WHEN Laura Whalen started making dolls for her children ten years ago, it was a satisfying crafting hobby and a way of giving her kids quality toys.
But quite quickly, she started seeing the therapeutic value both in the dolls themselves, and in the act of making them.
Now, Laura has made healing dolls for both children and adults who have experienced trauma.
“I have made dolls for women who lost babies, women who needed something to hold when they were going to court to face an abuser standing trial,” Laura says.
“I made dolls for one woman who was so severely abused as a child that she developed multiple personality disorder, and shattered into hundreds of young children in her mind in childhood; part of her healing journey was to make a doll for some of those ‘littles’, as she called them.”
Originally from Scotland, but based in Cork for the past 16 years, Laura lives in Courtmacsherry with her partner and their five children, who range in age from 14 to two. She took up doll making when her first son was a toddler, in part because she couldn’t find dolls that weren’t “girly,” and because of her environmental and ethical concerns about the plastic toys available on the market.
She stumbled upon ‘Waldorf dolls’, a kind of toy associated with Steiner-Waldorf education. Made entirely from natural materials, the dolls encourage creative play by having very few features and no facial expression.
“The simplicity allows the child to project any emotion onto the doll,” Laura explains.
“If you look at a lot of plastic dolls, they have an insane smile on their faces, which can even be quite scary-looking.
“When children are engaged in imaginative play, it’s not always happy, smiley scenarios, because play is how children explore the things that are of concern to them.
“Sometimes, the baby doll cries or is frightened and having a neutral expression allows that emotion to be projected onto it by the child. It’s quite useful as a parent, because you can pick up on stuff that might be happening for your child by watching them play and what they’re working through.
“The neutrality also allows for gender switching. The doll can be a boy or a girl, or an older child or a baby. I think that’s really important.
“They’re made of completely natural materials: natural cottons and the wool stuffing, which is really lovely to use because it holds warmth, so if a child holds it and cuddles it, it will stay warm for a while. It also absorbs smell, and for small children, familiar smell is a really important thing.”
Having taught a few doll making workshops, Laura discovered that when women sat in a group to make dolls, the subject of lost pregnancies and babies would regularly come up. Two years ago, she was in the process of making a doll for a woman pregnant with a so-called ‘rainbow baby’, a baby conceived following the loss of a previous baby, when, sadly, the woman lost the second pregnancy.
“I felt like I still wanted to make the doll for that baby,” Laura says.
“I made her a small, hand-sized version of the doll she’d asked me to make while she was still pregnant. Then I decided that I wanted to hold workshops for women to make their own doll for the babies that they’d lost.
“I think it’s a real acknowledgement that that baby is still important and worthy of love, and worthy of exactly the same feelings we give to the children that survive.”
A creative pursuit like crafting a doll gives participants a “direct line to their emotions,” Laura believes, and allows them to explore their grief in a gentle and accepting setting.
“One woman who had had a stillborn baby and lost another baby at three months really hadn’t connected with her grief,” Laura says of an experience at a previous workshop.
“I was watching her. There’s a certain part of the process where you’re forming the head of the doll, and she looked down at her hands and saw her daughter’s face: she burst into tears and she told me it was the first time she’d really connected with how much she missed her daughter. It was beautiful to watch. Now she sleeps with the doll under her pillow.”
Laura’s faith in the healing power of dolls is such that she’s recently launched ‘The Bábóg Project’, where she’s seeking participants to make dolls to symbolise and commemorate the babies that died in Irish Mother and Baby homes like those at Bessboro in Cork and Tuam in Co Galway.
But first, she’s working with three other West Cork women, all practitioners in complimentary therapies, to hold what they hope will be the first of many retreats that they’re calling ‘Stories from the Womb’. Meditation and Qi Gong teacher Pam Skinner and Craniosacral therapist Sara Devoy will offer movement and hands-on based work to compliment Laura’s doll workshop, while sound healer Clare Barton will offer gong baths during the retreat.
The team hope that this is the first of many Stories from the womb workshops: Laura says that if all women’s unspoken womb traumas, from pregnancy losses to sexual abuse to difficult births, were factored in, that more women are impacted than people imagine, and that a space to break the taboo of silence, even if participants don’t feel like openly sharing their stories, is a good start on the road to healing.
Stories from the Womb takes place on September the 15 at Ennismore Retreat Centre, Cork from 10am to 5pm.