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No Shame in Adult Comfort Dolls

Who said transitional objects are only for children?

Source: Fotos593/Shutterstock

I don’t recall the exact ages of my three children when they abandoned their comfort objects—Goosey, Blusa, and White Bear—but I do remember feeling it was important that they eventually do so. I always assumed that such “transitional objects,” as Winnicott referred to them, were appropriate for the age when children are struggling with boundaries between self and other, but that healthy maturation meant giving them up.

The very word “transition” implies an intermediate stage between two others, a way station on the road to maturity. At first, infants rely entirely on their mothers for comfort; they later make use of transitional objects to evoke the mother’s soothing function in her absence; and finally, they learn to self-soothe and renounce their transitional objects. That’s healthy and normal, right?

Apparently not. A study conducted by the hotel chain Travelodge produced some surprising statistics about the widespread use of adult comfort objects in the United Kingdom. Some 75,000 teddy bears had been left behind in 452 English hotels, and when employees of Travelodge tried to reunite the bears with their owners, they found that a great many were not owned by children. The hotel chain then surveyed 6,000 Britons about the role of teddy bears in their lives. Here’s what the study found.

  • 25 percent of male respondents reported they take their teddy bear with them when going away on business. Many said the bear reminds them of home and a cuddle helps them to nod off.
  • 51 percent of British adults said they still have a teddy bear from their childhood and the average teddy in Britain was 27 years old, the survey said.
  • One-in-ten single men surveyed in England admitted they hide their teddy bear when their girlfriend stayed over, while 14 percent of married men reported they hide their teddy bear when any family and friends came to visit.
  • 15 percent of men versus 10 percent of women reported they treat their teddy as their best friend and will share their intimate secrets with their bear.
  • 26 percent of male respondents stated it was quite acceptable to have a bear regardless of your age.

Yet another contradiction between the psychoanalytic theories I learned in graduate school and the way healthy human beings actually behave. Once they mature and learn to self-soothe, not all people give up their comfort objects. Some of them continue making use of their teddy bears to help them get to sleep when they’re away from home, for example, or at the end of a stressful day.

Despite those 26 percent of men who said it was acceptable to have a bear at any age, many of them nonetheless felt ashamed about having one: They stashed their own in the closet when girlfriends, family, and other visitors came to call. I guess I’m not the only one who absorbed the message that transitional objects belong exclusively to childhood.

But there’s no reason why those men (or anyone else) should feel ashamed. In this anxiety-ridden age, suffused with anger and uncertainty, all of us need to take our comfort wherever we can find it.

Now an American company, our gus, is bringing adult comfort dolls out of the closet, making them available to those of us whose ability to self-soothe could use a little support from a reliable friend—even if it’s inanimate. I reached out to Connie Shulman, one of the founders of this company, and asked her about the journey that brought gus to life.

What was the original inspiration for gus?

Watching our teenage daughters and early 20s sons navigate their lives as young adults in a world where the number of followers and Instagram likes determines self-worth led us three mothers to create our gus doll. The undue pressures and stresses of being a human being in 2018 are angst-inducing. The monkey chatter in our heads is at an all-time high. The pace at which we all are running just to keep up gets faster all the time. The need to calm our thoughts when life feels too big ... this is why gus came to be. A small comfort doll that you can stick in your backpack, pocket, purse, pillow, or briefcase to remind you it will all be okay, even when it doesn't feel that way. This little doll carries everything you hope for yourself. It will have your back and, as the name makes clear, offers guaranteed unconditional support. We stopped getting dolls and stuffed animals at an early age, but we never stopped needing them. My husband still has his Piglet; my son, his Bert and Ernie; my daughter, her Eloise; and me, my Raggedy Ann. The gus doll has an old soul. It is whatever you need it to be.

Do you think we live in an age that is more anxiety-provoking than times past? In what ways?

The speed of our lives keeps us in constant upgrade. We are out of date before we begin. Our need for relevance replaces being in the moment. We are so busy documenting how we live, we are not present. I think we weaken ourselves every day in the attempt to stay ahead; the result is that we do not feel valuable. And therefore, anxiety, depression, and, too often, suicide follow.

Is gus gender-neutral and why?

Gus is small, soft, gentle, and always there for you. Dolls have been with us always. From soap dolls to wooden dolls to paper dolls to rag-dolls to plastic dolls. They represent the times we live in. I think our gus doll is the doll for this time. In our transitioning lives of what is politically correct ... The multiple identity boxes we can check on forms ... We want this doll to be the box everyone can check. Color inclusive, gender-inclusive. Everyone needs support. (You know when you mix all the Play-Doh colors together and get that neutral color? That is what we wanted.) Not different shades or tones, but one for all. We have become a very separated society, and so quick to offend and be offended by our fellow Earth residents; gus is for all of us. No color, no gender, no political alliance or agenda, just support.

How exactly does gus help those who struggle with anxiety?

Anxiety will come and go based on life triggers, but gus will always be there, tagging along for the ride—a comfort. When you hold one or lay one on your chest, something really calming takes place. Maybe a throwback to when we were younger and a blanket made us feel protected, or a favorite stuffed animal made us feel less alone or scared. Life is bumpy, and everyone, no matter what age, can use a little support.

Do you think that adults with comfort dolls secretly feel ashamed about having one? What would you tell them to relieve their shame?

Shame and anxiety seem to be close relatives. Which one provokes the other? One positive of living in the contemporary age is the dialogue that more and more people are participating in about their struggles and coping skills. I am hopeful that as the conversation continues, the notion of shame somehow becomes a positive and not a hindrance to happiness. It was never shameful having a teddy bear as a child. Why, when we need support the most as grownups, is that kind of thing an object of shame? Needing support is a universal feeling, and if that is shameful, then we are all on the same playing field! Carry your gus proudly, and if you feel shame, own it! But if you aren't there yet, that is why we made the doll so small. It can support you proudly out of sight.

When Connie Shulman and I met in person during my recent trip to New York City, she presented me with my very own gus, who flew back with me to California and then accompanied me on the two-day drive to Colorado, where I spend my summers. My gus now rests on my pillow, and I always know I can find him there. I'm not ashamed!

And if you think you'd like to have your very own gus, there's no shame in that, either.

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