SOCIETY

It’s not a doll. It’s a baby.

You don’t ‘buy' a reborn. You adopt one. For some women, ‘it fills a void.'

ALEXANDRA SHIMO April 7 2008
SOCIETY

It’s not a doll. It’s a baby.

You don’t ‘buy' a reborn. You adopt one. For some women, ‘it fills a void.'

ALEXANDRA SHIMO April 7 2008

It’s not a doll. It’s a baby.

SOCIETY

You don’t ‘buy' a reborn. You adopt one. For some women, ‘it fills a void.'

ALEXANDRA SHIMO

Three-month-old Victoria has grey-blue eyes and auburn hair, just like her mother. She weighs five pounds and zero ounces, and is 18.5 inches long, the same as when she was first adopted. This morning, 26-year-old Mary Shallcross is dressing her.

“Do you want to get changed?” Mary asks in a quiet, soothing voice as she pulls out a pair of baby-pink dungarees with fuchsiapink flowers. The question is rhetorical. Victoria will be dressed regardless of what she wants, and in any event her wishes would be extremely difficult to determine, since the lifelike creature lying in a wicker basket and being dressed is not a baby at all, but a special type of doll.

To understand why Shallcross, a Winnipegger and a history buff, is addressing a vinyl doll as if it were her child requires entering the growing world of reborning. Reborn dolls look, feel and smell just like real babies. They

look so realistic, in fact, that they are often mistaken for the real thing. Every aspect of their anatomy has been carefully constructed to imitate the experience of looking at and holding a baby. The dolls are painted with the same slightly blotchy colouring noticeable on a very young infant. Their bodies are stuffed with sand or silicone so that their legs, fingers, head and hands have the same floppy weight as that of a small newborn baby. They even have the same neck-support issues, so that anyone picking one up will instinctively support the head.

“My daughter, who is a neonatal nurse, finds them eerie, scary because they are too lifelike,” says Martha Englishman, who is retired and has five reborns, partly because she has always collected dolls, but also to compensate for not having any grandchildren. “It sounds crazy, but I love them. They are the next best thing to having a baby.”

These dolls are not meant for children, but for adult collectors, says Englishman. The collectors are almost always women. And since people respond to them like real children, they aren’t “bought” or “sold.” A reborn is “adopted” from a nursery, although money still exchanges hands.

“It would feel bad saying you are selling babies, so we say they are adopted,” says Michele Barrow-Belisle, a London, Ont., dollmaker who specializes in reborns and issues fake adoption certificates with each of her creations. Barrow-Belisle started two “nurseries” for her creations, “Baby Steps,” and “When a Child is Born,” named after a Christmas carol about the birth of Jesus.

It takes up to 60 hours to make a reborn: the bulk of time is spent threading the hair and painting the creases, discolourations and imperfections that make the skin look realistic. Pale-skinned dolls require 15 to 30 layers, says Kim Becker, who made Shallcross’s doll. Darker-skinned dolls can take longer since they require more coats of paint. Because of the time and skill involved, the dolls cost between $250 and $500; deluxe models can go for up to $10,000 on eBay. With all the work that goes into making the dolls, some doll-makers find they become emotionally attached to their creations. When Becker drove to Shallcross’s house to hand over Victoria, wrapped in a baby blanket, for adoption, she cried.

To recreate a child’s hair-growth pattern, Becker threads each hair onto the doll’s head individually. Some people send in their own hair for the doll-maker to use, or the hair of a child. Others will send in photos of themselves as a baby so the doll will look like them, or even photos of children who have died.

The popularity of the dolls has exploded in the past year, says Pat Secrist, owner of Secrist Dolls, which sells videos on the craft of creating reborns, books, paints, limbs, faces, needles, eyeballs, and the other hundreds of tools and supplies doll-makers can use to make these baby replicas. The company also has a new line of eyeballs, fake tears and nose drill bits, used to create the doll’s nostrils, as well as dozens of other products. In the past year, industry sales at Secrist are up by 50 per cent. Other companies report similar growth. JC Toys began selling kits in December 2007 and hopes to double its product line this year. “This is a trend that is growing not just in Canada and the United States, but in Europe, Africa, and Latin Ajmerica,” Secrist says.

As the dolls grow more popular, doll-makers keep adding new details to simulate the experience of holding a real baby. There are reborns that seem to breathe, ones that have a faint heartbeat, others that feel warm to the touch, since they come with heating packs. There are dolls modelled after premature babies that are sold with incubators, a breathing apparatus taped to their nostrils. Some makers add a milky, baby-powder scent.

Doll-maker Becker washes her reborns repeatedly in baby shampoo so they no longer smell of vinyl but like a freshly bathed infant.

“There is a competition to see just how realistic these things can be,” Barrow-Belisle explains. “When I started out making these dolls everyone wanted to make them look real. Now they are trying to make them feel and act real.”

For some, the realism is too much. Philip Englishman, whose wife Martha has the five reborns, finds the whole thing a little odd. “They look like dead babies,” he explains from his Walkerton, Ont., home. Barrow-Belisle is familiar with that reaction. Some people, she says, find them creepy and disgusting and “are absolutely mortified by them.” They don’t want to touch them, or even be in the same room with a reborn. But others are drawn to them. Women often approach Barrow-Belisle and relate stories about losing a child, or wanting a baby and not being able to conceive, she says. One middle-aged London, Ont., woman would regularly attend the arts and crafts trade shows where BarrowBelisle would display her creations, not to buy the dolls but merely to hold them and cry. “The fact that they are babies means they touch something inside of most women,” she explains. This slip-of-the-tongue is commonmany of the women interviewed for this story called the dolls babies in conversation.

Homemaker Tracie Norris, 40, lives in Maugansville, Md., with her eight-year-old son Richard and her husband. She found out about reborns on the Internet, where there are websites, chat rooms, photos and poems devoted to the baby substitutes. Norris bought her reborn, Liam, in January 2008 from Kay Dunne, a doll-maker who lives in Crossfield, Alta. Norris says she fell in love with Liam as soon as she saw him; he looks exactly like Richard did when he was a baby. With Liam, Norris gets to engage in some of the mothering rituals she has come to miss as Richard has grown. Holding the reborn is relaxing, she says, and makes her feel needed, even though she knows that Liam, being a doll, does not actually need anybody. “I know it’s just pretend but you have the same feelings because he looks so

lifelike,” she explains. “It’s like having a real baby, but it doesn’t have the same hassle. You don’t have to get up in the middle of the night, you don’t have to fix their bottles, you don’t have to change their diapers.”

These are experiences Shallcross can relate to. The Winnipegger has always wanted to have children, ever since she can remember. Then, when she was 17, she found out that the heart problems that prevent her from working—she has several heart and valve conditions, including only one functioning ventricle—meant she cannot conceive. The news was a blow at the time; the fact she’ll

never have her own children is even more painful through her twenties. Many of her friends have settled down and begun to start their own families, and they often talk about their children’s routines, setbacks and progress, she says, making it hard not to feel left out. Victoria, whom Shallcross sometimes calls “her little girl,” has helped ease some of these feelings of longing. The reborn doll was her mother’s idea, but it still “fills a bit of the void inside of me,” she explains quietly. She’s sitting in a cab holding Victoria, whom the driver has mistaken for a newborn, heading back from her best friend’s house. “Society expects you to have done certain things to be considered a successful adult. I’m 26 and I still live with my parents, and I don’t have children, so it’s hard not

to feel that society is judging you.”

Since Victoria looks so much like a real baby, sometimes Shallcross will ask her little sister, Aaliyah, 8, to “babysit.” Other times, Shallcross will bundle Victoria up in a babypink terry towel blanket and take her to see friends. When people see her holding the doll, the response is usually the same: someone will ask about “the baby.” For a split second, Shallcross gets to be the mother she has always wanted to be. Then the moment ends and life returns to normal as Shallcross explains that no, it’s not really a baby, it’s only a doll. M