My fake baby was a program on Channel 4, Britain's 'alternative' channel, last week. Others have already written about this, but I'm feeling a need to process my feelings about it, so be prepared for some wandering around the topic.
These fake babies are dolls which are unbelievably realistic. Some even have breathing mechanisms inside, and heaters so that they feel warm. In the memorable words of one woman profiled on the programme, however, "They don't soil themselves." For some women (and I limit this to women advisedly, there were no men seen who were keen on the dolls), therefore, they are the perfect baby. They never grow up, they never make a mess, they never cry, they just look adorable and you can cuddle them to your hearts content. Or take them out in the pram.
One such woman explained that she and her husband had not wanted to have children earlier as they enjoyed their no-children lifestyle too much. They delayed and delayed and eventually realised they were never going to want to give up that lifestyle. I checked my infertile radar and decided that they probably weren't covering up difficulties in conceiving, they genuinely didn't want real, messy children. As evidenced by the scene of this woman cleaning the wheels of her pram. She had about 4-5 of the dolls, and about 4 prams, all white with white wheels. She likes to keep everything clean, so she has inside wheels and outside wheels, and washes them in between trips. To take the dolls out in the pram, to the park or to the shops. She saw the dolls as better than real children. They were no trouble, and they never grow out of their clothes. In one memorable scene she spent nearly £300 ($600) on 4 items of Roberto Cavalli clothing to create a 'coming home outfit' for the new doll she was expecting. She explained that it made more sense for her to spend that money on dressing a fake baby than a real one as at least this way the clothes would never get soiled.
For other women, these dolls fill an emotional void. In one disturbing scene, a woman collected the doll that had been made to look like her grandson when he was a baby. The grandson had gone to live in New Zealand, and this woman was bereft, so the doll was made to help her satisfy her craving for her grandson, but it was also her grandson at a stage when he needed her the the most, it wasn't just about her loss. To take this doll home, she buckled it into a car seat. A car seat. Later, she was seen walking the doll in a pram. For this woman, clearly, the doll was someone to love. She showed it over a webcam to the grandson, who insisted it was a doll, while she insisted it was a baby. He sounded confused.
Yet another woman has a whole nursery filled with the dolls, about 50 from what I could see. Most upsettingly, one of them was "the smallest size which can survive", a tiny micro-preemie sized doll, but without the lanugo and the red colouring of the micro preemies I have seen. Why if you are going to spend money on these dolls, do you buy one designed to mimic a baby that would have a hard time staying alive?
As with many others, I found the programme disturbing. I didn't want to watch, but I was fascinated. H refused to watch, echoing the comment of the woman with the grandson's husband, who told her he "didn't like it, it looks like something on a mortuary slab". Why did I want to watch?
Well, there was the car-crash tv element of it. I wanted to see odd people behaving oddly, and perhaps give myself a pat on the back for being that much more normal. I also wanted to watch for the infertility angle. Were these women looking for replacements for babies they couldn't have? Not really from what I saw, but perhaps in other instances? But would such a baby ever be satisfying to an infertile? Perhaps even more so than women who can pop babies out at the drop of a hat, aren't we very sure that we want the whole puking, shitting, laughing, growing, crying, unique package? Wouldn't one of these dolls be almost worse than not having anything at all, a constant reminder of what you don't have? Never to get a reaction to your hugs and kisses, why would that be a satisfying way to parent? Clearly, the dolls are being used as child substitutes, but they equally clearly don't fulfil the women who buy them - why else would someone have a whole nursery full and regularly buy more?
Another angle was the need to feel special. A woman who makes these dolls explained that when you have a newborn, everyone is interested, everyone comments and pays you attention. As the baby grows that stops, but with one of the dolls you never lose that specialness of being the mother to a new born. Only you're not. Would that attention feel wrong somehow, knowing you are misleading people? I can empathise with this, I'm feeling a distinct lack of special-ness right now as the task of looking after a 16.5-weeker starts to be routine and sometimes rather dull. But nothing can compare to the smiles and talking I get when she is in a good mood, something I would never get from one of the dolls.
I don't want to be cruel. As the women in the programme said several times, they aren't hurting anyone. They aren't hurting anyone else, I agree, but aren't they hurting themselves? The dolls are very far from being adequate substitutes for a real baby, they are dolls and could be satisfying as dolls, but as babies they are never going to be anything more than a very pale imitation of the real thing. Thus the least emotionally unsettling part was perhaps the woman with the white prams who wanted perfect babies who didn't cry. She wasn't very emotional about the dolls, they were genuinely possessions to be showed off, not babies to love. She is better off with a doll than a real baby who clearly would disturb the way she lives her life.
For some of the women profiled, these fake babies seemed to be relatively harmless. If they want to spend money on Roberto Cavalli or white prams, then it's their money. For others it seemed to be a displacement for feelings they no longer had an outlet for. Is this the healthiest way for them to deal with their losses? For another group it was a way of stopping themselves from being invisible, the woman who is not a parent, who doesn't attract attention of any kind - not young enough to get a wolf whistle, not a mother who gets attention reflected from her children. It felt sad. It felt wrong - the dolls are just that bit too close to looking like one of those death masks they used to make from guillotined heads. But for a few minutes, a few hours, perhaps longer, it made - makes - these women feel more fulfilled, feel more love(d). Who am I to question that?