Babies: 1 Orphan Raised by 8 Mothers
Dark History: What Happens When a Baby Is Coddled by Many but Bonds With
SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES, ABC News
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.
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."
real identity was anonymous and, like so many other Domecon babies, his
surname meant "domestic economy."
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.
was a science," said one of Denny's mothers, Margaret Redmond, who
is now 80 and living in Englewood, Fla. "That was the whole
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.
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.
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?"
book was a New York Times Editor's Choice and continues to spark heated
commentary online about motherhood, parenting and the dark history of
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
Domecon (for domestic economy) was the second practice baby to arrive at
Cornell in 1920. He was a malnutrition case but developed normally
during his two-year stay.
went on to have eight children and her roommate in the practice
apartment had 11.
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.
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."
Authorities Shut Down Practice Babies Program
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
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.
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."
development experts now know that "permanence is what
matters," he said. "Looking at the bright side, thank God we
learned a lesson.
early as possible, we need to get these kids into permanent, loving
homes. It sounds so cliched, but this episode puts this reality into
launched its practice baby program in 1919 when child development
theories were so rigid they advised shaking the child's hand before
students gathered around the "practice apartment" living room
with Edna Mae Domecon at Christmastime, 1924.
by the 1960s, enlightened pediatricians such as Dr. Benjamin Spock
urged mothers to "trust yourself" in a more hands-on
approach with their children.
baby programs were eventually phased out as new research underscored the
need for a primary bond with a single caregiver.
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
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."
six weeks, we were responsible 24 hours a day for the child," she
said. "There was a lot of emphasis on development testing and
playing with the child -- not just babysitting. The jobs were divvied up
to learn practical skills.
you had not learned cooking when you were growing up, you had to cook.
If you hadn't done much babysitting, you had to the mother or assistant
mother or do the cleaning."
program was highly supervised by the home economics faculty, Redmond
said. Denny seemed well-adjusted and things seemed to run smoothly in
the practice apartment, save for an occasional cake that didn't rise
cried and we fed him and made sure he was comfortable," she said.
"Maybe he just needed to cry, so we would allow him to cry a
little. We didn't pick him up so quickly and cuddle him. It was very Dr.
one ever knew how these children fared.
whole program never used real names because they were orphans,"
said Eileen Keating, archivist of the Cornell exhibit. "They didn't
want us ever to find out. They were adopted and there are no records. We
have baby books that the students did, but other than that, we have
Graduates Upset By 'Henry House' Book
Cornell exhibit was the product of a 2001 centennial project on the home
economics program, which was tuition-free to young women from New York
program was an early testing-ground for consumer research, a
"gateway for early education for a different group of women who
were so well educated," Keating said. "They were doing the
science: How does yeast work when you make rolls, not just how to make
rolls ... and the ergonomics of kitchen design and counter top
when the practice apartments were uncovered, it "blew the minds of
a lot of people," Keating said.
in 2010, when Grunwald's book came out, renewed interest emerged.
few graduates of the college were very upset," Keating said of the
book. "They had fond memories of working with the babies and
knowing that there were long waiting lists for women to adopt these
said she didn't mean to disparage Cornell or any of the other colleges.
were bizarre programs done with the best of intentions," she said.
"I heard from a program in another part of the country and the baby
would actually be put down to nap by one mother and be woken up by a
who is 51 and the mother of two, 18 and 14, whom she raised in the
supermom culture of New York City, wondered, "What happens if a
child is given too much attention? The notion of eight to 20 women
circling around an infant made my skin crawl."
House struggles with issues of intimacy and attachment and fails to
trust anyone after being raised by multiple mothers, "handed around
like a tray of hors d'oeuvres," Grunwald wrote.
author received an e-mail from one graduate who said she was so upset by
the program that she quit, saying, "You can't treat children this
apartment" babies such as this one at Cornell were held to strict,
scientifically engineered diets by their student "mothers."
for the rearing of Denny Domecon, his practice mother Redmond admits,
"I don't have 20-20 wisdom on that."
never knew what happened to him," she said. "It was an
anonymous situation and sometimes I wonder about him. But that's the way
later, when Redmond was working in administration at Cornell, a man
contacted the home economics program.
aunt, on her deathbed, had informed him that he was one of those Domecon
babies," she said. "He wrote to get some information about a
way to find his parents. All those years, he never knew."
she was unable to help him.
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