When it comes to parenting the hard way is hard but the easy way is even harder
Young women carrying firewood from what was Sackville (Now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, 1916, Press Association Archives.
Like most parents I came to experiment with “babywearing” by necessity. An email from my landlord delivered the news that our apartment was to be sold at just about the moment my contractions kicked off with baby number three. My husband, the long-suffering Mr Frazer, would need to work tirelessly every weekend and late into the evenings for the next few months to secure us a mortgage. Meanwhile I would hold down the fort. I had accumulated enough parenting experience by then to be pretty terrified by the prospect of being home alone with two kids and a newborn. Things change as you progress on the parenting journey. In the immortal words of Fleetwood Mac “time makes you bolder”. Once upon a time I would have stopped the vacuum to remove every sucked up lego and treated every bump and bruise as a genuine emergency. Now I just sigh and shout “Is there blood?” before I’ll even look up from the dishes.
When my eldest was born thirteen years ago it seemed the whole world stopped just for her. Every time she batted a beautiful eyelid I dropped what I was doing and rushed to her side to nurse her for hours in a cloud of cushions. Absolutely everything else in my life could, and did, wait until her needs were satisfied. But this time there would be a four year old and an eight year old waiting too. They were also relying on me to be fed, clothed and brought to school on time. What would I do if the baby needed feeding during the school run? Or started a two-hour colic-bawl while the other two waited for dinner? Both our families lived too far away to help with the day-to-day stuff and I would be flying solo most nights until after bath and bedtime. So I turned to babywearing in search of a necessary second pair of hands.
I had dabbled with carriers before, but had never really gotten the hang of it. As soon as it felt even a little tiring or heavy I would sit down, unbuckle all my various straps, wriggle free, and then forget about it for a few weeks. But as with so many things in life (and parenting in particular) I was about to learn that the hard way is hard, but the easy way is even harder. Giving up on babywearing so quickly in the past was a mistake. By quitting before trying a variety of techniques and carriers or building up my stamina I had missed out on a truly transformative parenting tool. I all too often ended up holding a squirmy toddler with one arm while steering a heavy buggy down a busy street with the other. Ugh. But baby number three brought me a second chance with babywearing and I soon found that a little investment in time and effort to master this parenting skill paid off. I ended up wishing I could go back and learn how to wrap from the start.
In time I began to wonder why I had given up so easily the first time around. We humans often assume that tasks deemed “natural” should be easy, and come automatically. Many new mothers have this expectation around breastfeeding before the gruelling, nipple chafing, mind-bending real life experience pops that bubble. It is true that our evolution as a species has prepared us for breastfeeding and carrying our young. But it is equally true that it has prepared us biologically for hunting, foraging and building shelter. I would still want some practice before being air-dropped into a remote forest alone to survive on my skills. And babywearing will feel natural and easy eventually. Like baby’s first steps, what will feel effortless later will take a good deal of conscious attention to master at first. The very techniques that were hardest to learn and get used to at first (like wrapping) were also the most beneficial and convenient in time.
A life-changing source of help for me in learning how to wrap confidently was Hedwych Veeman’s fantastic youtube channel Wrapyouinlove. A certified babywearing educator, Hedwych offers clear, well-paced instructional videos on how to carry your babies and toddlers for everyone from nervous beginners to the more experienced and adventurous (with techniques like tandem wrapping). I talked to Hedwych in October 2022 to find out how her own journey in babywearing started and pick her brains on what barriers exist to making it more widespread.
I laughed when she told me that before her daughter was born she had definitely not identified herself with the herd of “goat wool sock Moms” she saw babywearing
I laughed when she told me that before her daughter was born she had definitely not identified herself with the herd of “goat wool sock Moms” she saw babywearing. Although I had never heard the phrase before it needed no explanation. I instantly recognised the hippie-dippy, tie-dyed mother stereotype, so relaxed she is virtually horizontal and too busy weaving homemade hemp baskets to realise she is depriving her kids of the discipline and routine they need to thrive in a challenging world. But the tide is turning on industrial era parenting ideals that are centred on schedules and discipline. Tie-dye is back. As Hedwych describes it, this fear that sparing the rod will spoil your child frames our children as little dictators seeking to manipulate us rather than little people with legitimate needs for comfort and closeness. “How would you like to be treated?”, she asks herself when trying to decide what is best for her babies. Whether your child’s current needs are more for comfort and closeness or more for predictability and routine, either way babywearing can help. Rather than an unnecessary indulgence, babywearing is a practical and useful tool for all busy parents. No particular diehard ideological stance on attachment parenting or goat wool socks needed. Whatever socks you have on will be fine.
Hedwych’s need was brought on by the stress of having to study for upcoming exams while also caring for a newborn. Anyone who cares for children regularly can identify with the dilemma of having only one pair of hands but several different jobs that need doing at any given moment. She advises us to view babywearing as a parenting tool rather than just a form of transport. Although as a form of transport it can be pretty useful too when you can avoid the queue for the lifts or squeeze yourself and your baby onto a crowded city bus. But caring for multiple children, especially when you include toddlers, is where babywearing really comes into its own. As Hedwych demonstrates, use of traditional wrap carriers especially can facilitate carrying much older and bigger children that we find in the average Babybjorn. Sceptics are often concerned that carrying toddlers and older children will discourage independent walking, but as Hedwych and I have both found, the opposite is often true. Packing a carrier with you on your trips encourages the family to attempt longer walks, knowing that if tiredness sets in for a toddler on the way home you have a plan B. And a carrier is a much handier and off-road friendly plan B than lugging a stroller with you on a hike. For city dwellers, carriers are also a much more public transport friendly option too.
Carrier time as a baby hasn’t stopped little Séamus loving hikes to Howth summit. Photograph by Mary Frazer.
And yet it seems there is still a lot of resistance to the idea that babywearing can be good for you and your family in Ireland. Some strange comments have cropped up more than once for me while out and about with my baby. “Isn’t he cold?” (pressed right up against his Mam’s body in June? Eh, no). “Isn’t that bad for your back?” (no, but sitting at a computer all day certainly was). “Aren’t you afraid he will suffocate?” (Yes! In cots, prams, cars and everywhere else all new Mam’s worry about this all the time! That’s why we follow the safety advice). Babywearing has also been criticised by some as a form of cultural appropriation, as many of the commercially successful carriers of recent years originate with time-honoured local traditions that are not acknowledged by marketers presenting these tools as new inventions. But as Aaminah Shakur points out here, every culture has traditional methods and customs around carrying their young, but so many cultures have unfortunately lost touch with those traditions. Curious as to how so many cultures could have gotten to a point where babywearing seems somehow abnormal, unsafe or culturally “other”, I googled “when was the pram invented” and came across the staggering claim on Encyclopedia.com that before the invention or the first perambulators circa 1800 “babies were seldom carried outside of the home”.
So, before modern technology came along with its industrial wheeled doo-dads for sale, mothers and babies throughout the ages just…stayed at home? It got me thinking about how much of today’s “essential” baby equipment is an expensive patch over a stolen or forgotten piece of cultural parenting heritage. Despite having been born and brought up in Ireland and interested in babywearing for some time, I was completely ignorant of Irish babywearing customs until I saw these fascinating pictures posted by @history_of_irish_babywearing on instagram. The celtic babywearing traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales were practised with blankets, with no special equipment needed at all, just a bit of know-how.
Parenting has changed dramatically in recent decades, and not always for the better. Vested interests have profited enormously from our move away from traditional skills towards reliance on increasingly expensive and complex tools. When we factor in the time spent working longer hours to afford these fancy parenting devices, the hours spent dealing with the concomitant clutter, and the fact that they have replaced cheaper more effective parenting skills, we may conclude that far from helping, they are actually making our lives harder.
I couldn’t help but think I had missed out on something crucial in my whole approach to parenting one day as I watched my then sixty-something mother in law deftly change a nappy. The bum in question belonged to one of her many grandchildren, casually balanced on her knee. No mats, stands or paraphernalia were needed beyond some baby wipes. She never missed a spot or a beat in the conversation as she worked, though she never looked down. I thought about all the changing tables and other devices I relied on over the years to complete this simple everyday job. I made up my mind to pay more attention in future when the grannies were granny-ing in my vicinity in case I could learn a trick or two, and I certainly did. I watched. I practised. Now, if you need a nappy change two miles into a forest hike, up a windy hillside, or just in a public toilet without a table, I’m your woman. Massive queues for parenting facilities hold no fear. This change in parenting perspective didn’t happen overnight, and I am still working on it.
If you are a newbie considering an adventure in babywearing then bravo! Be prepared that the learning phase is going to take time. Even if you are still expecting, you can start to practise tying your wraps with a doll in front of a mirror before your little “package” finally arrives. Sometimes you will make mistakes, sometimes you will be too tired, and sometimes things will take longer than you would like. There will be blood, sweat and poo, but just over the hill is freedom from all that baby junk.
Here are links to some more information and resources on babywearing, good luck!
- Babywearing safety tips: http://www.schoolofbabywearing.com/Images/TICKS.pdf
- Instructions on Celtic babywearing with a shawl (practised in Ireland and Wales, with similar practice referred to as “the plaid” in Scotland: https://parentsvillage.blogspot.com/2009/09/instructions-for-using-nursing-shawl.html?m=1
- Hedwych’s instructional youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_TD5tW2aZxsf19vC8yu9jw
- Images of historical babywearing in Ireland: https://www.facebook.com/historybabywearingireland
- Local sling meets and sling rental: www.babywearingireland.ie