Your "Baby Alive" Doll loves to be with you!... Come close, and watch me wiggle and coo! I say "mama", too! I want to cuddle with you!
Baby Born. She babbles. She baby talks. She gives kisses! Baby Born loves to give kisses to her mommy!
Little Mommy "Moments & Milestones" is so sweet! Just like you!
So what do you see? Just sugary advertising for baby dolls? Look closer.
First, remember that this advertising isn't aimed at the little girls, who generally can't read yet; the dolls are being sold to the girls' parents. And what the advertising actually says is very, very interesting.
When baby-doll advertising doesn't stick to just describing the doll's features, it usually reflects the ideas that the general public seems to have about what raising a baby should ideally be like; and practically all of that is focused straight on what the baby will do for you. Yep, that's right--it's not focused nearly so much on your caring for the baby; it's focused on how the baby will (emotionally) care for you.
The perfect baby doll, apparently, smiles, cuddles, and kisses her parents. She loves her parents, fulfilling the parents' emotional needs. She makes her milestones, saying "mama" and "dada" and making you feel happy.
Here's what this advertising is saying:
A baby will make you feel happy, because the baby will love you.
I have never once seen, on the packaging of a baby doll, the word "responsibility" (or any of its analogues). I've never seen the idea that the parent-child relationship may not be perfect. Even in dolls that are supposed to get sick, there's a little medicine dropper included to make the doll magically all better, so you can go back to being loved. (This is why you give medicine to the doll, you see. The doll will love you if you do so.)
I'm not going to go writing angry letters to the baby-doll companies, of course. This isn't some sort of insidious plot to get parents to have these odd expectations of their babies; it's just a reflection of a general tendency: Parents put expectations on their children. Long before a baby is born, a parent has plan for the baby's future, a mental image of what the baby will be like, and expectations that their baby will bond with them in a certain way, act a certain way, and be, essentially, an extension of themselves. There is a baby-shaped hole in their ideas of the future; and if the baby isn't shaped exactly like the baby-shaped hole he's supposed to fit into, they get frustrated.
It's bad enough if Baby turns out to be interested in soccer instead of cooking, or prefers to study philosophy rather than go into Daddy's plumbing business. Families have been torn apart over things like that. And that's just neurotypical children.
What if, instead of babbling and cooing, Baby stares in fascination at the play of light on the dust motes in the air? What if, instead of kissing Mommy, Baby pulls back from the overwhelming touch and cries inconsolably? What if, instead of saying, "I love you, Mommy," Baby recites the full script of her favorite Sesame Street episodes?
If you're autistic, you know what it feels like when you are expecting one thing, and get another. You had a mental plan of the future; you thought it was stable; you thought you knew what to expect, and you were following along the plan. But suddenly, something changed. Something got canceled; something got moved; somebody stayed home sick; somebody forgot to tell you what was coming up. You feel like the floor's dropped out from under you, because now your plan is invalid, and people are trying to force you along the new, unpredictable path. You have no idea where it leads, you don't like it, and you're being asked to go along with it now, right away, without time to form a new plan of the new future. It's a horrible feeling, isn't it?
Well, we're not the only ones who have that feeling. Neurotypical parents do, too, when suddenly their babies don't fit into the baby-shaped hole in their plans of the future.
They're taught to believe that a child will complete them; that a child will be what they think it will be. Sure, maybe there'll be some annoyances; they'll lose sleep, have to attend PTA meetings, and be petrified when their teenage daughters start dating. But, all in all, parenthood will follow the script. "We just want," they say, "a healthy baby." But they want a lot more, and they don't even know it.
Most parents don't have the benefits of being autistic and having to practice dealing with unexpected situations every day. Some deal with it better than others; they realize that things are different, but can still be good. Some go into denial, trying to pretend that their baby fits the baby-shaped hole in their imaginations just fine. Some try to squish and squeeze their babies, and force them to fit. Some do all of the above, eventually arriving at acceptance.
The one factor that seems to be common to parents who accept that their child is not the child in their imaginations is the acceptance that their child is a separate individual. Certainly most parents would say, "Well, of course my child is a different person from me!"; but not all parents, deep down, understand it. The idea that their child makes his own decisions, has his own opinions, and feels things independently doesn't seem to sink in much of the time. It's as though the child were still connected to some sort of emotional umbilical cord, receiving all of his substance from his mother.
A baby is not simply a thing that loves you. A baby is a person. What a child does is not just a reflection of who you are. What he thinks isn't just an extension of yourself. I've seen it so many times, especially when the child is disabled: "Why is he doing this? What should I do so that he'll do this other thing?"--as though the child had no independent agency; as if his behavior were just the result of whatever treatments you stuffed into him!
It might be okay to sell a plastic doll by saying the doll will be what you want it to be; because, of course, a doll is what you want it to be. But flesh-and-blood babies are not dolls; they are people, with an independent existence and an independent mental universe from their parents. Maybe if we realized that, we'd stop trying to treat children, disabled or not, as though their futures could fit perfectly into our own ideas of what we think should happen.