Babywearing and Class

tablecloth wrap

tablecloth wrap

You walk into a room in your easy-to-find, off-the-rack carrier. You bought it at Target, or a consignment store, or even a yard sale. You know it’s not the best thing out there, but it’s what you’ve got, and you want to wear your baby. You want to learn more about that. You want to meet some parents, too  – it’s hard to find people who parent the way you do, and you want to find out more about carriers. Name-brand diaper bags litter the floor; Coach purses pile on tables. Kids and mamas alike wear expensive clothes, and the carriers – well, you don’t know much about carriers, but you know you can’t buy that shit at Wal-Mart.

If no one makes an effort to welcome you, if conversation focuses on expensive wraps, you might turn around and never come back.

We’ve talked about the ways class and finance can affect a parent’s ability to practice attachment parenting. Obviously, finances can affect babywearing: we see this every day in Facebook groups. The comments and questions vary from sweetly clueless to bitterly combative:

  • OMG it must be nice to have the money to buy 6 million baby carriers when there are children starving in Africa.
  • You should send me a carrier because I can’t afford one and you have so many. 
  • How do people afford to buy so many wraps?
  • Why do baby carriers cost so much? Is a thousand dollar wrap really that much better?
  • Your stash costs more than my car. 
  • I would never spend that much money on something my baby barfs in. 

Many groups have gone so far as to ban stash shots (the practice of photographing all your carriers at once to showcase the collection), and other groups have sprung up dedicated to “the carrying rather than the carrier.”

Some mamas have stopped sharing stash shots altogether. Others have moved to secret groups, leading to a dangerous fracture in the babywearing community: newbies and hobbyists no longer interact much. Parents with years of babywearing experience have, in many cases, taken their geekery into the far corners of Facebook, while new caregivers flounder in larger, less personal groups – where their questions, more often than not, are answered by other newbies.  This creates an echo chamber of wrap-fad-of-the-month, carrier-not-carrying emphasis. It feeds on drama and factionality, and the education aspect often gets lost.

All this over wrap stashes.

Class issues have long fractured the babywearing community. You can afford to churn carriers or you can’t, and you can only eek so much geekery out of the one wrap you own. This same geekery, while amazing, does promote a consumer culture: you read about the newest wrap and think, well damn, I want that. Every Pamir owner once had Didy sticker shock. This is neither good nor bad; it’s a function of a hobbyist culture. We all know that money makes an easy entre into the babywearing world.

We try to ignore that as much as possible, at least on the hobbyist scene. But when the hobbyist world collides with the utilitarian folks, or the newbies see a giant pile of indios, the friction starts. There’s disbelief: those wraps cost how much? Then the bafflement: Why would you ever spend that much money? People who’ve been around long enough to lust get envious of the fluff piles they can’t afford. And then, inevitably, mamas start to get derisive.

Predictably, there’s a backlash. As Facebook groupies rightly point out, we’d never publicly speculate about how much cash someone dropped on their house. We’d never snark that if a mama could afford that much Mini Boden, she ought to hand us some. Owners of high-end wraps get defensive – and you can’t blame them.

This sucks for community cohesion in the virtual world. But it’s more dangerous in real life.

In Europe and the United States, real life babywearing groups serve two functions. They educate caregivers about wearing, and they serve as a social hub for babywearing hobbyists. Some organizations, like Babywearing International, focus more on education; other groups swing towards the social. Both missions are important. But when new parents conflate the educational part with the stash stuff, things can get murky. Do I need an expensive carrier to be a real babywearer? a mama might think. I guess my bjorn doesn’t count. People get turned off because they feel like they don’t fit in.

If they get turned off, they don’t learn. They don’t spread babywearing knowledge in their communities and their families. Fewer babies get worn, and fewer mama-baby pairs enjoy the benefits of wearing.

Low income parents – and to some extent, middle class parents – may come to a meeting already feeling as if they don’t fit in. After all, babywearing can come with a hefty compliment of hippie parenting assumptions, and financial insecurity may make those impossible or impractical. We need to be sensitive to their sensitivity. Parents with limited financial means need to be especially welcomed and embraced, with a special eye toward their particular needs.

First, we need to be realistic about carriers and cost. It’s easy to get excited about hard to find wraps. But groups with a significant educational mission need to assure stash stuff doesn’t dominate the conversation – and that it’s clear caregivers who DIY are real babywearers, and just as welcome as mamas with mile-high fluff piles.

That means discussing DIYs, DIY safety, and fabric use. Some dads can’t drop the money for a Didy, but they can manage half a tablecloth or a length of osnaberg. Every group needs to have regular meetings and discussions about how to make carriers safely – and make sure that each meeting includes piles of DIYs along with the piles of Pamirs.

Don’t bash bjorns. Narrow-based carriers are typical first carrier fare, and the easiest to find cheap. The more limited a caregiver’s income, the more likely he or she is to use one. Make sure members know, in person and online, to avoid the word “crotch-dangler”. And educate everyone: there is no documented evidence that narrrow-based carriers cause health issues, including hip dysplasia, though they can exacerbate an existing condition. 

Some caregivers can’t sew, or lack access to a sewing machine (which costs money). We need to be sensitive to that as well. The narrow-based carrier hack can let mamas with a  very limited income wear safely and ergonomically, and it’s worth keeping a bjorn and a scarf in the lending library to demo.

Discuss easy to find, cheap options – and keep them in your lending library. That means the Infantino mei tai. Yes, they jacked the design from a well-known and well-loved company. It’s horrible; it sucks; and mamas who have the means should support businesses like Catbird Baby and Freehand. But for parents on a seriously limited income, the Infantino Sash and Union are ergonomic, safe, affordable options they may be able to get at Wal-Mart. Disparaging them can hit already raw nerves.

Understand the limitations mamas may face. It’s all well and good to say that we should ignore negative comments about wearing. That’s hard to do when the comments are coming from family, and it’s even harder when you depend on that family for food on the table and a roof over your head. Ignore grandma at your peril if you’re living in her house. Reaching out to family can help – offer lots of educational material, and maybe special meetings for family members to learn to wear.

Don’t assume a two-parent, stereotypical mom-and-dad household. These assumptions can alienate single mothers, not to mention gay and lesbian parents.

Hold meetings in accessible locations. Do you meet near bus routes? In places with adequate parking? Do all group playdates involve admission fees? Even five dollars for a splash pad can be out of reach for caregivers on a strict budget.

Hold meetings at accessible times. Low-income mamas are more likely to, you know, work. Don’t assume every parent has the luxury of staying home. Most of us know not to hold every single meeting in the morning – make sure you schedule both night and weekend meetings if at all possible.

Emphasize the carrying, rather than the carrier. Focus meetings on technique, not acquisition. And if there’s an attached Facebook group, try to balance the excitement over HTF carriers with help and advice applicable to all wearers.

Realize the potential burden of lending library and membership fees. BWI chapters generally only allow members to check out wraps; membership runs $30 a year, and $10 a month. The organization deserves serious applause for introducing the monthly option, which makes lending libraries far more accessible to some mamas. For others, chapters may need to furnish scholarships, lower membership rates, or even allow membership payments in installments. Publicizing gift memberships can help; so would finding other means to enable carrier checkout. I don’t have answers to that, but it’s worth thinking of alternate solutions to an upfront cost.

Advertise, advertise, advertise – and not just in obvious places. Yeah, you can do Whole Foods. Do the local grocery store and tienda, too. Make sure to put flyers and information cards in pediatrician’s offices, in the local health department, and especially in OB waiting rooms. Ask the local hospital if you can include information in their birth packets, and if prenatal classes would like presentations. Do all you can to come to caregivers outside the stereotypical babywearing profile.

Be sensitive to cultural norms. For many Mexican and Central American cultures, rebozos are for poor people – they mean you can’t afford a stroller. They’re a hallmark of the uneducated and unenlightened, something to distance yourself from. Many white women have had people assume they wear because they can’t buy baby equipment!

These norms can be upended. In some areas, where wearing is something more educated, upperclass women do regularly, using a wrap might be seen as social striving: what we in the South call getting above yourself. Wearing can be perceived as a subtle attack on parenting norms, as if a stroller isn’t good enough for you.

And realize that class issues run both ways. We need to be sure that we don’t alienate the collectors – often the most knowledgeable babywearers, and the ones with the most experience in picking carriers.

Don’t disparage collectors. Gently, make sure members understand that omg-you-spent-how-much comments aren’t polite in person or online. Make sure to step in if there’s stash-bashing, and that parents don’t feel ashamed for spending money on something they love.

Be careful with members’ carriers. It should be a given, but members are far more likely to share their fluff if people respect it. That might mean no food or drink around the carriers, and assuring toddlers don’t wander around sticky-handed.

Give collectors space to share. If that means holding fluff playdates where the main goal is to ogle and try different wraps, do it! Everyone loves a fluff party. It’s fun to see new wraps, especially if you know you’ll never ever own one.

There is a lot we can do to reconcile class issues on a local level. But we need to push further than that. Many Facebook groups do an excellent job of facilitating discussion between collectors and utilitarian wearers, as does forums. But the biggest barrier to wearing? Parents can’t afford ergonomic carriers, or don’t know where to buy them. Several awesome charities put carriers in the hands of military spouses. But there’s a greater need than that. I would like to see a nationwide push to make carriers as easy to get as car seats.

WIC assures that women have enough food for their babies. They can point to community resources for safe car seats. But not carriers.  We need to push legislation to make ergonomic carriers available to families receiving WIC benefits. This would require the support of major players in the babywearing industry, including Infantino, Moby, Bjorn, and new American wrap companies like Tekhni and Pavo. And since every foster child in the US is automatically eligible for WIC benefits, it means that kids who need help the security of a close caregiver are more likely to get it. 

Imagine if every baby went home with a safe, ergonomic carrier, and every caregiver knew how to use it safely. We can make that happen. If we truly believe babywearing is for every baby, and every caregiver, we need to work hard to promote legislation that supports it, and to work with state agencies that can facilitate getting those carriers into people’s hands. That might mean calling WIC. It might mean working with Social Services, with children’s homes, with vulnerable populations. It might require interpreters. But if we push hard enough, we can do it. Five years ago, you could only order Moby wraps online. Now most of my mamas want to use woven wraps – because they’ve seen other people using them.

If you think that babywearing has so many important benefits for babies, then every single baby deserves to be worn. And if we want to make that happen, we need the whole community to help: Didy girls and DIY sewers, stash mavens and strictly-for-utility mamas. We’ll have to put aside a lot of drama and politics and bickering. But if women truly hold up half the sky, we can do it. We believe in interdependence, after all.

Have financial and class issues affected your babywearing, or babywearing in your area? What can we do to change or help?

If you like reading about babywearing, attachment parenting, and social justice – often with a side of snark – like Manic Pixie Dream Mama on Facebook.