My Fake Baby was the title of a documentary aired on Channel 4 this week, which explored the growing popularity of replica babies or “reborns.” These are dolls designed to look like living babies. They can wriggle. They can breathe. They can sleep, or they can smile. They have birthmarks. If you know what you want Jaime Eaton, the one-woman manufacturer, will pop the parts in the oven, thread the hair through the plastic skull, and get your “newborn” to you in just a few weeks. Have a photograph of the baby you want? You can get it.
Eaton, 30, is dedicated to what she does. Her house is full of miniature plastic body parts all waiting to be fused together, packaged up and sold on. There’s no doubting Eaton’s talent. Her creations are realistic. They look like babies, but dead lifeless babies. Her living room is like a mortuary, bursting with tiny arms and legs waiting to be forged by Frankenstein into something resembling a human. These are not toys for children. They are bought by women to compensate for the absence of an infant, be that through death, distance or infertility. Eaton herself confessed to having “cried” when she “let some of them go.” This appeared to be more than a business enterprise, however lucrative. This is filling an emotional void and need. She later told us that as she had had four caesareans, the last resulting in her uterus rupturing, she is unable to carry any more children. She spends her days manually creating the babies that she can no longer produce physically. Eaton seemed like a very happy young woman, but is there not something sad about this? Why is her sense of self-worth so entwined with being able to give birth to children?
We met Christine, one of Eaton’s customers. She was an older woman looking to compensate for the loss of her grandson, Harry, with a doll made in his image. Christine had looked after Harry as an infant when her daughter was suffering with cancer. She recovered and, along with her partner and Harry, moved to New Zealand to begin a new life. Christine was obviously a doting grandmother, who has been deeply affected by the absence of Harry. She spoke about him as if he had passed away, and it came as a surprise that this was not the case. She was a lovely woman, but was clearly suffering some form of depression. She wanted a “reborn” because she craved the attention women receive when walking down the street with a baby in a pram. I know this because this is what she said she missed. On seeing the doll she exclaimed “nobody will take him away from me this time.” How will she feel when after weeks and weeks, years and years of looking after this doll, she gets nothing back? No hugs, no kisses, no words? It’s a lump of plastic. It has no emotions, no feelings, but does this matter?
Her husband supported her, but seemed to reach breaking point when she presented him with this plastic-fantastic counterfeit Harry, (who is now a young child), and said it made him “think of something on a mortuary slab.” He was right. Maybe this doll will help to ease Christine’s pain for a short period, but is this constructive, or just elongating the time she will pine for Harry? Was this just exploitation of an old woman who didn’t know what to do? How to feel needed and wanted? Eaton sells these dolls on eBay and through her Baby Buntins Nursery website for a cost of at least £350 per doll. They are not cheap. There was something sickening about this situation. Eaton was providing a service, but under circumstances where the “customer” has been so deeply affected that it seemed, whether intentionally or nor, she was doing nothing more than capitalising on Christine’s misery. Christine placed the Harry doll in a car seat, held him tenderly as you would a real baby. She had been encouraged to think this doll would fill the Harry-shaped crevice in her life, but was she not just heading for further heartache? I don’t know why Christine couldn’t put the money towards an airfare to visit her living grandson, but it became apparent that the Harry she wanted was the Harry that had been dependent on her. The Harry that had been “her baby.” Does this demonstrate the strong link that society draws between being a successful woman and rasing the young? Why are we only allowed to feel complete when we have a child? Is this need to “mother” in fact an instinct or rather an idea that has permeated the national consciousness to such an extent that we feel this is the way we should be? That this is what defines us as women?
Eaton was featured in Closer magazine this week along with Sue, a 45- year-old woman whose like for the dolls extends beyond a hobby to an addiction, and was also documented on the Channel 4 programme. Sue has spent over £25,000 on 10 “reborns,” which she keeps in their very own nursery. She buys them designer clothes (we saw her spend £300 on designer baby-wear in Harrods for the “new arrival”), and recently travelled to Washington to pick up the latest addition, a little “baby” girl named Sophie. Sophie had been made by a specialist designer at a cost of £1,500. Unfortunately, Sophie’s head had been damaged in transit, and so Sue had to go home empty handed. It had been “ruined.” Sue wants children, but she wants them to be “perfect.” She does not want them to cry. She does not want them to vomit. She does not want them to “inconvenience” her in any way. This is why she does not have any real children. Sue had claimed to “love” Sophie, but her whole demeanour changed once she noticed her “little girl” was damaged. Poor Sophie was back in the bubble wrap faster than you can change a nappy, and I did wonder what was motivating Sue: “I can’t have her as my baby if she’s not perfect.” Real babies are cute. They react. They cuddle. “Reborns” do not, and so Sue “likes to imagine how they would react if they did.” So, Sue has control. She says what they look like. What expressions they will have. Surely the spontaneity, the mystery, is part of what makes having children fun? Wondering what they will look like? How they will smile? What their first word will be?
Watching Sue scrub the wheels of the baby pram (these babies have everything – pram, car seat, cot – she even feeds them from a designer bottle filled with fabric conditioner) I did wonder if perhaps she was suffering with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which would explain her need for “perfection.” It became apparent that Sue would probably struggle if she did have her own baby and the dirty nappies and milky sick that comes along with him or her. But again, was this a case of an industry profiting from the social pressures placed on women to have children? Of course, everyone is entitled to spend their money on what they see fit, but Sue displayed a grotesque over-indulgence, and I wondered if she felt this need to nurture why she didn’t volunteer with children’s charities, or invest the money in a cause where she could see the positive outcome, and the smiling faces of children who have nothing? What she wanted was to be seen as the archetypal female carer because this would influence the way she is perceived by the outside world, and not because she did actually want to be needed. Was Sue actually devaluing motherhood by nursing her pseudo-babies and claiming that “it is like being a parent”?
Like Christine, I think Sue is ill, but she did not elicit the same emotional response. Christine was clearly hankering for something she felt she had lost, and something she could not reclaim or recreate. Harry was maturing over 8,000 miles away. Her daughter was grown. Christine was not able to have any more children of her own. She wanted to recapture the way she felt as a mother, that need, and feel that unconditional adoration that infants show for their mothers. In many ways, watching Christine was uncomfortable because she was not being given the help that she desperately needed. Sue was different. She was proud of what she was doing, and advocating the need for “perfection,” while at the same time inadvertently criticising those people who are happy with their real-but-not-perfect children for not displaying the same dedication. She was sad because she believed what she was saying. She’s been in one glossy this week, so she’ll probably do the ‘rounds’ now – raise enough money to purchase her next “perfect” bundle of joy.
It’s difficult to offer a conclusion on this subject. On the one hand both Christine and Sue are not acting in a way that damages others – and if it makes them happy, then what is the problem? I don’t have children, but I don’t think that if I had lost a baby I would want to replace him or her with a doll. I’m sure some other women who have experienced this tragedy have done so, and it has eased the grieving process. In this instance then, it cannot but be a good thing. But this is probably quite rare. Christine was being exploited. She was just so desperate for this doll to soothe her pain that she was unable to see what was happening. Sue had never had children, and from what I could gather from the show and her Closer interview, she has never had any interaction with babies. I wonder then if her behaviour, and the “reborns” themselves, devalue the difficulties and hard work that goes into motherhood? If women can be satisfied by something moulded out of plastic with a breathing mechanism included, then what is the point of nine-months gestation? Motherhood is not something that can be bought, and it’s not right that it should be marketed as such.