My Baby's Baby

The Parent Rap

Baby doing a puzzle at the library

When my daughter Zelda turned one, I bought her a baby doll. I did this mostly because, after a solid 12 months of watching her fall to sleep each night in a barren, empty crib — sleep guidelines dictate that, for the safety of infants, they sleep with nothing: no blankets, no bumpers, no stuffed animals — I was looking forward to giving her a nighttime friend. I had watched her wake up to the reality that, down the hall was a party that every single night — me, her dad, the dog — that she was never, ever invited to. She seemed, I felt, a little lonely. Whether she was or not was sort of beside the point: this was about me and my guilt.

I spent a fair amount of time shopping for the right baby doll, and I settled on a small doll with plastic arms, legs, and head, made by a company called Corolle. The baby was and is, intoxicatingly, vanilla scented.

Zelda did not immediately warm to the baby, but within a few months of me putting it in bed with her every night, she began to reach around for her. She began to drag her, by the leg, around with her wherever she went. Her name was Baby.

When Zelda turned two, Baby was joined by a new baby, another vanilla-scented Corolle, this one slightly larger. They became Old Baby and Big Baby. By then, Zelda began to request “items” for her charges. She called herself their “babysitter.” I found that buying real items for newborns — diapers, pacifiers, even clothes — was often cheaper than buying things made for dolls. Now, when we took a trip to a drug store, we shopped for the Babies.

Baby in a high chair, wearing a bike helmet.

And like so many things with Zelda, she became a dedicated, by-the-rules caretaker. She mimicked me in things I hadn’t realized I was doing. She corrected her baby, she cuddled and kissed her, she changed her any time there was a sign of dirt on her onesie. She began to request spoons and special bowls for Baby. Old Baby was often relegated to her tiny crib as Big Baby, soon known simply as Baby again, took precedence.

I researched and found that taking care of dolls was a good way to develop empathy in all children (not just girls, come on). And my own eyes bore that out: she seemed to be daily learning how to actively care for someone else’s needs, even if sometimes, the baby got left nude in the dust for a cookie or a TV show. More often, though, she didn’t. Her dedication to Baby was impressive. Exhausting. Overwhelming. Once, a few months ago, we sat in a restaurant, a group of six, on an early Friday night. I overheard a group of women at another table use the word “shit” repeatedly, knowing that Zelda was going to pick up on it any minute. “Shit!” she suddenly said, her eyes opening wide. “Shit.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Shit, I left my baby at home!” she was right: Baby got left at home.

I indulged Zelda’s indulgence of Baby. I bought baby diapers and sippy cups, her own high chair, a stroller. Baby got her own car seat, which was strapped into the back seat, and into which Baby is now strapped into before each trip, adding minutes onto the processes of life each day. Zelda changes Baby’s diaper 5 to 10 times a day depending on her schedule. Each morning I watch her on the baby monitor, which has that weird sort of night vision which makes human eyes glow, as she changes the doll’s diaper in the dark, folding the used one up into a neat, tight little package.

I see that her best impulses, to care for things, to nurture, to love, to discipline, and to document, by borrowing my phone and taking photos, are all wrapped up in her “raising” of her baby. “Get the camera!” she yelled the other day, “Baby is trying to walk.” In my photo app, I name my family members so that the facial recognition piece of the software can get to work and do its job: Laura, Josh, Zelda, Baby. I have almost 20,000 photos of Zelda after three years. According to Google Photos, I also have 4,562 photos of Baby. Sometimes, she’s just there, in the shot, hanging out in the background. Maybe she’s sitting at the table in her high chair having dinner with us. But a lot of the time, she’s the subject of the photo. Because like me, Zelda can’t stop photographing her daughter.

Sometimes, I post these photos that she takes to Instagram. She’s getting better at photography. My friends make fun of Baby’s “dead eyes,” but the truth is, when I look at her now, I am overwhelmed with love. When Zelda leaves to go to school for the day, I sometimes find myself talking to Baby, or propping her up in her chair. I start to feel like one of those crazy YouTubers who is always posting videos of themselves with their baby dolls, despite the fact that they’re adults. It’s not just me, either: baby gets gifts in the mail sometimes. Zelda’s aunt knitted her a little scarf of her own.

Zelda will probably never have any siblings, and so far, she hasn’t asked for any. Recently Baby’s name morphed into Emma, and what she’s asked for, instead, are children of her own. Emma was joined by another doll who she named Liam. “I’m a good babysitter,” she says proudly. And she is. Just like her mother.

The Parent Rap is an endearing column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.