling on Ebay and it was very handy in that I could put it on and pop Z1 in quickly. By this time, he could support his head well and would sit upright. (Z1 didn't tolerate the sling as a newborn because he did not like to be lying down.) The Ellaroo was nice but I didn't feel like I could tighten it as tight as I would like. So I took out my sewing machine and sewed a sling using this pattern. It was an easy project considering that all I really knew in the way of sewing was how to thread the machine. The sling I sewed was perfect and met my needs for a long time. Slings, however, have the drawback of not distributing weight evenly and so by the time I'd carried him for about 30 minutes, I was in pain.

It was at this point that I thought about my grandmother and how she carried my brother. I really don't know what took me so long. Since I hadn't paid all that much attention to how my grandmother actually got him up there, I hit the web to try to figure out how to carry Z1 using a wrapper. I found excellent videos on The Mamatoto Project that jogged my memory. As soon as I figured out how to carry Z1 with my wrapper (which doubled as my summer blanket and bathrobe), I quickly abandoned the sling. I felt liberated with Z1 safely out of the way on my back but with him so happy and content back there. I felt so close to him and he felt so safe back there. He never cried back there. Could stay there for hours. And, even though it had come in such a roundabout way, I felt so connected to my grandmother and all Igbo and West African mothers who were wearing their babies this way. It felt so natural and so right. The other carriers I had tried were great but nothing could compare to carrying my baby the way my great grandmother carried my grandmother and the way my grandmother carried my mother and my baby brother. It is to this day my favorite carrier. Two years ago when we visited Ghana, Z1 was two and I was pregnant with Z1. This simple piece of fabric came with me to Ghana and was how I carried my little one there. I felt so connected to all the other mothers I saw on the road who held their babies this way--such a commonplace sight. Nobody gawked and told me how cool I was to carry the baby that way. It was so powerful and fabulous. It's a great bonus that the wrapper is so small. It takes up no space in my bag and I can use it as a blanket for the baby if I need to.

I have tried other carriers including an Asian Baby Carrier which I sewed myself using this pattern. I love this carrier too even though I am not as emotionally and spiritually attached to it. It is, still, a traditional carrier and so I do have a soft spot in my heart for it. This carrier is great because the weight is evenly distributed and for older, more active babies it gives them a little bit more room to wiggle their legs and arms while not needed to be retied which means it feels a bit more secure. It's also a little bit more rugged--I feel more comfortable running around after Z1 with Z2 on my back in the ABC carrier. Before I sewed the ABC carrier I tried an Ergo baby carrier and while many people swear by the Ergo, it was uncomfortable for me and Z1 and also felt a little to "un-roots", i.e. un-authentic (very similar feeling to the Baby Bjorn).

Babywearing is liberating to me in a lot of ways. With Z2 on my back I clean and cook and do so many of the things I need to do including using the bathroom sometimes and teaching or doing puzzles or other activities with Z1. Z2 is content back there on my back and I can do so much. I don't even know how folks who don't wear their babies get things accomplished.

The baby that is worn feels safe and loved. The babywearing mother is secure knowing the baby is so close. You can naturally fend off unwanted touching of your baby because people are less apt to violate your personal space. You are naturally free to use both of your hands. For those of us working to get that baby weight off, the extra weight makes mundane activities such as picking up toys or climbing stairs to do laundry calorie burning tasks.

I still have my strollers (a single and a double) which are invaluable to me especially during winter months when babywearing outside is largely impractical and uncomfortable for me and often dangerous. Deciding to wear your baby doesn't have to be an all or nothing kind of thing. Using your stroller doesn't mean that your baby will not feel safe and loved! Please understand: that is not the point I am trying to make! Some babies (like Z2) really enjoy being in the stroller (and in the pack and play for that matter). Babywearing is simply one more tool a parent has in his/her possession that makes the job of parenting easier and more joyful.

Babywearing can be as simple or as complex as you'd like. As roots or as designer as you wish. You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on a carrier if you don't want to. If you'd like to start babywearing or if the baby carrier you're using now isn't working for you, there are so many options out there. Please check out these resources and WEAR YOUR BABY:
The Babywearer (you have to sign up but it's well worth it)
The Mamatoto Project
The Babywearing Forum at Mothering.Com
The Tummy2Tummy Project (an instructional DVD)
Wears the Baby

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7 comments:

Just Me said...

I was a dedicated babywearer. I used the same one for all 4 kids. I think it was one of the best things I did for my children and it allowed me freedom to continue daily activities while still meeting the needs of a couple of high need kiddos, lol

Raet said...

I had two slings, both were probleatic. I carried my son until he was 2 years or so with fabric tied different ways depending in the position. My son is now almost 4, but still remembers me carrying him. The only time I used strollers was at African street festivals when we would be out all day and he needed to sit back and sleep.

DeStouet said...

Like the previous poster stated, I was a dedicated baby wearer. It allowed me to be close to my children and still go about my business which was very important because as a mother there is sooo much that needs to be done.

Kofi Bofah said...

Just floating through blog world right now.

This was a well-written post.

Ashaki said...

unique topic.interesting post.... !

Rev. Kita Kazoo said...

I just wanted to tell you how much I'm enjoying reading about your life and thank you for this post in particular.

I watch my grandson 4 days a week and was looking for a way to wear him. I wore my children when they were small, but had many of the same issues you had with commercial carriers. So I wanted to try something different this time.

Thank you for posting so many wonderful links and tips.

The Original Wombman said...

Rev. Kita . . . .thanks for reading my blog and I'm so happy to hear this post was helpful to you. :)

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