There are pivotal moments in your life that you’ll remember forever: your first day of school, first kiss, graduation, first job, wedding day, the birth of your children. These experiences have the potential to dictate your entire future. Well, I’d like to add one more to the list: owning a virtual baby. This is an experience that has changed my perspective on children, and one that I feel very lucky to have been given. I mean, how many people get to look after a child and just give it back at the end? (Grandparents, you’ve got a great gig.)

A few months ago, the producers of the Mums At The Table TV show thought it would be a fantastic idea to surprise me live on set with a virtual baby, just for the LOLs. They told me I’d have to take care of it for four days and that his name was Lee. That was it. No instructions, no help. Nothing. I honestly don’t remember anything from the shoot that day except my uncontrollable, hysterical laughter and the phrase “oh my goodness, oh my goodness” deafening all thoughts.

It was a shock that sent me on a journey through the five stages of grief: Denial (It will be fine), anger (How could work do this to me when they know I have exams coming up?), bargaining (Maybe if I bury it in a pillow, inside a box, inside the boot of my car, they won’t find out), depression (Life isn’t fair, maybe the sound of my crying will drown out its cries #2amrants) and acceptance (Just deal with it, Melon).

Some of you may remember those two torturous weeks when your child brought home a virtual baby for their Year 12 CAFS assignment (that you ended up looking after). For those of you confused, let me explain. A virtual baby is a heavy, plastic doll programmed to act like a normal baby. It cries, screams, shrieks, wakes up in the middle of the night (multiple times), needs its nappy changed, needs to be burped, drinks about 100 bottles of milk (give or take 95) per day, requires constant soothing and sometimes cries for minutes on end for absolutely no reason at all. But all of this occurs without the comfort of baby-smooth skin, interaction, moveable limbs, childlike wide-eyed wonder or even so much as blinking. It really is a treat.

The whole point of a virtual baby is experience. Virtual babies are basically a “try before you buy” scheme designed to give teenagers and young people a go at hands-on parenting in an effort to reduce teenage pregnancy rates (and yet the producers decided to give me one despite the fact that I am not a teen and will not be getting pregnant any time soon. Thanks guys.). Ironically though, medical journal The Lancet published a study that found virtual babies actually increased the likelihood of teenage pregnancy, rather than deter it.

Baby Lee

So did owning a virtual baby inspire me to have children? No. Definitely not. Though, I suppose the answer is not so simple. You see, over the four days I had the opportunity of looking after my baby, I learned many lessons. Here are just a few:

I’m not as good at multi-tasking as I thought

I’ve always been the highly-strung, go-getter type who loves to make lists and be hyper-organised. Listening to stories from mums throughout my life always confused me:

What do you mean you can’t get out of your pyjamas when you have a baby?

How could you let your house get so messy?

Don’t you have time to make a home-cooked meal every night of the week?

How could you forget your child’s mufti-day clothes?

Why don’t you just timetable in exercise time in the morning so you can get your pre-baby body back?

Granted, there are probably some incredible mums out there who are able to do all of these things, but looking after Lee made me realise I probably won’t be one of them.

Having a baby is so much more exhausting than I ever thought possible and really disrupted my organised flow. I didn’t even have time to make my miracle to-do list that I thought would save me, let alone actually follow it. This was hugely disappointing to me and made me feel like a failure from the very start.

To all the mums out there who feel like they’re failing from the get-go, just because there’s little evidence of your parenting efforts at the end of the day does not mean you’re not working hard!

Babies are just as mentally exhausting as they are physically

I always knew having a baby would take it out of you physically. It makes sense, given the long, disrupted nights, sore back and arms from carrying the baby, stretches and stitches in the most uncomfortable places, and lugging baby stuff everywhere you go. What I wasn’t expecting was the mental exhaustion.

Having a baby is like putting dinner in the oven without setting a timer. Instead of passively waiting for the “ding” to tell you your meal is ready while you do other tasks, you have to be constantly on guard. Hovering. Ready for action. Anticipating everything ahead of time to prevent disaster.

Despite not actually giving birth to Lee or experiencing the hormonal changes of pregnancy, while I was a mum, I honestly felt like I had baby brain (it’s a real thing, people). I kept forgetting my keys, my phone or even to put on the handbrake of my car!

I even naïvely thought I’d be able to get all my assignments done while I had Lee. Just put him down next to you and get that essay done, I thought. I was wrong. The mental energy constantly being exerted in making sure he was OK meant I couldn’t concentrate on much else for very long. And that was really frustrating.

Having a baby is isolating

The mental and physical drain of having a baby is enough to make anyone want to stay home, let alone the practical difficulty of taking a baby to, well, anywhere.

Now, perhaps I had a different experience to most mums—my baby was plastic, drew a lot of attention and was arguably harder to control than real babies (I mean, sometimes nothing would stifle his piercingly loud, artificial cries) [Editor’s note: sounds just like a real baby, actually]—but I felt the need to excuse myself from multiple social events just to save face and avoid drama, and this was quite an isolating experience.

Over the entire four-day period, I spent two-and-a-half of them completely alone. Being an introvert, this was quite relaxing, but had it been longer than four days, I would have gone a little stir crazy. This made me realise that mums—especially single ones, or whose husbands work long hours, or whose family live overseas—must feel very isolated.

A supportive community of mums

So, do I still want kids after being a mum for four days? Well, despite my tendency to avoid physical touch, my non-maternal nature and my intentional avoidance of children in general, yes, I still want kids.

Seeing mothers with their beautiful babies during my time having Lee was enough to convince me that having a plastic baby is really nothing like having the real thing. If you make a mistake, drop it on its head, stick it in a boiling bathtub, forget to feed it or cut open its chest and rip its speaker out, there are no consequences except paying $400 for a new one. But on the flip side, if you take it for a walk, teach it colours or play peek-a-boo with it, there is absolutely no reaction, let alone a benefit (although it may spontaneously burst into tears. In fact, it’s basically guaranteed).

Real babies laugh, cry, have personalities and learn new things. They are sponges and you are the one who has the privilege of filling that sponge with good things. The Bible says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

The Bible promises that wonderful and rewarding things can stem from the initial struggle of child rearing. Children are a gift from God and have the potential to bring so much joy to your life. The reality is, I’m still young and enjoying my independence, and children aren’t too tempting right now. But once I’m older, married, have a house and all my friends start combining their genetic makeup to create the miracle that is children, I’m pretty sure I’ll want to join that bandwagon too.

As for now, thanks for the experience, producers, but no thanks. I think I might wait a few (hundred) years.                          

Bonus! Maryellen’s video diaries of being a virtual mum.

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