Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Babywearing, Offending People, and making Academic Arguments: Or, My Take on the Current Political Speech Drama

A dumb, small little fact about me and babies: I love babywearing.  I have slings and wraps in numerous styles, an (organic) Belle Carrier, and the ever-popular Ergo.  I suppose admitting this fact puts me in the dreaded "Bobos in Paradise" category since I am clearly spending way more money on these than a person NEEDS to.

However, what I love about baby carriers is that they a) leave me hands-free so I can do the grocery shopping or laundry folding; b) allow me to write essays while "holding" a baby who doesn't want to be put down (VERY important in academic ;-)) and c) prevent unwanted/unlooked-for baby attention from probably well-meaning people who nevertheless alarm me in the ways they spring out of nowhere itching to touch The Baby.

Okay, enough said about the benefits of babycarriers, because what I really want to talk about is another little, dumb "fact": people who wear babycarriers seem to universally try to ignore each other.  Seriously.  I'll be in the mall wearing my baby and see someone else carrying their baby in a wrap, and inevitably we both turn up our noses.  I've experienced this phenomenon in airports, parking lots, and restaurants as well.  It's so ubiquitous, I'm thinking it's not just me.  I expect non-babywearers to ignore me, for the most part, but the others?  Huh.  We have each other on ignore, similar to those message boards that feature an "ignore" button so that you can avoid the people whose posts always make you upset/embarrassed/livid.

With other parenting things (like, say, a tantruming three year old) parents are generally supportive and sympathetic: a small nod and a knowing smile to say, "Yup, I've been there before and I'm sorry you're going through all this, sis."  But not so with babywearers. It's like we're embarrassed to be babywearers.  Babywearing is still something a minority of people do, and it's something that appears in the news occasionally as an unsafe thing to do (see here for the recall information on certain slings and here for how to safely wear babies).

All of that means it feels a bit like you are putting yourself out there. I think babywearers don't acknowledge each other in part out of not wanting to draw attention to each other, as a way of saying, "This is normal and I don't have to make a big deal about it."  (So isn't that the thing to do with the tantruming three year old too?)

But I also think it has something to do with fear of arguments. A babywearer is, in a way, starting an argument by wearing a baby, because we're saying, "Here's a different way of doing things - even a better way."  But by not acknowledging other babywearers and by generally assuming that most people won't ask you about your sling, because in our society we set a very high premium on letting everyone do their own thing, we don't have to enter into the argument.  We, as a society, hate arguments and would prefer to ignore each other than enter into arguments.

It's something I see with my students all the time, in the classroom, in their writing, and even in incredibly provocative lectures given by famous people.  Students are reluctant to make arguments, perhaps out of fear of being wrong or of offending someone so they don't say anything at all, whether they agree or disagree with the people who ARE taking a stand.

I find that I always have to give a lecture at the beginning of the semester making my own case that it is better to take a strong stand than to always stand in the background and let others do the thinking for you.  Regarding offending people, I always remind them that this is what being polite is about: listening to other peoples' provocative, interesting arguments (not interrupting, not barging through, NOT ignoring).  It is also about being willing to be wrong, being willing to forgive others' foibles when necessary, and being willing to change one's mind.  We have a thing against arguments, almost seeing them as impolite, in part because our "role models" (I have politicians on both sides of the aisle in mind here) are not really good role models but instead prey on each other and drag each other through the mud, deliberately misinterpreting meanings.

Being willing to be wrong, to forgive and to change one's mind are in quite short supply in our society and I'm convinced it's because we don't argue well and we don't want to engage each other, even when we see people doing things (like babywearing) that may seem a bit strange and odd.  We'd rather whisper out of earshot to known friends: "Did you SEE that weird thing that person was doing?" rather than have an honest but scary conversation that might - gasp- turn into an argument.  It IS possible to have a civil, eye opening argument. It's one of the things I hope I'm helping my students do better.


  1. Interesting... I have noticed this phenomenon too. I remember once I was at a park with baby #2 in a sling, and I saw a group of moms with similar wraps, so I went over by them (knowing how cool I looked with my own sling) and, an hour later had never even gotten a greeting. I've also been reprimanded by people at least twice (including an African woman who insisted that babies could ONLY be worn on the back and that I was endangering my child!) for babywearing. This time around, with baby #3, someone leadingly asked me if I was worried about "spoiling" the baby (mind you, he was only two weeks old). But being criticized in these contexts is not so much better than just being ignored; it is too bad it can't lead to better conversation.

    I have to admit, though, now on baby #3, I'm much more of a carseat/stroller mama. Part of that is that it just has to be, since I'm taking care of two other kids and sometimes need more than just my hands free (e.g. lifting a kid off and on a toilet in a public bathroom is a bit hard when wearing a sling). But part of it is also the physical wear and tear on my shoulder and back. Should have gone with an Ergo, right?

  2. Definitely should have gone with the Ergo ;-)

    I know what you mean about becoming more of a carseat/stroller mama. I have become more of a carseat mama with #2. Still, I like baby wearing when I do and when I can.

    What do you make of that babywearers silence, since you have experienced it too?

  3. I don't know - do you think it's a pride thing? Like "I'm doing this, and I'm different and better than all those stroller people...oh, wait, who are you... and why are you doing exactly what I'm doing when I'm so busy being unique?"

    Just a guess. That was the impression I got at the park incident (even though that was actually a group of babywearing moms that obviously knew each other). They were all being different together.

  4. This is so contrary to my experience... At least for me, someone else with a baby in a sling seems like an open invitation to a conversation. Then again, my youngest is now 10 y/o and things definitely could have changed since I was wearing him.

    I did get a lot of worried questions from the babushkas in Ukraine, though, "What about his spine?!" They were easily reassured when I told them it was like in the womb.

  5. Cool - I've never even been able to make eye contact with another baby wearing mom, for some reason! I'll see someone in the grocery store wearing a baby and I'll start to smile when she looks my way, and then she - ignores me! It must be me...