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Practice Babies? Parenthood, For Practice, Ten Mothers At A Time: The Story Behind 'The Irresistible Henry House'

Posted: 03/22/10 08:30 AM ET

Long before parenthood was a noun, let alone a TV show, it was still, and always, the subject of debate and the source of drama. Rules versus instincts; permissiveness versus prohibitions: it's never mattered the decade; there have always been passionate conflicts, opposing advice, and bizarre approaches. One of them seemed so bizarre that I felt compelled to write a novel about it. (The novel's just out, and it's called "The Irresistible Henry House.")

Starting in the early 20th century, home economics programs around the country used real babies to teach mothering skills to college students. The students were called "practice mothers," and the babies were called "practice babies." They were usually provided by local orphanages and loaned to the home-ec programs for a year or more.

At Cornell, for example, starting in 1919, Practice, 126 was a required course for a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics. Half a dozen or more students worked rotating shifts of five weeks each, weighing and measuring, feeding and changing, taking the baby out for walks, and losing sleep when he cried at night. Supplied by state child welfare groups and leased by contract, babies arrived at the campus as infants, and were eventually returned to their orphanages for adoption. Like any other proud parents, the practice mothers filled scrapbooks with photographs of the baby's milestones. But the pages might be labeled in a half-dozen different handwriting styles. No one mother could hold the pen, or the baby, most of the time.

I found pages from some of those scrapbooks online a few years ago while I was doing research for a book of women's letters. I had surfed my way to a Cornell Website called "What Was Home Economics?", and I discovered this face:


Practice baby

Wouldn't you have clicked on the link? I did, and when I did, I learned that the baby was called Bobby Domecon (pronounced "Dough-me-con," a mash-up of "Domestic" and "Economics"). Bobby was only the second infant to come to the Cornell practice house. Like others who would follow him, he lived in a strange, artificial world: a nondescript apartment in which there were no favorite books on the bookshelves and no favorite clothes in the closet, and a baby in the nursery who could not have a favorite grown-up.

There seem to have been no objections. The early part of the century was a time when virtually anything could be was ratified by research. If transportation, communication, and health could all be improved by science, why couldn't motherhood? According to one 1952 estimate, there were 41 practice-baby programs around the country, including those at Eastern Illinois State Teacher's College, Oregon State University, Iowa State University, East Tennessee State University, and Montana State College. Often given up because of societal or economic pressures, orphans frequently came to the practice house ill, and invariably left healthy. It took quite a while before anyone wondered what damage, perhaps less physical than psychological, might be inflicted by this system of being passed around like a cheese plate.

In 1954, officials of the Child Welfare services department at the Illinois Department of Public Welfare became concerned. At Eastern Illinois State College, a woman named Ruth Schmalhausen insisted that the program she ran, which at her college involved a dozen women taking 10-day stints as mother, was good for both the students and their tiny, diapered teacher. But the superintendent of the Child Welfare Department would have none of that. According to a story in Time Magazine:

Superintendent Harenski . . .thinks otherwise. 'It is not a normal setting,' said he. 'There are just too many persons involved in the handling of that child.' Other officials seemed to agree. 'Imagine,' cried Mrs. Babette Penner, director of the Women's Services Division of United Charities, "what anxieties there are in a child who is given a bottle in twelve or more pairs of arms.

And so I did. I tried to imagine a boy who grew up in such circumstances. What would it mean to be loved by so many women, and to be kept by none? Wouldn't a boy like that have to learn how to charm, and please, and adapt himself to whatever arms were available at any particular time? Would such a boy's heart be broken again and again, or would it break only once? And when the boy became a man, then what, or who, if anyone, could fix a heart like that?