'Practice Babies': 1 Orphan Raised by 8 Mothers

Book examines what happens when a baby is coddled by many but bonds with none.

Jan. 7, 2010— -- 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.

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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."

"For 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.

"If 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."

The 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 properly.

"He 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. Spock."

No one ever knew how these children fared.

"The 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 nothing."

Cornell Graduates Upset By 'Henry House' Book

The 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 State.

The 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 heights."

But when the practice apartments were uncovered, it "blew the minds of a lot of people," Keating said.

And in 2010, when Grunwald's book came out, renewed interest emerged.

"A 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 babies."

Grunwald said she didn't mean to disparage Cornell or any of the other colleges.

"These 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 different one."

Grunwald, 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."

Henry 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.

The 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 way."

As for the rearing of Denny Domecon, his practice mother Redmond admits, "I don't have 20-20 wisdom on that."

"We never knew what happened to him," she said. "It was an anonymous situation and sometimes I wonder about him. But that's the way it was."

Years later, when Redmond was working in administration at Cornell, a man contacted the home economics program.

"His 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."

And she was unable to help him.