Jan 8, 2011

'Practice Babies': 1 Orphan Raised by 8 Mothers

Photo: Practice Babies at Cornell UniversityĆ¢??s Home Economic program.
Adoption's Dark History: What Happens When a Baby Is Coddled by Many but Bonds With None
Denny Domecon had eight "mothers." And every six weeks, eight more would take their place; planning his nutritious diet, his naps and tending to his every need.
The 4-month-old was a "practice baby" in 1952 at Cornell University's home economics program in upstate Ithaca, N.Y., cared for by a group of "practice mothers" -- young 22-year-old students -- in a "practice apartment."  Denny's real identity was anonymous and, like so many other Domecon babies, his surname meant "domestic economy."
He was one of hundreds of babies, mostly children of unwed mothers, who were on loan from orphanages to colleges like Cornell, University of Minnesota and Eastern Illinois State University and many others. There, students could practice the latest child-rearing theories of the day on a real newborn.
"It was a science," said one of Denny's mothers, Margaret Redmond, who is now 80 and living in Englewood, Fla. "That was the whole emphasis."  After a year or two, the babies would leave their multiple mothers -- in some programs up to 12 young women -- to find homes in adoptive families.
The program came to light with the publication last year of Lisa Grunwald's novel, "The Irresistible Henry House," which chronicles the life of her charming but philandering protagonist, who was raised by seven mothers as a practice baby at the fictional Wilton College.

The author was inspired to write the story after stumbling across a section on practice apartments in an online exhibit on Cornell University's website, "What Was Home Economics?"  The book was a New York Times Editor's Choice and continues to spark heated commentary online about motherhood, parenting and the dark history of adoption.  "These children were coming through the welfare system," she said. "We didn't get them until the age of 3 months and sometimes as old as 8 months. They had the best of health-care inspection, an emphasis on nutrition and physical development and all kinds of individual attention."
Redmond went on to have eight children and her roommate in the practice apartment had 11. 
 "So this experience was very helpful ... one of the bonuses of our degrees," Redmond said. "There was the whole climate of caring. He was certainly much better off than he would have been under general circumstances."  The notion of having multiple mothers seems shocking now, especially in the modern world of adoption.  "It's strange on so many levels," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City. "On its face, the fact that we could, as a society, as educated people, think this was a good idea, is quite amazing."
Welfare Authorities Shut Down Practice Babies Program
"It's a bit bizarre that so few people today even know this occurred," he said. "There were all these people involved -- those who were 'experimental babies,' as well as all the professors, the students, their families and all the people who rented space to them. Where are all these people and why hasn't anyone spoken up about this before?"
Indeed, in a little-known case at Eastern Illinois State University in the 1950s, the state welfare department shut down a practice baby program to protect a boy named "David North" who had been raised by 12 different home economics majors.  "We sort of got it wrong at both ends of the spectrum," Pertman said. "At the orphanage, there were not enough hands, and in this program, there were too many. We didn't think it through or simply didn't understand the consequences of what was being done."
Child development experts now know that "permanence is what matters," he said. "Looking at the bright side, thank God we learned a lesson.  "As early as possible, we need to get these kids into permanent, loving homes. It sounds so cliched, but this episode puts this reality into sharp relief."
Cornell launched its practice baby program in 1919 when child development theories were so rigid they advised shaking the child's hand before bedtime.  But by the 1960s, enlightened pediatricians such as Dr. Benjamin Spock urged mothers to "trust yourself" in a more hands-on approach with their children.
Practice baby programs were eventually phased out as new research underscored the need for a primary bond with a single caregiver.
Cornell's practice apartments later became a day-care center for faculty children and the program was dropped from the curriculum in 1969 when women found their footing in the career world and home economics seemed old-fashioned.  But in 1952, the program was so highly regarded that Redmond, married and pregnant with her first of eight children at the time, was featured in a cover story in Life magazine, "The Making of a Home: Cornell Girls Study for Their Big Job."

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