Babywearers of the world, unite!

Why did moms who carry their babies in slings or wraps react so badly to a less-than-reverential ad?

Nancy McDermott

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Topics USA

International Babywearing Week (12-18 November) was marred for some by the launch of a new campaign for Motrin, a brand of the painkiller ibuprofen marketed in the United States. For the uninitiated, ‘babywearing’, as defined by Babywearing International, the folks who sponsor International Babywearing Week, is simply ‘holding or carrying a baby or young child using a baby carrier’. And how did the ad for Motrin impact on Babywearing Week? By suggesting that babywearing is painful, and therefore those who do it might like to stock up on an effective painkiller.

The 47-second ad suggests that experience of babywearing is, well, inconsistent (watch the ad below). The narrator says: ‘Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion. I mean, in theory it’s a great idea. There’s the front baby carrier, sling, schwing, wrap, pouch. And who knows what else they’ve come up with. Wear your baby on your side, your front, go hands free. Supposedly it’s a real bonding experience. They say that babies carried close to the body tend to cry less than others.

‘But what about me? Do moms that wear their babies cry more than those who don’t? I sure do! These things put a ton of strain on your back, your neck, your shoulders. Did I mention your back? I mean, I’ll put up with the pain because it’s a good kind of pain; it’s for my kid. Plus, it totally makes me look like an official mom. And so if I look tired and crazy, people will understand why.’

Granted, the ad is a little awkward, a little too painfully hip, like listening to an ageing parent use the word ‘dude’ in conversation. But many moms and dads thought the ad far worse than that. On YouTube, someone who goes by the name ‘Outraged-Babywearing-Mom’ called the ad ‘irresponsible’, ‘misleading’ and ‘disrespectful’. In fact, she said there are ‘no words to describe how disturbing this commercial is’.

Twitter, that quasi-conversational internet application that allows users to ‘update’ one another with their thoughts, blazed with reactions from angry parents dismayed that Motrin would dare to judge them or to question their parenting styles. ‘Offensive’ was the main adjective of choice, alongside ‘clueless’ and ‘patronising’. Some called for a boycott; others demanded the ad agency be fired, the ad pulled and for the company that produces Motrin to apologise. Naturally, it did.

Within days of the ad’s launch, the company cancelled the campaign, and Kathy Widmer, vice president of marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare, prostrated herself and her three daughters at the feet of the angry babywearers with the following apology: ‘I have responsibility for the Motrin Brand, and am responding to concerns about recent advertising on our website. I am, myself, a mom of 3 daughters.

‘We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. We believe deeply that moms know best and we sincerely apologise for disappointing you. Please know that we take your feedback seriously and will take swift action with regard to this ad. We are in the process of removing [the ad] from our website. It will take longer, unfortunately, for it to be removed from magazine print as it is currently on newstands and in distribution.’

So that’s that: marketing disaster averted; parents happy; problem solved. And yet, it’s worth taking a step back and asking: what the hell just happened? We are, after all, simply talking about ibuprofen, baby-carriers and back pain. How could something so random, so personal, evoke so much angst and ire?

Like breastfeeding, how one carries ones baby has become something more than a mere personal decision. It says something about who you are, what you value, what you believe. It’s a lifestyle choice that is more than a lifestyle choice: it’s a philosophy and an identity.

In fact, babywearing is central to Attachment Parenting, a style of childrearing popularised in the US by paediatrician Dr William Sears. The Attachment Parenting philosophy emphasises the importance of intense physical and psychological attachment or attunement between parents and their babies and is said to create healthier, happier, more secure children. Other desirable practices include: natural childbirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and delaying or spacing out childhood vaccinations. Some so-called ‘AP-ers’ also home-school, ‘unschool’, eat organic and local, and perhaps not surprisingly, frown on circumcision.

Though not all parents who use slings or baby-carriers would refer to themselves as ‘AP-ers’, many aspects of the AP philosophy have become integrated into mainstream parenting styles. But regardless of what you call it, or how people identify themselves, it’s worth noting the fluidity with which these intimate aspects of family life transform from personal preferences into a source of public tension or, even more strikingly, issues to be campaigned around.

Take International Babywearing Week. Designating a special week or a day to highlight particular causes is very common. There are well-established commemorations like the UN’s International Women’s Day and lesser-known occasions like the World Health Organisation’s International Day of Older Persons. Though sometimes billed as celebrations, more often than not these events serve to call attention to problems that need to be solved.

On the face of it, International Babywearing Week seems to be of the celebratory variety – but reading Babywearing International’s letter of complaint to the makers of Motrin, you might be forgiven for thinking they were championing the cause of an oppressed minority.

The letter begins by lamenting the timing of the ad campaign and how much ‘damage’ it could cause: ‘Just as we are working to create community support for this beneficial practice so that no parent will ever again be harassed or ridiculed for babywearing [emphasis added], McNeil is perpetuating an image of babywearing parents as silly people who make irrational choices to be in fashion.’

It seems babywearing is not so simple after all. Motrin’s campaign has apparently rubbed salt into the wounds of beleaguered parents already hounded and reviled for making the choice to wear their babies.

The letter goes on to demand that McNeil Consumer Healthcare ‘undertake an equally prominent campaign that portrays babywearing mothers as the savvy parents and consumers they actually are’. And while they’re at it, Susie Spence, president of Babywearing International, says they should launch a campaign that ‘explains the proven benefits of babywearing and directly counter the portrayal of babywearing as painful or as a practice that makes babywearing mothers cry’.

The letter captures something of the siege mentality of many parents, and highlights one of the most serious problems with parenting culture today: the elevation of parenting philosophies to almost religious status, complete with orthodoxies and sacred texts in the form of research papers.

Although the reaction to the Motrin campaign might seem reasonable to some – an example of parents standing up for themselves – it is nothing of the sort. Motrin fell foul of parents because it dared to be ambivalent about a particular parenting style. One could argue that the Motrin ad is actually more sympathetic to parents because it suggests the possibility that one size might not fit all.

At a time when childrearing is invested with so much significance, it is not surprising that parents might want to look for a guiding philosophy with ‘proven benefits’. Nor is it unreasonable to look to like-minded parents for support and encouragement. But when a parenting lifestyle becomes a movement, everyone loses out.

The first thing we lose is perspective. While it is true that some people might look askance at something like babywearing, the chances that parents will be harassed or ridiculed are slim. More to the point, whether something like babywearing works or not, is beneficial or not, is highly subjective – a matter of personal preference rather than simply a question of acquiring a skill. It is just possible that some parents can’t get the hang of babywearing or simply don’t want to do it.

The next thing we lose are potential allies. Babywearers may well feel judged and harassed but it has nothing to do with their parenting philosophy per se. No matter what our personal choices, no matter what our parenting style, society will judge us and find us wanting. This isn’t because of anything we’ve done, but because parenting has been imbued with so much significance today.

The problem is not what we do or don’t do with our babies. The problem is that as a society we are becoming obsessed with the minutiae of what we do with our infants, as if it might hold the key to solving broader issues. It is not surprising, then, that when parents buy into the lifestyle movements that promote this view it often backfires, isolating them from other parents and adults who don’t share the same philosophy.

The last thing to go is our sense of humour. And this may be worst of all. Humour demands that we abstract ourselves from our own situation, that we empathise with others enough to project ourselves into their positions and roles. Most of all, it demands that we recognise the absurdity of the little things and frees us to laugh at ourselves. Ibuprofen aside, it’s the best medicine.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi explained the culture of paranoid parenting. Nancy McDermott met the ‘world’s worst mom’. She interviewed the widow of Dr Benjamin Spock, who said ‘parents take parenting too seriously’. Jennie Bristow provides a regular guide to subversive parenting. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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