In my clinic I have a doll named Kim. The doll serves to distract and enchant visiting children, who are often scared when they come to see me, the doctor. My wife Claudia made Kim from a cheap vinyl doll we bought at a 99 cent shop. She wiped the doll’s painted face away with acetone and painted his skin tone in layers, baking the vinyl in the oven to consolidate each watercolour coat. She made him fine eyelashes and put russet-coloured baby angora hair — one hair at a time with a darning needle — into the flexible head. She filled Kim’s head with a padded giant steel ball bearing so that his head flops onto your shoulder when you lift him against you. She made a soft cloth body that feels good to pat through his newborn’s nappy. Kim was Claudia’s first doll. She gave him to me.
Claudia has since made more than a dozen dolls, each more expressive and exquisite than the last. They’re all brown-skinned boys of various shades. (After all, there are more than enough peaches and cream girl dolls in the world already). Some of her dolls have been sold to families in far-flung places, some have been given away. Several of them sit in a gallery along the wall of our living room as I write this. With their shiny, deep glass eyes and receding chins, they are both charming and spooky. They are dressed in the hippest baby clothes you’ll ever see. Baby hats and hoodies protect their silky hair from the deposits of the resident gecko.
There are no babies in our household, although there are some in our extended family. This morning I dreamed I was putting a small baby, sucking on my finger, to sleep. In the dream he was not my baby so I was especially grateful to feel his little body relax as he succumbed to sleep. Woken by my alarm, I was suffused by tenderness. I didn’t want to leave my dream where the little one had just closed his eyes, letting go of the novelty of the world and trusting that good things happen in the land of sleep.
Pleasure in babies and young things is natural in humans in all stages of life. In many of the Indigenous cultures, including the local ones here, child-raising was the norm for grandparents before the British came. Young people were good at having children, but not necessarily good at raising them. Often their tremendous energy was needed for hunting and gathering. The little ones, once weaned, might stay around camp with the older people and other children. A long breastfeeding partnership meant that going to gather food or to a social gathering, leaving the child behind with their cohort of other kids, must have been a pleasure for mum. Grandparents helped with that. In most Aboriginal cultures a child had (still has in many places) several women designated as mums, several dads and consequently an extensive network of grandparents, aunties and uncles. The complex kinship laws of traditional Australian cultures ensured that a person always had someone to care for them, wherever they went.
But many of the grandmothers raising their children’s kids nowadays have difficulty seeing their hard work in the context of the old ways. Having raised their own kids themselves, they find themselves as primary care-givers for their grandchildren in an unbroken lifetime of child-rearing. Sometimes this is not because their children (the young parents) are fulfilling other tribal or family responsibilities but because they are abdicating responsibility altogether, their mental health destroyed by confusion and emptiness. Dispossession and alienation have left a hole in the spirit of these ones, a grief their parents tried hard to repair. I know a woman who raised 4 children of her own and then began looking after the children of her drug-addicted eldest daughter. She is now caring for great grand children on a daily basis. In an aged care facility Claudia and I visited, we met Aboriginal people in their eighties who witnessed the British atomic testing on their land. They remained physically and mentally healthy; only to see their children succumb to alcoholism and diabetes. That the sadness and disorientation still continues is heart-breaking to the older survivors. Each child was greeted with such joy, hope and delight.
The child’s spirit is said to visit the parents before conception and during the pregnancy. Many Aboriginal cultures believe that the new child’s spirit comes to this world, looking to choose its parents, from a body of water. Some of the people around here have said that a child spirit can be carried along in a willy-willy — the spiralling dust storms that travel across the desert plains, rocking road trains as they collide with them.
Sometimes the child spirit might whisper in the mother’s ear to tempt her with a particular food or even prompt her to journey to a particular place. A child’s spirit might even bring a conflict to a head so that her parents might be more grown up when she is born. Sometimes a child spirit only comes for a short time, to teach and to learn. Parents who are not ready might experience a miscarriage or terminate a pregnancy, learning important lessons that last forever. The legacy of a child spirit who only comes for a short time is deeply imprinted on those that love them.
An experienced spirit, one who has been born many times, will avoid the physical experience of birth, coming into the baby’s body just after birth when things look comfortable. If you’ve been at a birth you may have seen and felt it — that look in a newborn’s eyes that has the wheeling stars of the universe in it as he rests on his mother’s chest.
The waterhole, lake, spring or sea your spirit came from influences your life. A senior Aboriginal woman, who lived through first contact with non-Aboriginal Australians as a young adult, formed her intimate relationships and primary partnership with women all her life. “I came out that side of the waterhole,” she said, describing a particular local spot. Her sexual and emotional orientation was explained (by herself and her people) as a natural consequence of the place her spirit arose.
As I write to you, a small-headed doll with abundant China-black hair, one of Claudia’s newborn creations, stares at the ceiling on a cushion beside me. Remembering the baby in my dream, I picked up the doll. He has a drop of spit at the corner of his lips and the tiniest white strip at the end of his baby fingernail. The dolls Claudia makes have mana in them, the Polynesian word for honour, power and spirit, including in inanimate objects. “Made with love,” is another way of expressing it. Better keep them away from waterholes and willy-willys, I think.