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While there has been no specific research on the phenomenon of women owning lifelike doll babies, I am glad to weigh in on the psychological underpinnings.
People often have a negative reaction when they hear about these lifelike babies, sometimes called “reborn” babies or “memory” babies.
It’s typical to think something is weird or creepy when it’s unknown, far from the norm, or common only to a different culture.
But there are cases when it is quite understandable for someone struggling with feelings of loss — possibly an empty-nester, a childless woman, or someone who has lost a baby — to fill the void with a realistic doll baby.
It’s natural for people to find ways of preserving memories of those they love — from making photo albums, to visiting gravesites to keeping an urn of ashes on the mantel. Everyone tries to vanquish death and the ravages of time.
But, can an inanimate doll — one so realistic as to look alive — really replace a living being? In many ways, such a notion feels like a page from the Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a disturbing thought to have something un-alive take the place of a real human — which is why such a conceit is often the basis for fantasy or horror tales.
The reality, however, is that people often face sorrowful issues in their lives. In many cases, they use denial to cope with the loss and the resulting anxiety.
This happens to empty-nesters, who may feel they no longer have children to take care of and struggle with what identity they now have left. It also may happen to childless women, whether they have chosen to remain child-free or are childless through happenstance. They may be OK with this until they hit menopause, when they realize there is no going back, and they will never have a natural child. At which point the finality of the door being shut to possible children may bring a flood of sadness.
And some are unfortunate enough to have lost a child — one of the most devastating things that can happen in any life.
What does the mind do when faced with a loss and a void so enormous?
Denial is one of the most prominent defense mechanisms. It’s not that these doll-owners think the doll is a real baby, but it affords them moments when they are comforted and can pretend they have a real baby, to themselves and to the world.
This is different from insisting the doll baby is real. It provides moments of relief and reprieve, when they can escape the stark reality of their loss, and instead have those familiar feelings of coddling a baby, cooing over it, and all those other nice moments that temporarily undo the harsh reality.
I would be concerned, however, if someone who lost a baby grew too attached to their doll baby. This could indicate their grief is not actually getting resolved. Having this kind of doll risks being almost too literal and concrete for them.
In some ways, purchasing such a doll is similar to replacing a beloved deceased pet with a new pet, or even fostering a child. I have heard stories of women who need to be needed, and who prefer monkeys as pets. Monkeys have great intelligence and many human qualities. They can be held and carried like a baby, and even dressed in real clothes. Like a baby, they are totally dependent. Unlike a baby, they stay that way. These are also ways of trying to cope with loss and undo the feelings of abandonment that come with it. These methods come with real responsibility and commitment.
For those who don’t want to have a commitment, a doll baby is “better” than a real baby. A doll baby comes with zero responsibility. It is an interesting transitional object — similar to the blankie a child drags around, or the stuffed animal she keeps in her backpack. It signifies a connectedness to home and to mother. In this case, the transition is between the real or imagined child they lost and the fact that life no longer contains that baby for them. For some women, such a transitional object eases them into ways of finding more external methods of dealing with their needs of caretaking and loving a being who loves them back. It is the concretized fantasy of getting unconditional love.
Unlike with a real baby, a lifelike doll comes with no real-world mess — no diapers, no smells, no feeding, no crying. These babies, unlike real ones, do not grow up into toddlers. And as soon as the toddler toddles away, there’s a whole different psychic dynamic. You now have a creature growing, changing, moving toward independence. It will, clearly, need you less and less. Entwined with a doll baby is the knowledge it will never grow up, never leave you, never disappoint you, never say ‘I hate you!” It will never be a complex being unto itself. In that way, you, the "mother," will never experience loss.
There’s something else about babies. For many women, whether or not they want children, a baby personifies their genital prowess. It symbolizes their femininity and female power.
If you walk around with a baby — or a doll that looks like a baby — everyone stops to admire it. The word “cute” was made for babies! So having one produces positive attention, which is often enjoyable, like when you are dressed up and people admire you. Exhibition is a part of all of us, so it is natural to want attention. For a woman who is struggling to feel good about herself, the baby can provide reassurances in the form of others admiring your “progeny.”
This kind of lifelike doll is not for everyone, of course. But, if someone feels bereft, it could be another tool that is oddly helpful. There are many ways a person may find to cope with loss, sadness and anxiety, and these reborn dolls offer one solution.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .