'Practice Babies': 1 Orphan Raised by 8 Mothers

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

BySusan Donaldson James
January 05, 2011, 4:04 PM

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."

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