The Racial and Economic Politics of Babywearing

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Maegan “la Mala” Ortiz

According the Wikipedia, babywearing is the practice of carrying your child in a sling or other type of carrier. The actual term babywearing was coined by Dr. William Sears, father of the Attachment Parenting movement, that advocates the development of a strong secure emotional bond/relationship between parent and child in order to help create a strong emotionally secure adult. Babywearing does this by keeping the child physically close to a parent or caregiver when they are most vulnerable.

Before I go any further I should clearly state that I am a babywearer, although it’s a term I’m not all that comfortable with. Not because I don’t believe that babywearing benefits both the baby and the wearer, but maybe it’s because of how I came to the practice.

When I started wearing my now 10 year old baby (don’t worry I’m not carrying her anymore) I was a single 20 year old working mami tired of carrying a heavy ass stroller up and down subway stairs (people seriously need to help mamis with strollers. Don’t pretend you didn’t see. I know you saw me). My first carrier was a Snugli that cost 20 bucks and I used for like three months because it started to kill my back. After that it was back to hauling a stroller.

However, babywearing wasn’t invented by the hoards of hipster parents that practice it nowadays and while a better relationship with your baby may be a plus, it likely wasn’t the reason why people were tying their babies on.

Many, if not most indigenous and people of color communities around the globe wear their babies. From the continents of Asia, the Americas and Africa, indigenous women from ancient times wore their babies, mostly so that they could get back to the daily chores of life while taking care of their young. Babywearing was practical. So practical in fact, that on those continents, it is considered an act of the lower, poor classes. After all, wealthy women had people to do their chores for them, including carrying and taking care of their babies.

And it’s that fact that makes the whole babywearing movement in the U.S. so interesting. The babywearing community is mostly white and upper middle class to upper class and they better be. Wearing your baby doesn’t come cheap. Simple pouches can run 70 dollars and up. “Asian” style carriers are in the 80 dollar range and wraps, long pieces of cloth , are 100 dollars plus. On webboards and at meetings, mama’s show off their stashes of different kinds of babywearing gear, which includes special coats, vests, covers and leg-warmers for wearing your baby in the winter.

But back to the origins of babywearing. Many of these babywearing communities have the nasty little habit of fetishizing/exoticizing their practice. Without irony they post pictures of “traditional” babywearing across the globe and oooh and ahhh and say how cute. I even came across one post with a mama proudly and excitedly sharing how and Asian older man commented on her Asian style babywearing and according to her, he even said it in a “cute accent”. Others will ask on websites, “what kind of wraps to people use in ________(insert name of third world people of color country here) because they know someone from that country and want to gift them with a wrap.

And then there is the whole reference to what many attachment parents refer to sometimes as the bible of attachment parenting, a little book called the Continuum Concept. The book, by Jean Liedloff , should be called the bible of cultural appropriation and look how cool primitive people are. And yes the book actually refers to an indigenous tribe from South America as primitive and stone age. The book basically tells parents that they should be like this tribe. Included in this is babywearing.

I’m not saying that all babywearers are guilty of this this racial and economic use of privilege and cultural appropriation. But as a mama of color who wears her baby I feel like the odd lady out at babywearing meetings and websites. Not just because I can’t afford the have stashes like the other mamis, but because I am a mama of color, whose roots are in traditional baby wearing communities and working people of color communities.

Maegan “la Mala” Ortiz is a Queens, NYC born and bred radical Nuyorican mami writer, poeta, activista, blogger, and academic coach (trying) to work at home with her two chicas, La MapucheRican (10) and the Poroto ChileRican (7 months) and her very patient partner just known as “el Chileno”. She is an editor at VivirLatino and (poorly) maintains her personal blog Mamita Mala. She wants to write a book or two and is graciously accepting offers for babysitting.

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