I’ll never forget a day or so after giving birth to my daughter when the nurse came into our hospital room and said she had to take her to the nursery for some vaccinations. She advised it could be too hard for me to watch, but that another nurse would be present and they’d administer the shots simultaneously.
The thought of my daughter being frightened as two strangers hovered over her and inflicted pain was too overwhelming for me, so I gathered myself together and hobbled down the hall to find out where she was so I could be there to comfort her. After all, only hours into her life, my husband and I were all that she knew consistently.
With that in mind, my heart broke as I read about the Cornell University home economics program that lasted from around 1919 to the late 1960s, in which orphaned children were placed in the care of “practice mothers,” who were 22-year-old students, in order to get experience rearing a real newborn.
One baby had eight “mothers” at a time who were replaced by a different set of “mothers” every six weeks. They’d tend to the care and feeding of the baby, with the emphasis on the science of raising a child, one of the “mothers,” now 80-years-old, told ABC News. The women with less experience in babysitting would be the ones to quiet them when they fussed, and those with little cooking experience were in charge of meals.
Hundreds of babies, usually from unwed mothers, were loaned to Cornell and other colleges around the country so the most current child-rearing theories could be practiced. The identities of the babies remained anonymous, and after they turned a year or two old, they were adopted out to actual families.
And while I’m sure it did wonders in teaching young women how to go on and eventually mother their own offspring correctly (as if there were a right and wrong way), and I’m sure the babies had all their physical needs met, what ever happened to those poor babies who were unable to form any kind of lasting attachments and bonds in their critical first few years of life?
In one way, I can understand that the babies might have been better cared for than at the orphanages from which they came. But by being in the program, weren’t they less available to be adopted into a single family where they could have thrived from and developed trust in a much smaller number of caregivers?
The executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York says that child development experts now know that “permanence is what matters,” and that a lesson was learned from the college programs. However, I don’t believe that wasn’t understood as recently as 45 years ago. Tell me that a new mother doesn’t know that her baby thrives on the repeated sound of her voice, the smell of her skin and the feel of her touch. And while the children in question were orphaned, there likely would have been fewer caretakers in a state home than in a college classroom.
Apparently it’s thanks to Dr. Spock that such programs eventually faded into the sunset, as he urged mothers to go with their instincts and try a more hands-on approach, as opposed to the older child development theory, which apparently advised parents to shake their child’s hand before bedtime.
Because the babies’ real names were never used and no records were kept, how they turned out remains unknown. The program was written about in a fiction novel last year based on an online exhibit on Cornell University’s website.
My daughter, now 2-years-old, is as secure and carefree as they come, but she gets a tad shy, or even a little overwhelmed when surrounded by large groups, even if she knows everyone in the room. My heart bleeds at the thought of how the babies in these programs — who didn’t have the benefit of a single mother and father — fared as they were sent off into the world after a few years of being passed around between scores of pseudo-parents.
Do you think the babies in these programs would have been better off staying at an orphanage until they were adopted?
Image: Creative Commons