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‘Children’ column on baby slings, The Independent On Sunday

‘So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy.’

Lawrence is too fat for the baby sling now. Each of his legs is like a haggis on top of a black pudding. Yet as he wobbles on his rug or staggers about with his Douglas Bader gait, there is something magnificent about his size, like Sidney Greenstreet or the King of Tonga. A cheery soul, he carries the weight well. And without the sling, I am saved a sore neck, the danger that one of his flopping feet will kick me in the testicles and other, subtler pains.

Because like those stickers that say ‘Baby On Board’, a sling on a man seems like a boast. “Look at me!” it says. “Not only am I fertile, I am also a Good Father. I share the load of Parenting in a Sensitive manner and am generally Concerned.” Of course it isn’t usually a boast, just some bloke trying to be helpful. And helpfulness is in demand. My wife and I work from home and share the parenting, so I need to do my bit as a part-time househusband, or Mary-Ann as my Lancastrian parents would say.

Mary-Anning waits for no man: Lawrence is one, his sisters Rosemary and Rachael, three and six. When it’s my wife’s turn to earn the money for nappies, potatoes and Silk Cut Ultra Low (so mild that inhaling is a form of exercise) there are bottoms to wipe, playgrounds to visit and prams to be pushed. But at least there are no slings to be worn.

My first tussle with one came with Rachael. It took only half an hour to turn the straps, pads, harnesses, clips, loops, buckles and press studs into something almost like the drawing in the instructions. And only 15 minutes more to take it off and put it on the right way round. Just 20 minutes later, Rachael was slotted into it. Having checked that she could breathe, that her arms were comfy, that she could breathe, that her legs were through the right holes and that she could breathe, we set off.

So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy. A little unbalanced perhaps. There’s a slight worry that you might bash the baby into things if you turn round too quickly. And a feeling that if you fell over backwards, you wouldn’t be able to get up, but nothing too difficult. Before guilt got the better of me, I even found I could tilt my head backwards and have a cigarette, the smoke floating in our wake.

It was fun. Nervous fun (suppose I fell forward, she’d be squashed) but fun. Look, there was a man pushing a pram. Ha! How primitive! More important, how uncaring, abandoning his baby to a cold embrace of nylon, plastic and metal. Would it feel loved and safe? Where was the bonding, the pride? At Cafe Nero, even the black-clad folk perched over their espressos and novels seemed delighted by the sight of Baby and Sling Dad. The effect on the pretty girls behind the counter was remarkable. “Ooo,” they went and “Aaa”. “What a Sensitive, Caring man,” their smiles seemed to say. “Fertile too.”

I spotted other Sling Dads on our travels. One sat in a cafe quaffing cappuccino, a muslin square over the baby’s head to protect it from croissant flakes. Another lounged outside a pub, the muslin over the baby’s head to catch drips from the father’s pint. They were on the Tube, buses, restaurants. Their babies of course were uglier than Rachael, but I was not alone.

That was before my first pain in the neck and the months of trying to avoid flopping feet. There was no sudden revelation, no stranger shouting, “Oi, you with the sling. You look like a git!” Just a creeping feeling that, in a world full of babies, maybe Rachael, the sling and me weren’t that interesting.

Anyway, my wife looked better in it and she’d been pregnant, so she was good at pain. She pottered about the kitchen in the sling, filling bottles. Strode around the shops in it. Beavered at the computer in it. So now, if I want to feel Concerned, I need only smell the odour seeping from Lawrence’s nappy.

13 September 2003

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