Two vignettes for you.
#1. When The Bird was maybe three weeks old, I took a walk with her tucked up cosily in her BabyBjorn carrier. We were strolling together (well — I was strolling; she was snoozing) down a street of impeccable leafiness and toffee-nosed-ness and were overtaken by two women, a little older than me, on bikes. As they passed, the first turned her head conspicuously to look me up and down, then called back to her friend: “Look at that poor little thing with its legs dangling down. That can’t be right.” And with that, they pedalled by, rounded a corner, and were gone.
#2. After moving to a less leafy part of town, where we could afford more than the charming half-shoebox we had inhabited in the old postcode, I was out walking with the one-year-old Bird in her replacement carrier of the day, a Beco Gemini. An older man passing us called out “Don’t drop the baby!”
“Don’t worry,” I told him, in what I thought was a pretty friendly tone, “she’s strapped in pretty tight.”
He frowned. “Where are you from? Poland?”
I don’t know whether the Poles are reputed for their babywearing, or their backchat. Either way it’s an affiliation I’d be proud to assume.
“If my mother was still alive,” the man continued, “she’d be disgusted with the way people carry babies around these days. Prams! People used to have prams! Whatever happened to prams?”
I kind of hope that someday I’ll be out with The Bee in a buggy and have someone with a Babybjorn tut and sigh at us, just so that the circle can be unbroken.
Here’s why new parents might feel, as I subconsciously did, that they are under the watchful scrutiny of the baby police: they are. Only the baby police aren’t uniformed bobbies with notebooks and stern looks; they’re your neighbours, friends, and random passersby, turned Soviet Union-style into a covert network of vigilantes and informers. The first incident I described, with the women on bikes, floored me: it was the first time I’d had complete strangers overtly judge me, at shouting volume, as though I wasn’t there. It wasn’t to be the last. It gave a taste of one aspect of parenthood — actually, I suspect, motherhood — that I’d never expected: the transformation into public property; the loss of a voice. “She’s fine,” I said out loud, after they’d passed; “She’s asleep.” The women were long gone. They didn’t give a monkeys about what I might have had to say. And really, I found, that’s how a lot of the discourse about parenthood gets carried out: ostensibly impersonal judgements, broadcast publicly rather than offered as advice, designed to show superiority and to shame. The women didn’t want to help me or my baby. They wanted to feel good about their own choices.
(Incidentally, I totally misinterpreted their criticism. Smug in my own right-on parenting self-image, I thought they were Luddites (like the man in the second vignette) who disapproved of carrying babies. Later, I worked out that they almost certainly were people who approved of carrying babies so long as they are carried
sufficiently expensively ergonomically. Turns out, if you really know your ‘babywearing’ onions you spurn cheap and popular buckle carriers like the Babybjorn ones in favour of broad-based carriers that support the child from knee to knee and thus better position his or her spine. I was convinced enough by this argument to abandon the Bjorn in favour of wraps and soft structured carriers, but not convinced enough to start labelling Bjorns as “crotch-danglers” and their users as “child abusers”, as I’ve seen others online do. And definitely not convinced enough to start passing 90-decibel comment on people wearing Babybjorns in the street.)
We carry (heh) on this way, I think, partly because so little of parenting is a science, as much as we wish it could be. We want to think that there are Right Ways to bring up children, and that if only we follow a certain set of rules our kids will turn out all right. In fact, we’re all flailing desperately amid a mass of uncontrolled variables, groping blindly for the best response to the particular challenges our kids each present to us. Maybe my kid is clingy because she goes in a wrap. Maybe yours has hip dysplasia because you put him in a front pack. Maybe hers has a weak attachment because he was always in a buggy. We’ll never know. So we shout about the drawbacks of others’ choices, to remind ourselves of why we made our own.
Hedging our bets…