The fake babies first showed up at my house for a sleepover with my daughter, Anna. They were not exactly invited. Her three best friends were taking an early childhood class at their high school and their signature assignment — a crash course in caring for a frighteningly realistic doll — landed on the weekend of Anna’s 15th birthday. We told ourselves the shared experience would be fun.
It was not fun.
The lifelike robot babies — one white, one black, one Asian — made for adorable additions to the pictures on Snapchat, but to say they hijacked the fun would be an understatement. They needed diapers changed and bottles administered. They could only be transported in full-size car seats. They were cute, yes, but maddeningly needy.
The all-about-me lifestyle of the modern teenager has no space for needy infants. The girls could have been lolling around on the couches without a care in the world, staring at their phones and liking things at their leisure until boredom compelled them to demand a ride to The Cheesecake Factory. Yet here they were, selflessly tending to the needs of other small creatures. One of the girls was an anxious mess, muttering something like, “I can’t,” while trying to puzzle out what little Liam could possibly need now. Another was exhausted, commiserating with the third about her baby’s especially fragile neck. Splayed across the couches with their fake babies and their diaper bags, the girls looked defeated even before the pizza was delivered.
As the night went on, my daughter grew antsy and asked if I could drive them somewhere.
“What, are you feeling cooped up with the babies on a Friday night?” I asked, perhaps a little too gleefully. “Sorry! I can’t fit all those car seats in my car.”
I went to bed, giggling a little. The girls have never gotten less sleep at a sleepover. Camped out in the basement, they were intermittently awakened by cries through the night. Upstairs, I slept like the well-behaved baby they wished they had, drunk on a big cup of schadenfreude.
This was, I had come to realize, not just immersion training for students who think they want to work with kids. It was birth control.
The fake babies were born from a similarly twisted idea. A real-life California couple, Rick and Mary Jurmain, were exhausted by the needs of their two young children. Their firstborn had colic that kept them from sleeping through the night for 11 months. Their second had “a cry that could peel paint off the wall,” recalls Rick Jurmain, who now lives in Burlington, Vermont, to be closer to his adult children. “I literally had to leave the room when she cried,” he adds. (That second baby is now attending law school at Northeastern University.)
It was the early ’90s, when there was incessant hand-wringing about teen pregnancy, and the Jurmains came across a PBS show illustrating how parenting education was then being taught in school: A student carried around an egg or a sack of flour, as if that was a realistic burden.
“I remarked to Mary that a sack of flour doesn’t wake you up in the middle of the night,” he says. “And she remarked flippantly, ‘Well, why don’t you build something that does?’”
He was, literally, a rocket scientist, who was about to be laid off. So he went to the garage and set about designing something truer to life. The first model, named Baby Think It Over, was unsubtle in its message and mostly needed to be comforted when it cried. A proper response involved turning a key in its back and holding it for a while.
Today, the RealCare Baby 3 infant simulator is a fantastically sophisticated, computer-programmed doll that costs up to $1,000 to replace if you lose it. (I know because I had to sign a waiver; Anna’s school has six of them, provided through a grant from a local education foundation.) The student wears a corresponding wristband that logs his or her responses to the baby through a radio frequency identification tag. Then she — and most of the caregivers are female — has to determine what the baby needs, based on distinctly different cries. “Just like a real baby, you eventually kind of can tell — that’s a fussy, I-just-need-to-be-rocked cry or that’s a really hungry cry,” says Samantha Forehand, marketing communications manager for Realityworks, the small Wisconsin company that makes them.
The fake baby must be fed, burped, changed, and soothed, and though its needs may seem random, its patterns are real. The programming is based on the habits of real babies, logged by real parents. There are 14 different programs with easy, medium, or hard settings selected or randomized by a teacher before the baby is sent off with its caretaker on a Friday night. A weekend immersion program is recommended; by Sunday, the students are usually crying, too.
The RealCare Baby has a patented neck with sensors that can detect if its head is not supported properly, prompting a unique cry that issues an ominous warning. It also registers three other “abuses” — shaking the baby, holding it upside down, or physical abuse — and records neglect if the student doesn’t tend to it. Unlike an egg or a sack of flour, this baby gives reports on how it has been treated. And it resists baby-sitting by a willing relative: the doll only responds to the wristband worn by the student who brought it home.
That’s the genius and the curse of it. If she fails, everyone will know — the maternal guilt is built right in. It’s a twist that’s galling to women like myself who are concerned with gender dynamics. But it’s also relatable to women who have nursed their infants. Blame nature or nurture, biology or patriarchy, but it’s still often true that no one else but Mom will do.
At my daughter’s school, it’s mostly just girls who are signing up for this. The class that employs the fake baby is an elective, and over five years, only two boys have taken it — one of them on a dare.
Ironies abound, though. This year, the teacher is a dad who used to teach at my daughter’s elementary school. And early on, the inventor, Jurmain, ceded leadership of the company to his wife, whom he recognized was a better manager, and became the kids’ lead caregiver. (His wife died in 2016; Realityworks has new leadership.)
This year, Anna enrolled in the early childhood class knowing full well what she was getting into after that first sleepless sleepover. The mother-daughter lessons walloped us right away.
“Where’s the baby?” I cooed as I returned home from work. I think I even had my arms outstretched and fingers splayed, like a natural-born grandmother.
When Anna asked me to hold the baby while she made breakfast, I marveled at the sweetness in my arms. I got all gooey and nostalgic, and then immediately uncomfortable. I had forgotten to prop up my left arm with a pillow. I also wanted to continue reading the newspaper, and that’s hard to do with one hand. I tried, while being careful not to bobble the neck. I had a flashback to my days of breast-feeding, recalling how trapped I used to feel in that nursing glider for hours on end, and how ineptly I had attempted to multitask when I was pumping.
My daughter was infinitely patient with the baby, named Lila, but she quickly adopted the habits of a harried mom. After one night with Lila, she posted a note outside her door: “Baby Asleep So I’m going Back to Sleep. Please be Quiet XOXO!”
By the third day, she was frustrated that she couldn’t find time to take a shower. Her teacher would let her “turn off” the baby for a predetermined time — a two-hour window permitted for obligations like basketball practice — but that time was already committed to a family outing. I watched the stress creeping up on my daughter and tried to be a good grandmother. I offered to watch the fake baby while it slept and to bring it to Anna in the bathroom if it stirred.
“No, it’s OK,” Anna said, resigned. “I’ll just take her in with me.”
I remembered that pressure — there was no escape. I hated that she felt it, already. But it was part of the lesson.
Anna brought Lila to all her usual haunts: to the Chinese restaurant for her weekly dinner with her three best friends; to the salon, where we had appointments scheduled (did I imagine it, or did the receptionist’s face flash judgment when she saw the infant carrier and assumed Anna had become a real teen mom?); to one of her friend’s houses.
She cheated just a wee bit. Car seats are mandatory, of course, but she lifted the baby out to burp it while we were moving. If she didn’t, she argued, she’d have to keep running back in the house for one more burp or bottle or diaper change. How would she ever get anywhere, she wondered.
“You don’t,” I explained. “That’s why moms are late all the time or stay home.”
I drove down Main Street, worrying that we’d get pulled over by police for — what, exactly? Driving with an unbuckled doll? — I don’t know. It could happen, I guess. Police were once called to rescue a crying fake baby left in a car outside a mall, recalls Forehand, of Realityworks. They had to break into the car, the educator got a call, and the student got a jarring real-world lesson. For the most part, though, with a fake baby, the stakes are refreshingly low.
When Anna mistakenly worried that she’d heard the “bobble cry” — the sound the baby makes when its neck isn’t supported right — she nearly broke down in tears. That would cost her three points on her grade, she fretted, and make her “feel like I failed.” I tried to comfort her gently by pointing out that with a real baby, the results of a mistake are far worse.
Anna asserted that in some respects, the RealCare Baby was more difficult to manage than a real one. (A “dirty diaper” cry would easily be identified by scent, for instance.) I tried not to scoff too elaborately. This baby never had a dirty diaper. Unlike real babies, RealCare Babies are fluid-free. They don’t consume, spill, spit, or emit anything, let alone shoot it across the room in projectile fashion. Yes, Lila took a long time to burp, I granted. But at least she didn’t spit up all over herself afterward and need a complete wardrobe change “every single time, even in the middle of the night,” I said, perhaps a bit too bitterly.
This baby could be put down for a nap on a chair or a couch and had no risk of falling off. You could sleep next to the baby in bed and not fret about SIDS. You could make mistakes that would cause no irreversible damage or therapy costs down the road.
This baby was made of plastic. It would outlast all of us.
Whether this endeavor actually deters teen pregnancies is an open question. One Australian study suggests it actually increases teen pregnancies. That study, however, coincided with an Australian governmental incentive that paid women a lump sum per baby in an effort to improve the nation’s fertility rate, so go figure.
The RealCare Baby is used in 67 percent of school districts in the country, but for an array of different reasons. It comes with four different curricula: basic infant care, parenting, and health/sex education appropriate for two different age groups. Anna’s school, in our suburb north of Boston, primarily uses the dolls for infant care and parenting training, attracting baby sitters and those considering careers in education or pediatrics.
Anna has always been a natural with children — she’s just like my mother in that way — and her devotion to a fake baby was remarkable. As a bonus, she suddenly seemed to recognize all the things I was doing for her. My independent, chronically dissatisfied teenager was being appreciative.
When I returned from the grocery store, she offered to help me carry in bags. When I drove her and Lila to a friend’s house, she not only said “Thank you,” but also, “Love you.”
She did not, however, feel much attachment to the doll for which she was working so hard. When I remarked on how cute the baby was, she responded, “Eh.”
“I don’t love her,” Anna acknowledged.
It occurred to me that this fake baby wasn’t giving her caregiver much positive feedback. The doll cooed and made cute little breathy sounds, but its expression never changed and its eyes never closed. Lila just stared off into the middle distance, issuing demands.
Lila was a taker. And in the end, that may be the most crucial distinction between a RealCare Baby and a real one who, in her primitive way, at least, convinces you she loves you back. She smiles and sighs contentedly. She lights up when she looks at you. We recognize ourselves in our babies, then gasp at fresh expressions that make them wholly their own. That’s the attachment that gets parents through all those fitful nights — not guilt or duty. And certainly not an A in class.
My own baby smelled like rain. She was sociable and magnetic, attracting anyone in a crowd with her bright, vivid eyes and her deep dimples. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. When she slept, I watched her dreams play out behind her smooth, closed eyelids, which rippled and twitched in a rapidly changing display of intense emotions: Concern! Distress! Bliss!
She was mesmerizing. I remember all that, too.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.