Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributor to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.
A minute or two after we’d arranged ourselves in our pew, a teen-aged girl and her mother slipped into the pew behind us. The daughter had a baby carrier hooked over her arm. Naturally enough, because of the cold, a blanket was draped over the carrier, completely shielding the baby from the elements.
My own baby was standing on my knee, facing them. As I sensed the girl about to push down the blanket, I whispered to Joseph, “Look at the pretty baby.” And then I turned, looked, and couldn’t help but start as I caught a glimpse out of the corner of the eye – the baby looked frozen, with weird shiny skin. Motionless. Lifeless.
Well, that’s because it was. It was a doll.
Now, why was a teenage girl bringing a baby doll with all the trappings to Mass? For class, I immediately guessed, and a few minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed as, undoubtedly on a timer, the baby clicked, and, in a tinny, taped voice, began to cry. The girl poked around in her bag, took out a bottle, put it between the doll’s lips, and the crying stopped. She tried to take it out after a minute or so, but the doll just started crying again. I could hear its mechanical sucking for about ten minutes. Never heard it burp, though.
We’ve come a long way. Back when these kind of real-life experiments in parenthood first became popular, teachers assigned kids to care for eggs or flour sacks as if they were dependent babies. Now some smart entrepreneur has cashed in and improved upon the original, (probably encouraged by school staff tired of cleaning up egg yolk and smashed flour sacks), manufacturing baby dolls that do almost everything a real baby does, thereby exposing teens to the responsibilities and, it’s theorized, discouraging them from getting into that situation themselves before they’re ready.
I’ve never seen any research on these programs, so I don’t know if they really “work” or not, but to tell the truth, I doubt they do. Why? Because I think kids are plenty smart enough to know that babies are a lot of work and round-the-clock responsibility without having to haul around an egg, a flour sack, or a doll for a weekend to show them. The reasons for early, unintended pregnancies have much less to do with that kind of awareness than they do with a specific, wrenching failure of will at a very crucial time.
But there’s another reason I don’t like these “see-how-much-of-a-pain-a-baby-is” experiments.
I think they communicate the very wrong message that babies are a pain, that they’re burdensome objects – toys that require a lot of special attention.
That’s not what babies are. That’s not what the baby on my knee, grinning back at the fake baby, is.
Babies are people who don’t ask to be born, and whose helplessness is only a “burden” if their personhood is forgotten.
So sure, teens shouldn’t be having babies, but not because they don’t have enough money or time to spend on expensive, time-consuming objects. Teens shouldn’t be having babies because they’re not yet prepared to give babies the love they deserve. They’ve got too many other things on their plates, emotionally and practically speaking, and that’s the way it should be.
A few more years of maturity and wisdom, a sense of the vital importance of a family with two parents in a baby’s life, and an understanding of the joy of sacrificing for the sake of another human being usually fixes that.
And only life can teach you those lessons. Lifeless, unsmiling dolls just can’t. Even in a weekend.