Real Men Wear Their Babies

Photo credit: Licensed from AdobeStock/Halfpoint

I should have known why my toddler daughter and I kept getting sidelong glances from the three tough-looking guys who were fishing at the end of the municipal pier. After all, it’s not every day you see a 6′ 7″ guy wearing a long, striped sash threaded through two golden rings.

One of them caught my eye and made small talk about the fishing, eventually working his way around to what was really on his mind: “Dude, what is that thing you’re wearing?”

I looked down, wondering what fun fashion faux pas I had committed this time, only to realize that I was still wearing my baby sling. “You mean this?” I asked. “It’s just a baby sling.”

Quizzical looks all around.

“You know, for carrying a baby…?” I quickly demonstrated by picking up my daughter and seating her in the sling sideways, against my left hip. “See? No hands.” I mimed casting a rod.

The men laughed — apparently they had thought I was wearing gang colors, ha ha — and complimented me on my ingenuity. “You should patent that — you’d make a fortune,” one of them said.

Too bad it wasn’t my idea; baby slings have been around for thousands of years, and probably even since the dawn of modern humans.

Not only didn’t I invent the baby sling, but I had never really envisioned myself as being a baby-slinging dad. It was my wife who had researched the many benefits of babywearing in the months before the birth of our first child, and it was my wife who bought our first baby sling. She was supposed to be the babywearer, not me, because dads just don’t wear their babies, much less with a sling.

Don’t believe me? Try a Google image search for the terms “babywearing” or “baby sling.” Baby-wearing dads make up only about 10 percent of the results. You’ll also find an ad from a place called Tactical Baby Gear that urges dads to “ditch the girly baby sling.” It clicks through to the catalog page for a very manly baby carrier, just dripping with straps, flaps, and buckles. It’s a baby backpack, guys, not a “girly” fashion accessory!

Just to clarify a few terms: Babywearing is the practice of holding your baby or toddler close to your body with the help of a sling or carrier. A baby carrier is any device used to carry the baby; in centuries past, this might have been a cradleboard, a net, or even a basket. A baby sling is a broad piece of cloth that holds the baby or toddler close to the adult caregiver; it stays in place with the help of a knot, a fastener, or (like the sling I used) metal rings.

While I wasn’t opposed to trying the baby sling (or the carrier we got as a backup), I hadn’t anticipated that it would become my constant companion for nearly ten years.

Holding a child close in a sling feels something like a hug that goes on and on, and it speaks the same silent language as a hug: You are welcome here; you are wanted; you are loved.

I have my first child to thank for that. He arrived after a grueling 47-hour labor that ended in an emergency C-section; then, when we finally got him home, he just wouldn’t sleep for more than thirty minutes at a time. Mostly, he cried. Exhausted and still in pain from the C-section, my wife begged me to take him out of the apartment for a few hours so she could get some sleep.

In desperation, I grabbed the sling. It took a few tries to get everything positioned just right, but once I started walking with him in the sling, miracle of miracles, he settled down. Maybe it was the warmth of my body, or the gentle rocking and bouncing, or being bundled up all snug that did it. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. He was finally the peaceful, happy baby that I knew from the covers of so many parenting magazines and diaper commercials.

I began taking him on long walks up and down our quiet residential street around 2 or 3 a.m. every night. As tired and sleep-deprived as I must have been, all I remember now is the two of us alone in the dark and sleeping world. I would look down to see whether he was sleeping, and there he was, his large and solemn eyes staring up at — what? I followed his gaze. Stars…satellites…and now the canopy of a tree, newly leafed out and lit up by the yellow light of the streetlamp its branches embraced. Welcome to the whole wide world, little one.

We had three more children, then adopted one more from an orphanage in Eastern Europe. All of them spent their first few years “hanging out” with me in the baby sling, especially after I quit my job to care for them fulltime.

While I knew all about how babywearing benefits children, I was mostly motivated by convenience. The sling was my number one go-to strategy for calming a fussy baby (unless baby needed to be fed or changed, obviously). The sling worked like magic for tired kids, too; I could typically get our kids to sleep in under fifteen minutes. (My wife did better nursing them to sleep — not exactly an option for me.) And in non-babyproofed settings, I’d corral them in the sling to keep them from killing themselves.

Photo credit: Jerry Windley-Daoust

As a bonus, the sling was hands-free, which meant that even if I needed to pick up a child, I could probably continue sorting laundry or raking leaves or writing bills. (That’s an advantage of a sling over a carrier: with practice, you can easily and securely shift the baby to your side or back so you can look down at what you’re doing with your hands.) I could even work at a computer standing up…at least until the toddlers were old enough to “want to type, too!”

But babywearing is also just nice. Holding a child close in a sling feels something like a hug that goes on and on, and it speaks the same silent language as a hug: You are welcome here; you are wanted; you are loved. Love is what makes us human, of course, and it is rarely given and received so freely, with such vulnerability, as when we hold a small child close. Moms may have a monopoly on the intimacy of nursing, but anyone can nurture a child in this other way, through the warmth of physical closeness. Research has long shown that infants and young children need to be touched, held, and cuddled in order to thrive, but we grownups also draw strength from our little ones, these brand-new human beings with their fine hair, sweet breath, and hummingbird hearts. In spite of their weakness and vulnerability, they make us a little more human.

Even the toughest, most “tactical” dad might be made more fully himself — more fully human — by hanging out with his child.

Yes, it’s also true that children are exhausting, and more than capable of driving us out of our minds. I mean, let’s be real…anyone who has pulled a 12- or 14-hour day with a baby or toddler is some kind of superhero…and also, long overdue for a break. But the sometimes mind-numbing grind of long-haul childcare is what made me appreciate the little oasis of peace and calm that we found in the baby sling.

Researchers and early childhood educators tout the many benefits of babywearing. Among other things, it encourages lots of parent-child interaction, which is the rocket fuel of child development. And hanging out up high with all the big people gives children a whole new perspective on the world, and more opportunities to interact with it. My kids loved putting dishes into cabinets, picking apples, hanging Christmas ornaments, and entering the PIN on the grocery store card reader. What the researchers don’t mention, though, is that when we adults bring our children up close, we’re more likely to see the world through their eyes: new, mysterious, and endlessly surprising.

My youngest child is ten years old now, which means I’m long past my baby slinging days. But as I look around at younger families, I see hardly any dads wearing their babies…even though the practice is more popular than ever with moms. And I wonder why that is.

The author with his youngest daughter, ca. 2006.

Lots of people opt out of babywearing, and that’s perfectly okay; my wife was never really comfortable using a sling. But it would be deeply unfortunate if the main reason for that choice were the many subtle ways society shames men who fully embrace their fatherhood. (“Ditch the girly baby sling” is by no means the most egregious example.) Even the toughest, most “tactical” dad might be made more fully himself — more fully human — by hanging out with his child. But when society denigrates hands-on, all-in fatherhood, it cheats dads out of that peak life experience, and it deprives children of a more intimate relationship with their fathers. Moms, meanwhile, end up carrying more of the parenting burden…in this case, literally.

What would it take to make babywearing cool for dads? Probably a few more cool dads who are willing to follow their hearts rather than the culture’s self-appointed arbiters of manliness. If you see a dad like that, be sure to give him a smile and a thumbs up. And if you are one of those dads, be sure to check out this baby sling advice from the Mayo Clinic, and check out these more detailed guidelines from Today’s Parent magazine.

As for me, I haven’t given away my baby sling…it’s hanging on my closet door, ready to go. Because — who knows? — grandchildren just might happen someday.

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