When I was growing up, teenagers were given a bag of flour to raise as their baby. It looks odd written down. But these were the days of Tamagotchis and dolls that pissed fake urine advertised on Sunday morning telly, and sex education was largely banana-focused. The flour project was an attempt to teach kids the amount of care it takes to look after a baby, thereby potentially reducing rates of teen pregnancies. Today, American schools provide uncanny dolls instead which cry until held, and wake their pubescent parents up in the night, but back then flour would do. Sometimes it was a bag of sugar. Sometimes it was an egg. Typically the egg baby would crack within a day, sometimes an hour. The flour babies would spring a leak by lunchtime, trailing powder through the gym. The sugar would caramelise in the rain.
Even then I could see the project was flawed. Even then, when I was a closer thing to a baby myself than the bag of flour could ever hope to be, it was clear there was something lacking in the experiment, the idea that this could be a simulation of parenthood. Was it love? Was it vomit? Was it the great unknowable crisis where identities slip overnight into the sea and suddenly you will die for a literal baby? This week I was gripped by a TV show – semi-reality, semi-comedy, verging by the end on semi-horror – called The Rehearsal. The premise is this: comedian Nathan Fielder hires actors and builds elaborate sets in order to anticipate and prepare for real people’s complicated interactions. What if we had infinite chances to get it right? What if we could control our own futures?
One of the real people is Angela, a woman who is trying to work out whether she wants to have kids. To simulate the experience of raising a child, Nathan moves her into a house in the countryside and hires dozens of child actors to take it in turns to play her son, Adam, who ages across the hours and weeks. A robot baby cries through the night. Nathan moves in, too, as co-parent, while also playing and replaying his own interactions using actors in the roles; he digs so deep into the premise that beneath it we see whole civilisations. “Every now and then, there are these glimmers,” Fielder says over footage of him playing with one of the Adams. “These moments where you forget and you just feel like a family. That’s when you know the rehearsal is working.”
It’s upsetting and strange with moments of absurdity, and at least two jokes about bums; it’s the parenting experience in six episodes. When a teenage Adam overdoses, Nathan rewinds him to six years old, to try to raise him right. This scene wasn’t the first time I felt like crying watching the show, nor the last. It offered a glimpse of two awful despairs: the first, the fact that, off-camera, nobody has the chance to play it again, and the second, the dread-filled reality of parenting.
We all try to plan for the future – we research the prams, we baby-proof the corners, we practise with eggs, and still, still, parenthood outfoxes us, in increasingly shocking and disgusting ways. I speak as a person whose parent friends are dealing with, in no particular order, their children’s sleep regression, depression, loneliness and university anxiety. In The Rehearsal’s finale, one child actor, Remy, doesn’t want to go home – he’s come to believe Nathan is his father. So Nathan starts to replay the scenes with actors, to work out what he did wrong. By the end, Nathan is playing Remy’s mum, comforting an actor playing Remy, and deconstructing the whole comic-hellish illusion piece by piece. “Maybe we shouldn’t have done that show, huh,” Nathan says, to him, as her. “It’s a weird thing for a little kid to be a part of.” It’s the first time he appears to be feeling something, connecting, breaking through, and he concludes (a mother suddenly, and a father, and an actor, and the director in control of it all), “Life’s better with surprises.” Despite watching the finale through my fingers, its combination of exploitation, therapy and detached reality destined to give me nightmares, I found myself horribly moved.
Today I baked a cake. It’s something I find myself doing now, a quiet attempt to win at parenting (cooking will not make me a good mother), along with laundry (cleanliness will not make me a good mother) and reading articles about, for example, the effect of the pandemic on child development (keeping eight parenting pieces open on my laptop will not make me a good mother, especially as I feel their eyes judging me). Pouring the sugar and the flour from their paper bags, I mourned the lack of a better system of simulating the parenting experience. A place where people really could work through the question of whether or not to have children, and then practise the day-to-day intimacy, monotony, agony, fear, before deciding to leap into a life that’s both bigger and smaller, and no longer their own. And then, no lie, I dropped the eggs.