I Fathered a Robot to Remind Me How to Be a Dad

Having a newborn is terrifying even if you have two kids already. Just ask this dad of three who went to extremes to brush up on his baby skills.

Courtesy B.J. Hollars.

On the six-week anniversary of the birth of our third child, Amelia, I turned to my wife and said, "Honey, I think I want another baby."

Wearily, she glanced up from her latest marathon breastfeeding session to say: "You're out of your mind."

I wasn't, though within 48 hours, I nearly would be.

The baby I wanted wasn't flesh and blood, but plastic and battery-powered, a Realityworks RealCare Baby infant simulator—the Cadillac of infant simulators. This was no doll, but a highly sophisticated, curriculum-based, multi-sensored feeding, burping, rocking, and diapering machine; so real that they ought to come with birth certificates.

Why did I bring this bundle of simulated joy into our already overtaxed household? Was caring for a 7-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 6-week-old, and a diabetic dog somehow not enough? While, yes, our plate was already full, I knew that in the five-year gap between our second child and our third, I'd forgotten a thing or two about early parenting. And what better than a robot to remind me?

Plus, there was a competitive angle: Robot Amelia (as we named her) housed an internal computer that kept score of my every action, docking points for failing to properly respond to a "fussy event," or a "mishandling event," or a "diaper event," or any event she might throw at me. And throw she did.

"Does she ever stop crying?" my son hollered shortly after Robot Amelia debuted in our home.

"Sure," I hollered back, "once her battery runs out."

But since I wasn't willing to wait a hundred hours, I tried various attempts at burping and changing and feeding, at last stumbling upon the perfect combination which activated Robot Amelia's "happy coo."

"See?" I smiled as the rest of my family watched on. "That wasn't so bad."

My wife sighed. My children sighed. The dog took cover behind the couch. And so began the 48-hour stretch which became known as Daddy's Great Humbling. It began around midnight, at which point I dressed Real Amelia in Robot Amelia's clothes, got my diapers confused, and then began singing lullabies to a robot that couldn't hear me.

"You'll be okay, everything will be okay," I whispered to Robot Amelia. Though in retrospect, I might've been trying to convince myself.

Courtesy B.J. Hollars.

It was the longest night in human history. But it wasn't all Robot Amelia's fault. The difficulty came from the compounding of Amelias. One always seemed to spur the other. My girls screamed together, ate together, filled their diapers together, and enjoyed their all-night slumber party. Their coordination was uncanny.

"How are they even doing it?" my wife asked.

"Bluetooth?" I suggested.

The minutes ticked by like hours, and the hours like years.

"Who's crying now?" my wife moaned at one point.

"Me!" I said. "I think me!"

Though I'd recruited a robot to remind me of what I'd forgotten about early parenthood, I might've just asked my wife. What I'd forgotten was the nightshift. Since Real Amelia could only be lulled to sleep by breastfeeding, I was no good to her. This meant that for an eight-hour stretch every night, my wife was the sole provider of our baby's every need. Meanwhile, just one room over, I slept far better than our baby, leaping from my bed at dawn's first light wondering why my wife didn't want to get a jump on the day.

I wasn't that clueless, of course. But until Robot Amelia demanded that I attend back-to-back all-nighters, it was easy for me to forget the mental and physical effects that the nightshift parent endures. These aren't the words of a husband trying to score points with his wife. These are the words of a husband who owes her an apology, as well as a turn at a 2:00 a.m. bottle feeding. That I could hardly manage a couple of nights on my own with a baby robot speaks to my ineptitude. After all, the stakes could not have been lower. While my wife busily kept our baby alive, I worked through a few "diaper events" in the hopes of achieving a high score.

At one point on the second night, I looked into Robot Amelia's unblinking eyes and wondered, What am I doing? I had real babies to care for and people who needed help with their care.

I returned Robot Amelia to Realityworks the following day and didn't shed a tear. Mostly because it's hard to love something that takes you away from the real people you love.

Shortly after my arrival home, my wife looked up from her breastfeeding and said, "Well, how'd you score?"

"I did okay," I told her.

"Just okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said, reaching for Amelia and holding her close. "But this time I'll do better."

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