Why might people make this assumption, and is there a way to dispel the myth that anyone who carries beyond 3 months must be a martyr enslaved to their kids? Well, I’m not going to promise any easy answers, but I have been thinking quite a lot about this and am hoping the reflections that follow may be at least vaguely useful… (Spoiler alert: some of these ponderings relate to some research I’ve been doing on sling use – I’m not quite ready to write about that yet but, invariably, what I’m learning from that project has influenced my thinking here too. More on that soon!)
Ok, back to the point: here are a few reasons why I think carrying is often misunderstood and perceived as burdensome/bad for your back…
Not having experienced comfortable carrying yourself. This is an obvious point but it’s important. If you’ve never carried before, it is perhaps not too hard to make the leap of imagination needed to understand that carrying a young baby could be a lovely, cosy thing to do. However, carrying a toddler or pre-schooler? You must be crazy, right? They weigh a ton! Well, yes and no… I recently had my 3.5 year old weighed and he was 17 kilos (he’s always been a big lad). So yes, clearly he is not weightless and, even with my well-fitting sling, it would become uncomfortable if I had to carry him all day. However, like most children of his age, he is an active little soul and, as a result, these days I only carry him for a fraction of the time that I did when he was younger. In our comfy sling, I find those short journeys are fun and practical for both of us. Having carried him since he was a baby, my body has got used to his changing weight and shape gradually, meaning that I’m able to carry him comfortably. However, for friends and relatives who haven’t carried (and remember, the UK sling world has developed considerably in recent years so the chances are that most of your friends and relatives won’t have had the opportunity to carry in a well fitting sling), it can be really hard to understand what the actual experience of carrying is like. For example, they may well assume that carrying an older child in the sling is like carrying them in arms: believe me, it’s not – in a sling, I can carry my son’s 17 kilos comfortably for a good couple of hours. In arms, I can barely make it to the end of the street. So the key point here is that regularity of carrying and the right carrier build strength and comfort levels at the same time as your child’s growing independence means he or she will, over time, reduce the amount he or she wants to be carried. So carrying has a healthy ‘lifecycle’ all of its own.
However, I also think there’s something more interesting going on here around the body and its role in our culture. An unspoken assumption of much of modern life seems to be that any ‘excess’ physical effort/exertion is unpleasant. So why would you carry a child when you can push them? It’s worth mentioning a couple of things here. Firstly, I have pushed a pram up the massive hill that I live on many times – this is not easy either, especially with the amount of shopping that I tend to ram into it. As we explained last week, sensations of comfort and discomfort, ease and effort are very unique to individuals, so it’s wise to be wary of generalisations and avoid making too many assumptions about ‘ease’ here… But, let’s just suppose for the sake of argument that pushing an older child is physically easier than carrying. Why would anyone still want to carry under those circumstances?
When I was interviewing parents, I was struck by how many people actually enjoyed the additional opportunities for exercise that they gained from carrying. Indeed, particularly for people who had been active and ‘outdoorsy’ prior to parenthood, slings provided a way in which they could still enjoy exercise, both for its physical and emotional benefits and also for the impact this has on your sense of self. Several parents described how there was a real sense of achievement gained from a journey in a sling: ‘getting there’ on foot under your own steam without the need for the potentially cumbersome addition of prams, car seats etc. was important, and the sling created a sense of independence, self-reliance and ‘shared adventure’ that was very satisfying for many. For women in particular, carrying their children can be related to feeling strong, powerful and capable, with this being important for self-esteem and confidence. On a related note, several parents spoke about how using slings had made them more aware of their own bodies – their capabilities and limitations, and how these varied from day to day. This increased awareness led to them taking more care of themselves – resting when they needed to and enjoying the growing sensations of strength and capability on ‘good’ days. Again, all of this – the enjoyment of exercise and the increased sense of bodily awareness and capability – can be hard to describe to someone in a cultural context where it is assumed that the lower effort option of letting a pram carry your kids is always the preferred option.
Let’s unpick this a little further though: what do we really mean when we talk about ‘effort’? So far, we’ve concentrated exclusively on the physical effort of carrying your kids, as this is what most people notice when they see you carrying. However, as anyone who has looked after a child knows, parenting involves physical and emotional work and sometimes it’s the latter that is the harder part, especially as the child grows. Let me explain a little more with an example. Imagine trying to navigate the journey across town with a toddler or pre-schooler on foot while he or she is walking. This is a scenario to which many parents aspire: get them walking under their own steam – great! Why would you carry them when they can walk perfectly well for themselves? Well, yes, of course they can walk. BUT whether they are happy to do so reliably and safely on any occasion is extremely unpredictable. Most adults walk to get from A to B in a particular timeframe, whereas a toddler or pre-schooler walks for enjoyment and interest, meaning he or she may well alternate between running (which can be terrifying for a parent in a crowded environment or near roads) and dawdling. There is also the possibility of him/her wanting to pick up cigarette butts, chewing gum or other undesirable items from the floor, stroke the less-than-friendly dog on the corner and go up and down the steps in the market square 50 times (yes, this has happened to me!). He or she, quite understandably, has no idea of clock time or concepts such as punctuality and may find keeping pace and focus with an adult particularly hard at the end of a long day at preschool or an afternoon in the play park. Given all these factors – and especially if you need to be somewhere on time – it can actually be much easier to swap the emotional work of preventing meltdown and trying to keep your independent child safe and on track while walking independently – for the physical work of carrying them. In which case you can likely enjoy a cuddle, conversation and some shared bus spotting at the same time. Slings are particularly useful under such circumstances as you need only bring them out when you need them – unlike a pushchair which you will still be pushing even when your child is full of energy and wanting to walk. So you can easily alternate between ‘up’ and ‘down’ time, depending on your schedule and how much mental/physical energy you both have that day.
Finally, while we’re thinking about the physical and emotional work of parenting, let’s remember what we’re talking about here. We aren’t just talking about 17 kilos of inanimate object – we are talking about a little person who loves you very much and who will give back in the best way that he or she can. Your reward for carrying their physical weight is the interaction that you get back: the cuddles and conversation are priceless, the selfies are amazing and, with a younger child, you can enjoy the peaceful feeling of them sleeping against you whilst it’s chaos on the street all around you. You are taking care of your child’s needs and your own, whilst getting stuff done. And I’d happily carry 17 kilos for that, any day…