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Grinding for Baby XP
February 24, 2011 5:29 PM   Subscribe

Last March, Lisa Grunwald published a novel, which explores the fascinating and popular University classes that used practice babies borrowed from orphanages in practice houses to teach young home economics majors the science of motherhood. Doris Mitchell recalls her experience as a practice mother.

The author answers questions
posted by Blasdelb (21 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

"Domecon, is short for 'domestic economics.' All of the babies at Cornell had the last name: Domecon." This is sci-fi level utilization of babies. A little mind-boggling.
posted by verbyournouns at 5:34 PM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

It seems strange now but I suppose there's worse ways for a baby to be cared for than doted on by a rotating group of motivated, energetic 20 year old ladies.
posted by amethysts at 5:51 PM on February 24, 2011 [11 favorites]

I was just reading about this- it's mentioned in "Model Mamas": The Domestic Partnership of Home Economics Pioneers Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer .
In 1925, at an event honoring Martha Van Rensselaer, cochair of the Department of Home Economics at Cornell University, an alumna of the department commented to the assembled crowd that "she it is, with the partner she came to love and who came to love her, who has imparted to every girl who has had the great privilege of spending four years with them, an ideal of womanhood in service to mankind." 1 The partner Van Rensselaer came to love, her cochair of the department, was Flora Rose. Together the two women created the department at Cornell and stewarded its transition into an independent college of the university (also in 1925), simultaneously serving as pioneers and leaders in the home economics movement. The love between the two, as all who knew them acknowledged, went far beyond the collegial. The two women lived together from around 1908 until Van Rensselaer's death in 1932 and were so inseparable that they were often referred to collectively as Miss Van Rose.
posted by zamboni at 5:54 PM on February 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

And if you're coming in here to make a clever remark about being surrounded by young women, two 1928 Cornell professors already have you beat.
With the lips and eyes of a valentine
and a smile from the Sunday comics;
he was the Practice Baby in a College of Home Economics.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Oh what a lucky baby I am!"
He often used to cry,
"To have a hundred Mammas
to make me hush-a-by!"
But in adulthood he felt disappointed and yearned for his earlier life,
And now he's grown to be a man,and grievously he misses
the care of his Model Mammas,
their cuddling and their kisses;
and oft he murmurs to himself,with his scowl from the Sunday comics;
"Do they need a Practice Husband
In the college of Home Economics?"
, ibid.
posted by zamboni at 6:05 PM on February 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

"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."

Heartbreaking. Those poor babies.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:16 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

At first this post reminded me of something I had read a long time ago, but I couldn't remember I remember. In Carol Shields' novel The Republic of Love, one of the protagonists starts out as a "practice baby" who grows up and still stays in touch with one (or more?) of his "practice mothers."

It's an excellent novel; I highly recommend it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:30 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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.

Heartbreaking. Those poor babies.

Heh, this is pretty standard from what I've seen (and I've seen a fair number of babies). Only n00b parents pick the baby up instantly every time it fusses. You have to develop an ear for a "real" cry.
posted by DU at 6:37 PM on February 24, 2011 [10 favorites]

Babies are cool to fuss sometimes (sometimes) and if you're, say, juggling boiling water or whatever and can't pick it up right away, a baby won't be harmed forever. But when a, say, 3-month-old is crying, it needs attention. They don't cry for fun. When babies get older they sometimes do cry just because they're pissed or they want to play with your glasses and you won't let them. In a, say, one-year-old, that's rare compared to crying because they're hungry, tired, understimulated, afraid, anxious...they usually need something, even if that something is just a cuddle.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:43 PM on February 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

And you can tell that I spend a lot of time with a baby by my many uses of the word "say"...babies don't really care if you're inarticulate. They do care that their caregivers are there for them consistently and respond to their needs. It makes for a secure, happy, healthy baby and for a minimum of crying.

I will never understand the idea that letting a baby cry is somehow better for the parents. It's miserable to sit and listen to a baby crying.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:47 PM on February 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

It's not heartbreaking to me that they were allowed to cry a bit, although I raised my kids pretty crunchy-attachment-parenty. I find the history of childrearing to be pretty fascinating and these kids were probably better off than they would have been in an orphanage of the time, being treated as "ideally" as people believed at that time.

What's sad to me is that they got adopted out into the world and that there's no way for them to connect with these women who helped rear them as babies. It's a little missing piece of their history--both the babies themselves and the students who worked with them.

I have several aunts who majored in home ec a decade or so later than this program ended and I know they worked with children during their studies but have never heard of anything this intense. Thanks for the post, it's a great puzzle piece in the history of women's education.
posted by padraigin at 7:01 PM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Carol Shields' novel The Republic of Love

That's what came to mind for me also when I clicked on this post, the image of Tom Avery, the male protagonist in the novel, and his memories of being cared for and coddled by literally dozens of very young women. It's striking and probably the first thing I think of when I think about this book. I second hurdy gurdy girl's recommendation and sorry for the very mild derail. And, I find it fascinating that this actually occurred in real life.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 7:18 PM on February 24, 2011

I'll sometimes pick up my baby when she starts crying right away because she is cute and i'm a chump. That said, babies make all sorts of crazy noises, and if you picked them up every time they did anything you'd never put them down.

Also, this is a crazy crazy story.
posted by chunking express at 7:49 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mother somehow managed to major in Art while studying at the College of Home Economics at Iowa State, and spent a semester in one of these houses. When she talks about what it was like, she always sounds kind of sad for the babies- it would have been better, she felt, to get them into an adoptive home earlier.

It's really a product of the era- doing things scientifically was deemed always superior to the old-fashioned way. My mother fed all of us formula instead of breastfeeding, and when the pediatrician told her to start us on rice cereal at three weeks of age, she did. If you didn't live through it, you kind of have to put your Mad Men hat on to understand the mindset, the dutiful obedience to "experts" -- and it puts the cultural battles of the late '60s and '70s in context.
posted by ambrosia at 7:02 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is heartbreaking in the context of a baby with no consistent caregiver. Everything we know about development and attachment indicates that this is horrific, far beyond a parent letting their baby cry every once in a while (which is still far from ideal, but whatever). The fact that it's better than an orphanage was is irrelevant. People were lined up to adopt these infants. Their birth mothers were likely pressured to give them up by a highly sexist and classist society.

People could tell it was shitty; one of the articles quotes someone who left the program over it.

It is, indeed, heartbreaking, like a lot of the horrible "science" of infant rearing that still reverberates today, mixing with puritan notions of original sin so that people think they're suckers or spoiling their baby if they respond to its needs. At least we now know (some of us, at least) that your one-month-old isn't manipulating you when she wants to nurse more than she used to or when your four-month-old stops sleeping so well.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:02 AM on February 25, 2011

At least we now know (some of us, at least) that your one-month-old isn't manipulating you when she wants to nurse more than she used to or when your four-month-old stops sleeping so well.

After our first child was born, the pediatrician told us that you cannot spoil a baby who is under 6 months old. I completely agree with that. However, I also completely agree with this statement: Not every baby cry is helped by having a parent pick the baby up.

When our twins were born, for about 3-6 months they had something we eventually came to call "screamy time". Every. single. evening. around 7 they'd both start wailing. Nothing helped. They didn't want food or to be changed to to play or to be wrapped up or even to be held. They would actually cry more and push away if you tried to hold them sometimes. We just put them in a safe place and shut the door, often turning up the TV louder. Yes, you heard me. And they quieted down a lot faster that way. Less stressful for everyone.
posted by DU at 10:30 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read this post several times, and clicked through to read the description of the book linked on Amazon, and was hella confused until it finally sank in that it was real babies.

I initially assumed we were talking about rubber baby dolls, like what they use in CPR classes. Because, I mean, come on! People didn't do shit like that with real babies!

posted by ErikaB at 10:49 AM on February 25, 2011

a baby with no consistent caregiver. Everything we know about development and attachment indicates that this is horrific

I really, really, really can't swallow this except as a modern cultural prejudice. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote of how the modern household appliance was sold as convenience and freedom, when what many of them actually did was transfer work from a laborer to the wife in the household -- thereby creating the modern nuclear family, husband working outside the home, wife working inside, which was presented for a generation or more as a cultural ideal -- and in many ways is still with us. When we say that it's wonderful for the child to have its biological mother at its beck and call for the first months or years of its life, what are we really saying?
posted by dhartung at 11:16 AM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Grinding for Baby XP

Caring for a baby is pretty much playing a JRPG. Your character starts out not being able to do much at all- right now I'm happy that my little one has unlocked the Smiling and Cooing achievements. From the walkthroughs I've read so far, I've still got months of grinding to go before he unlocks Talking With Actual Words, but from where we are now that seems like an incomprehensibly amazing ability.
posted by Jpfed at 11:41 AM on February 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

When our twins were born, for about 3-6 months they had something we eventually came to call "screamy time". Every. single. evening. around 7 they'd both start wailing.

Yeah, my cats do this. Human babies grow out of it, you say? Fascinating!
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:07 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

We had a "practice" baby here at Eastern Illinois University where I work. Even weirder, Baby David wasn't an orphan, but a "loaner baby" thanks to an agreement between the University and his mother. It was quite controversial, and stories about him appeared in national magazines which was a big deal for a small teacher's college in the middle of Illinois. (Hell, that's a big deal now.)

Every few years someone wonders what ever happened with Baby David, but I don't think anyone has been able to track him down. I bet some industrious mefites could do it. :)
posted by thekilgore at 12:24 PM on February 25, 2011

This is a fascinating practice and I'm bummed there isn't more actual information (eg that there was no followup on how the babies did growing up). Interesting that the "scientific" approach didn't include that kind of long-term followup to see if the theories were actually right.

A few months ago we had a post here about how it's very harmful to have constantly changing caregivers for babies (I think it was about volunteer tourists/short-term service projects of westerners in AIDS orphanages in Africa). It would be interesting to see if any of the same effects were observed in these babies. Although I suppose there are two issues in the orphange situation - one is constantly changing caregivers, the other is not enough caregivers per baby, so maybe these practice baby situations might be better since the ratio is tilted in the other direction (multiple caregivers per baby rather than vice versa)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:14 PM on February 25, 2011

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