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Reflections on Constant Carrying


from Special Delivery,newsletter of
Informed Homebirth and Informed Birth and Parenting, Fall 1986

As a first-time mother with a great desire to do well by my child, I was determined to practice what has been called "total mothering". I had heard many positive discourses on the practice of keeping the baby in close physical contact with the mom, but when it came down to it, I just didn't know anyone who carried their child quite as constantly and closely as they assured me was best.


I had an especially great desire to use the traditional Indian rebozo, or shawl, to carry my child, a common sight in the Latin countries in which I've spent the last few years. I noticed the Indian babies were mostly big-eyed and quiet, taking advantage of their public yet very safe position to survey and study the world around them.

The theory behind "total mothering" is that if the child feels optimally secure in the earliest years of life, he will not need to spend the rest of his years making up for or searching for lost love and confidence. Having established a heart-felt trust in the world and intimate relations, he is able to pursue deep personal insights and visions.

Van has known the rebozo since a few days after birth. It has helped create a beautiful bond between us, and between me and the women of the cultures among which I live. The baby's weight and bulk are drawn back from my arms, so I may comfortably stroll, carry packages, open doors, etc., while he is safe and near.

In those first months, he could nurse on demand in public while being totally out of view. The rebozo is an amazing tool, and allows a small baby a safe place in society, participating with his parents in life.

A visit to the States when Van was 3 months old reconfirmed my desire to "total mother". In contrast to Mexican society, I found much emphasis in the States on how to make parenting more convenient and how to adjust childraising to fit an individual's other goals. I was advised, over and over, "Barbara, let the baby down. Relax, you need a break." But I was most relaxed nursing or with the baby close to me. I wanted to be there when Van woke for his frequent but brief night-time feedings, and really didn't understand why other parents wanted their babies to sleep through the night. His nuzzlings for "chi chi" did not disturb my rest, and I welcomed them as protection from the possibility of another wee one while he was still small.

I was grateful that my lifestyle enabled me to spend so much time with my baby, and I believed literally in the phrases "constant contact", "surrender to being a mother", and "infants are meant for mother's arms". Yet at times I had to put him down to do the simple necessities that get us from one day to the next. Refusing to get an infant seat, I had no place to sit the baby, close and within eye contact when I wanted to shower, to sew, or eat my dinner. My insistence on doing what I thought was the natural, ancient way only inconvenienced and exhausted me.

By the time Van reached nine months, I felt burned out and confused, questioning the principles on which I'd based my short time mothering. I opened my eyes and I couldn't believe what I saw. I was trying to fulfill an ideal that didn't exist, an ideal of "total mothering" which isolates the mother and baby as a closed unit.

I saw the Indian babies in rebozos all day, but first a little cousin might be wearing the baby, while the mom tended the fire, or did handiwork; and then a young aunt was holding the baby, bringing her to mom when she wanted to nurse: and afterwards the mother helped secure the little one on her aunt's back. The tradition of frequent nursing did prevail, but total mothering? I didn't see it. The baby was part of the greater family and community, and like all members, moved in all circles of activity. Yes, babies had close and constant human contact, but not exclusively with their mothers.

I realized that my misinterpretation of the mother-child relationship in a primitive culture could only have been made by a western woman, raised in a society where mothers and their small children in recent tradition have been isolated in the nuclear home. Ours is not a tribal society and we cannot recreate that situation, except perhaps in rare instances in a commune or small community. In our society we have the choice and the inclination to pick up and leave our intimates whenever things are not going a way one presupposes is the best.

Perhaps the focus on real commitment and love between family members will be the catalyst for the emotional security and well-being of our children, brought into the world and raised in this modern epoch.

At fifteen months, Van and I still share the rebozo many times a day, shopping, strolling, and for those times when he fusses about my knees, I swing him on my back and gracefully get on with my chores. My heart still flutters as I hear his tiny one beating softly against my ribs. I am grateful for the gift of seeing these ancient ways, and for the insight to adapt them, not blindly, but with the recognition of who and where I come from. I can care for my son not with a stubborn insistence on doing it "the only possible right way", but can choose what works at the time for our growing family. May I always listen and learn from my life experiences.

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