Do I Look Lame in This Baby Björn?

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
July 24 2013 1:50 PM

Do I Look Lame in This Baby Björn?

How a gentleman rocks the new-dad look.

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Dear Gentleman Scholar,

The Baby Björn (or whatever its generic counterpart is called) is undeniably practical. It frees one's hands and arms, folds up easily, and seems enjoyable for the tyke. But, man, I feel uncomfortable when I wear it. Lame. Emasculated? Am I supposed to get over these feelings in deference to its spectacular utility, in the same way I now embrace easily washable garments? Or should I draw the line at the Björn, which I can't help but feel will leave me permanently stranded on island of "dad-ness." 

Thank you for your question. What I'm hearing here—what I detect the question within the question to be—is, "Does this baby make me look wussy?" 

No. No, it does not. It is not lame to tote your tot from here to there by way of your anterior, posterior, or lateral torso. A papoose is no more emasculating than a perambulator. Indeed, the former proves vastly more efficient in some contexts and boasts the further advantage of promoting physical intimacy, which encourages emotional bonding between humans, as you know well: That's how you got into this whole deal in the first place. Every good baby deserves fatherly flexibility when it comes to getting schlepped around, and I'd recommend that every new dad requisition at least one Björn-or-something for his household's fleet of brat-conveyors. Any contraption that keeps the kid safe and comfortable is fine. Any gizmo that lets you walk with a natural gait is good. People who live near you are selling used baby-carriers all the time on parenting bulletin boards and listservs. I recommended promiscuous secondhand shopping.

But it's OK—it's OK!—to worry that wearing a baby makes you look like a wuss, and it is interesting to wonder why the prospect of donning a baby-carrier might inspire anxious self-policing against behavior registering on the wuss-o-meter. 

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First, let us consider that new-fatherhood is an awkward transitional stage somewhat akin to a second adolescence: Hormones roil the home front in unpredictable ways. Toilet humor makes a big comeback. Your self-identity is in flux, and your body is changing. For instance, you might be carrying yourself with a more confident posture reflecting your paternal pride, or your biceps may be more awesome than ever due to having been up all night rocking the fricking baby back to sleep, and maybe your back is killing you. It is natural in these circumstances to worry, like a teenager, about seeming cool to your male peers and to senior girls (who in this case are baby-sitters), and the teen in you may be further inclined to rebel against the trappings of dadhood if you are suspicious of such elements of contemporary parenting as the word parenting. A funny thing happened to the noun parent on its way to becoming a gerund—the commodification and politicization and vulgar recontextualization of various aspects of the business of child-rearing. Those phenomena can tend to attract wusses and to involve wussy-ish dynamics.

That is the general state of affairs. Moving toward specifics, we see that wearing your baby might seem to be annoying because of its necessarily close association with so-called "babywearing." Can we see the difference here? One is simply a venerable form of infant-transport; the other is a cause or practice or movement involving the "babywearing community." Wearing your baby offers emotional benefits to you and the child; babywearing offers members of the fruitcake wing of the attachment-parenting movement an opportunity to get all righteous about those benefits. (Recall Maggie Gyllenhaal's stroller-shunning performance in Away We Go: "I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away from me?")

Wearing your baby might also seem wussy-seeming because it’s rather "White People," in the sense used by satirist Christian Lander to describe the cultural-consumption habits of urban-liberal bobos. You might be a White Person, for example, if you saw Away We Go in the theater. (The Gentleman Scholar hopes not to offend any people who happen to be white with his usage of the phrase "White People," and he hopes that White People themselves will understand how some of their habits might be construed as wussy.) The Baby Björn hails from Sweden, and Scandanavia, with its fine design sense and all, is a very urban-liberal-bobo space. Björn Jakobsen debuted his carrier in Stockholm in 1973, just as Ann Moore's pioneering Snugli was gaining traction in the U.S. Of course, indigenous people the world over have been wearing their babies since before the beginning of history; Moore discovered the practice while working as a Peace Corps nurse in Togo and later stitched a prototype together for her baby, named Mandela. Here is a photograph of the Snugli's current designer, wearing a sultry look while displaying her wares in what seems to be a cynical approximation of an unfinished loft space; her other work includes an $1,100 microsuede "child sofa." 

It should be clear that the Snugli earned its place in the Smithsonian—and that it further deserves one in the White People Hall of Fame—but it is far from certain that any inherent wussitude accrues to the item or its competitors. Nonetheless, I can see how a baby-carrier might serve nicely as a synecdoche encapsulating the surrender of your autonomy, or other vertiginous dreads and petty nuisances. But, I repeat, wearing your baby is not wussy.

I mean, it can get kind of dorky in there when you're trying to jostle the kid into a nap while working a Practical-Like-Saturday-Morning kind of look—your wife's paisley-print sling; the shirt you slept in; cargo shorts of an antiquated fabric, cut, and waist size; a yellowing pair of Ilie Nastases; a billowing gray raincoat; the first baseball cap you could find; a gauzy blanket festooned with cartoon giraffes. It can get a bit dorky, with an ensemble like that, but if you accentuate your sleepy-headed jet-laggardly demeanor, and if you keep your sunglasses on, you can kind of play of it off as almost charming. And it's easier to walk like a cool person while wearing your baby than while plowing him down the pavement in an umbrella stroller. In an experimental effort at looking cool while pushing a stroller, the Gentleman Scholar has recently tried innovating a one-armed push. Which is why he is now suffering a novel combination of carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. Which is why he's begun training the 2-year-old in acupressure.

Point is, don’t worry about it. However you are getting your baby around town, you are looking fundamentally sound doing it. As long as your shopping cart is not re-enacting the Odessa Steps scene in front of Trader Joe's, everyone thinks you look good, insofar as they can be bothered to notice you at all, you dorky dad. 

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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