A few years ago, NPR reporter Shereen Marisol Meraji asked men on Twitter to name their most manly possession. I mentally rifled through a litany of stuff: tools; steel-toed Red Wing boots my dad gave me; an old baseball glove; a machete (long story); a stupidly heavy old guitar amplifier. Everything that came to mind seemed quote-unquote manly in a tired kind of way. Finally, I replied, “BabyBjörn!” half joking. Meraji found it memorable enough to include in the story she eventually taped.
“I loved that you called that your manly item, because, unfortunately, it was surprising and unexpected,” Meraji tells me now of the response.
Part of the humor, I thought at the time, was that the BabyBjörn is often used to signal that a man has fallen from manliness. For example, I feel like I’ve seen some version of this scenario dozens of times in TV shows and commercials: a group of carefree dudes are walking together, possibly on their way to purchase a large quantity of beer to drink together in front of a television. Suddenly, one of them goes bug-eyed and points.
“Oh shit! Is that Kyle?”
The dudes all turn and look. Sure enough, it is Kyle. We recognize instantly that Kyle was once a carefree dude himself. (We might even get a flashback here, of Kyle cheering lustily at a flat-screen TV in his trusty ballcap.) But now, just look at him: Kyle has a wailing, drool-splattered infant dangling from his chest while he gazes sadly at a hill of peers. His child — and its carrier — weigh him down like a millstone.
“It reminds me of that horrible movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting with Chris Rock, and that scene where all the dads are rockin’ BabyBjörns and pushing strollers through the park,” Meraji remarks. “That scene is supposed to make you laugh, right? It’s supposed to make you go, ‘How ridiculous! Men are actually caring for their children!’”
But I soon realized that, in joking about the Björn as my most masculine item, I really meant it.
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, who is somehow now a 10-year-old who wants to start his own YouTube channel, we bought a used BabyBjörn on eBay. It was red with a highland plaid lining. The specter of fatherhood both exhilarated and worried me. I thought about the lyric in Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”: “It’s hard on the man / Now his part is over / Now starts the craft of the father.” I wasn’t sure that becoming a man, whatever that means, would even be enough. But I knew there was no going back.
When the BabyBjörn arrived I tried it on and carried a sack of flour around the house to practice like I was a teenager in some Very Special Episode. I discovered that BabyBjörn, like Kleenex, is a specific brand name that’s become the de facto name for all products in the category. Amazingly, the Björn worked for both my wife and me, unlike some other carriers we’d tried. I liked how you could leave one side open and slip your kid in with one easy motion. And how you could lean forward, release two latches at the front and ease a sleeping child onto a bed. (When our kids got too big to carry, I gave it to my friend Edwin, who has 5 inches and probably 100 pounds on me; it adjusted to fit him fine.)
Most of all, I loved carrying my kids around in it. I was no longer a carefree dude, but I didn’t mind.
It seems, though, that many others did — especially in the Björn’s early days. “Some baby store owners told Björn he was crazy if he thought parents would buy such a product,” says Annika Sander-Löfmark, senior communications adviser at BabyBjörn. The Björn she’s referring to is Björn Jakobson, who, along with his wife Lillemor and other staff, designed the eponymous company’s first baby carrier in the 1970s.
The backstory goes something like this: While there were some Asian-made models at the time, owing to a longer (or, at least, uninterrupted) tradition of baby-carrying, there were none readily available in Europe. According to Sander-Löfmark, Björn’s medical adviser, John Lind — who was a pediatrician and professor at Karolinska Hospital — approached him with the idea to develop a baby carrier.
“The medical community realized how important the physical closeness was for a baby’s development and wanted families to be aware of this,” she says. “For the first time, a group of doctors in Cleveland could also show that babies who had been carried close to their mothers had a better start in life.” (One of those doctors, Avroy Fanaroff, is still a BabyBjörn adviser to this day.)
The company introduced the Hjärtenära — Swedish for “close to heart” — in 1973.
Importantly, Hjärtenära was designed to be unisex. And if some people thought the whole idea of a baby carrier was wacky enough, plenty were really unhappy with the idea of a man strapping one on.
“A distributor refused advertising featuring dads carrying babies,” Sander-Löfmark says. “Other reactions were that it was unmanly and unrealistic that fathers would carry their babies strolling around town.” For his part, Björn Jakobson walked the walk, using a carrier with his and Lillemor’s fourth child.
This is where I have to add that BabyBjörn’s history page contains maybe my favorite subsection title ever: Dads — Here to Stay. Though I hate to admit there’s still a part of me that almost starts to laugh at things like #dadstories — documentary-style vignettes featuring men and their kids.
Some of this knee-jerk reaction comes from decades of ingrained gender messaging. (Oh shit! Is that Kyle?) Some of it is an internal eye-roll at the sense that often, when men talk about parenting, it’s regarded as special — cinematic, even — instead of as a duty that’s simply expected of us the way it’s expected of women. And some of it doesn’t even make all that much sense. For example, The Maxims of Manhood: 100 Rules Every Real Man Must Live By includes the rule: “Children should be carried in your arms — never in a BabyBjörn.” I don’t know how serious this “man law” is really meant to be taken, but it points to the idea that the baby carrier is still a boundary indicator in the realms of manhood.
It’s silly, of course. Any dude will tell you we’re constantly marketed to with specialized gear to carry our many masculine things in. Why does something called the “Man-PACK” have a beverage holder? To free up a man’s hands, obviously, which is exactly what a baby carrier does. And if we’re clinging to beloved gender stereotypes, then why doesn’t “man strong, man carry things” translate to “man strong, man carry baby”? (RT if you know why.)
The more I learned about the Jakobsons, who created this object that is both utilitarian and an expression of joy, the more I admired them. After the initial success of the Hjärtenära, they interviewed families and followed them around, filming them in their everyday lives. This evidence-based research led to improvements and later to design awards. Eventually the Bärsele model carrier became part of the collection at the Swedish National Museum.
On the company’s website, Lillemor says it’s “amazing to see how we’ve helped change attitudes about the role dads play.” The company declined to offer sales figures or statistics on how many men use the Björn. But Sander-Löfmark calls it “a great pleasure” to see “how natural it is today for fathers to be close to their babies at all times.”
Well, maybe in Sweden, where fathers enjoy 480 days of paid parental leave and the option to reduce their working hours to spend more time with their kids. Maybe once the U.S. picks up the pace in giving parents the kind of leave that engenders staying close — we’re currently last in the race — and maybe once engaged fathering is no longer a punchline, more men will learn to love the Björn.
“I’ve never once, besides that tweet from you, heard a man talk about his BabyBjörn,” Meraji says.
Carry on, dads.