My memory-keeper apps brought up this story from a year ago, when we got to know Baby Ben the digital robot, and I had my first go at grandparenting. Tuck was in tenth grade, and he was taking a child development class. He was learning and talking about words like breastfeeding, umbilical cord, placenta, and contractions. I was teaching him the word mansplaining.
To finish the semester, he brought home a digital baby. He was assigned a robot newborn for the weekend, and it was the most effective experiment that's happened in our home - maybe ever.
Baby Ben came with a baby carrier, a bottle, two diapers, a diaper bag, and a blanket, all with digital pieces to track Ben's every need. And let me tell you, Ben had needs. He is a robot baby who cries, needs to be fed, rocked, changed, and burped. Tuck wore a bracelet that matched the chip inside Ben, in case all the baby needed was his parent nearby. Ben's little head wobbles on a little neck with no muscles, so you have to support his little noggin just like the real thing.
On our first afternoon, we had to stop the car and pull over on the way home from school because Ben was crying. As everyone knows, one can't start a major project by making a major mistake that deducts points, so we couldn't just let the baby cry it out in the car seat. He wanted out. But we couldn't keep driving if Ben wasn’t tucked safely in his five-point harness. I pulled over to the side of the road, waiting patiently with my hazards flashing, while Tucker rocked Baby Ben in his shockingly father-like man-hands. We were not in Kansas anymore.
When we brought Ben with us when we ran errands, Tuck said, "What will I do if he starts to cry while we're at the grocery store?"
I patted the burp cloth on his shoulder, and I said, "I guess you'll have a crying baby in the grocery store, then, pal."
He carried Ben throughout the store. One dad winked at him and said, "Hey, man. Good luck. Don't forget to burp it." When I laughed, the dad said, "She's only laughing because she knows, bro. She knows."
We had to wait a half-hour to leave for dinner that evening, delaying our sandwich plans because Ben was upset. Tuck said, "He just keeps crying, Mom. He won't tell me what he needs."
I said, "Really? And what's that like for you?"
(It was more than a little validating.)
When we finally got in the car, Tuck said, "Please drive safely, Dad. No slamming on the brakes."
Peter said, "Oh, so now you are in charge of the safe driving, now that your kid is in the car? I see."
By the end of the first evening, Tuck said, "I figured out a way to prop up his bottle for him."
I said, "I bet you did. You and just about every dad in the world. Too bad pediatricians don't approve. You can't pile a diaper bag and some magazines on top of a newborn just to balance his bottle. Pick him up, Pops."
Tuck began to learn Ben's preferences. When Ben got hungry, Ben cried louder and louder until he was fed. While he "ate," he made satisfied little suckling sounds. He preferred to be rocked after his meal, but even after he burped, he didn't like to be laid down right away. Tuck had to pace and walk with him until Ben made his cooing sound. We all learned that happy little sound. When Ben cooed, there was freedom throughout the land.
I came downstairs on Saturday morning to see Tuck sitting with the baby, looking dazed and exhausted. "Rough night, pal?"
"He woke up at 1:30, 3:00, and 5:00," he said, patting Ben's back and bouncing him on his shoulder.
Peter and I raised our steaming coffee mugs to this very best invention ever.
When Tuck wanted to take a shower, he asked if I'd hold the baby for a while. "Good news, buddy. You can take the baby carrier into the bathroom with you."
"But what if he starts to cry?"
"Well, then I guess you'll have to take a fast shower."
"Did you do that with me?"
"Yep. Just be glad Ben can't climb the counters yet."
Tyler started down the path he fully intends to maintain as an uncle, starting with a nickname for the baby. He named him Zimbabwe.
I listened upstairs while Tucker and Tyler figured it out, even while they played video games. I heard Tyler say, "Tuck, watch his head! What does he need? Is he wet? Is he fussing? Did he make his happy sounds yet?"
Whoever thought this up and made it work is an absolute genius.
Sometimes I took a turn with Baby Ben, rocking and feeding, showing my sons that I still know how it's done. From the kitchen, he called to me, "Mom, you should probably just rock him. Stop trying to burp him. That's what I usually do."
Yes, please tell me what you usually do, child of mine. I could use some good mothering advice.
My favorite moment was when he said, "Hey, can I just take him, please? For some reason I don't like how you're doing it."
It made me think of the times Robb and I typed out notes and schedules when we left our firstborn with grandparents for the first time. (And embarrassingly even a couple times after our first time.) And here was my nearly-grown son, telling me I was rocking his robot baby the wrong way. The irony piled up with its many layers, and I dove into that parfait with a spoon.
On Sunday morning, Ben cried through most of the worship service. Tuck had to sit out in the lobby, rocking his crying baby. From the stage, they made an announcement for the community of grandparents meeting for lunch. Peter and I thought about going. I guess that's us, now.
Sometimes the baby just… cried. Tuck said, "Mom, I just don't always know what he needs. I'm afraid I'm going to lose points for not getting it right."
I said, "Don't worry, buddy. Nobody gets a 100% in parenting."
When he got home from school on Monday, after finally returning Baby Ben to the child development lab, he said, "I'm so tired, Mom. I feel like I have to cry."
I said, "That sounds about right, pal. Let's get you taken care of." A good snack and a long nap, followed by a good dinner and a good night's sleep.
He received the printout of his digital results. In those two and a half days with us, Ben cried for three hours, and he had 89 needs. All the digital baubles and bots reported that Tuck addressed every need, even when he questioned if he was doing it right.
Turns out, tired parents get points for trying, tending, and staying awake. They don’t have to love every minute of it to pass the test.