I doubt many people reading this blog know much about me. I was adopted as a 6 week old and have had an amazing life, as a result!!! One afternoon, I ran across one of our library volunteers in the halls who wanted me to return a book for her and she told me a bit about it. The book is called The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. It’s an adult book so I just nodded politely until she got to the part about the main character, Henry, being a “practice baby”. Turns out that in the early part of the 19th century, colleges had very intense “Domestic Economics” programs that taught eager young women how to run a household and raise a child. Practice babies were on loan from local orphanages. The “mothers” would stay for a week in the “practice house”, caring for the child and juggling the house work. There was always a teacher or house mother to oversee and instruct the student mothers…it was sort of an on-the-job-training atmosphere. The children usually stayed for a year, after which they were up for adoption. Many of these children were in high demand because they had been raised using the latest “scientific” methods. What I found was that it was a very cold and confusing place. Back in the late 40s, when Henry was born, the general thought was that mothers should handle their children as little as possible. They should be fed, changed, and clothed but not coddled. When the baby cried, you let it cry. If the basic necessities were taken care of, then the baby just needed to learn to comfort itself. By the early sixties, the practice houses and Domestic Economics classes had fallen out of favor and were closed up and Dr. Spock changed the ideology about child rearing…thankfully!!!
Since she couldn’t consult the grown children or read journal articles about them, Gurnwald interviewed experts on child psychology. They explained what kinds of challenges these children might have faced as teens and adults. The most common problem was probably “attachment disorder”, which, simply put, is the inability to connect emotionally with others. Her character Henry learns to be the “perfect” child. In other words, he learns how to get what he wants through manipulation. He also has trouble making decisions. As a child, it was deciding who was his best friend or who was his favorite “mother”. Henry loved art and drawing but even determining his favorite color was a difficult challenge. Later, as an adult, he could not land on a personal artistic style. He was much better at copying other people’s styles. By the end of the book, I felt very sorry for Henry because, though we came from similar circumstances, we had completely different experiences.
I think back to my childhood. I don’t have a fantastic memory but what I do remember was pretty good. My mom was always there when I needed her, no matter the time of day or night. Even though I was not blood-kin, she had a sixth sense about my brother (also adopted) and me. She just KNEW when we needed her or when something important was about to happen. Even now, as an adult, I can’t think of anyone to whom I am closer. I do have some residual issues possibly stemming from having been adopted. According to several counselors I’ve seen over the years, my insecurity with relationships is likely related to my adoption. I’ve known about it since before I even understood what it was. My parents always explained that we were special and chosen (a fairly typical explanation to adopted kids). We knew that, for some reason, we were given up by our birth mothers…this reason was explained as we got older, of course. I guess that knowing that I was given away, even if for a very good reason, left me wondering if something wasn’t inherently wrong with me. At 47, I’m still working on this.
I have met my birth mother and enjoy a fairly good relationship with her. I have 3 half-sisters who are wonderful and interesting women. I am very grateful to her on so many levels. I was not put into an orphanage or aborted. I love both of my families and am grateful for the gift of life given to me by both of my mothers. Still, I do wonder whatever happened to these “practice babies” and if they were able to find joy or at least contentment.
By the way…the book was great and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading grown-up books 🙂 The ending of it, while a little abrupt, left me feeling a little bit hopeful for young Henry House.
For more information on these practice houses:
What Was Home Economics?
Home Management Houses
Home Economics: 1900-1950
Practice Babies: NPR
Orphan raised by 8 mothers