Former 'Practice Mom' Reflects On Experience

Last week we heard about "practice babies" — an unusual teaching tool used by American colleges and universities to teach female undergrads about home economics. The programs would use babies from local orphanages. Since the piece aired, we've heard from "practice mothers" and "practice babies" alike. Host Michele Norris speaks to one of them.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Sometimes the stories we air elicit more stories, and we love that. It happened last week after my interview about an outdated teaching tool for college women, the use of practice babies. From the early 1900s until as late as 1969, colleges around the country taught women mothering skills with real babies on loan from local orphanages.

We heard about all this from writer Lisa Grunwald. She learned about practice babies while doing research for a different book. Her discovery led her to write a novel about one fictional practice baby, the irresistible Henry House.

LISA GRUNWALD: When I first read about this I thought it was sort of weird and a little creepy. But in fact, at the times in which this took place, everything was considered a possible opportunity for scientific approach, and child care was no exception.

NORRIS: Well, it turns out on the other side of the radio, practice moms were listening.

BARBARA HUTCHISON: I just stopped what I was doing and tried to listen to every word because it was so amazing to me that you and the author were speaking about something that I actually experienced so long ago.

NORRIS: That's Barbara Hutchison. She emailed us after hearing our story. In the late 1950s at a college in Pennsylvania, she enrolled in a six-week home management course. She and five other women shared a house. They learned how to cook and run the household, and for a week, each of them played mother to a baby borrowed by the college.

HUTCHISON: They were extremely careful about this program. The school was run by the Sisters of Charity of Elizabeth Seton, and they had an orphanage in town. And the baby came from the orphanage, but only after the baby had been adopted by parents who were going to pick the baby up.

We happened to have had a little boy, and his name was Tommy. And we were allowed to meet the adoptive parents. We were, of course, all crying as we said goodbye to the baby, but we were so happy, and they were so happy, that it was a very, very positive experience for me.

NORRIS: If it's not too difficult, could you describe for us what Tommy looked like, and do you know whatever happened to him? Did you make any attempt to follow up on his life?

HUTCHINSON: I don't think we would have been allowed to do that, but we were so reassured of this little boy going to a happy home and probably very, very busy as college students, maybe didn't think about that. But I can still remember trying to learn how to bathe him, you know, while he was wiggling, and then picking him up and holding him. So he had dark hair, he was just a darling little boy. You can imagine as young women of that age, we just all loved him.

NORRIS: What did you learn in that program?

HUTCHINSON: I learned how important it was to manage time. Probably the most positive experience of all was being with the baby. And I know that that sounds so out of our culture today, but it really wouldn't have been that different than if I were in a family of many siblings, the baby would have been handled by many different people.

Today we would do that in a day care center. So the idea that there were multiple people loving the baby really didn't trouble us, and it still doesn't trouble me.

NORRIS: Barbara, I must say the line in the email that you sent to us that really grabbed me was when you talked about Tommy. You wrote in that email, I can close my eyes at 71 years old and see our baby's face, and feel him in my arms. He's still that vivid for you?

HUTCHISON: Yes. I've thought about it many times because when I had my children, I felt more prepared. My college was always promoting leadership in women, but they knew that we were going to leave school and get married. It was the '50s, you know. I think they were trying to prepare us to be the best we could be in those roles.

NORRIS: Is it a bit of irony that in the name of progress that your children or your grandchildren won't have access to this kind of instruction?

HUTCHINSON: Exactly, I know. I think about that. And I think my children and my grandchildren are probably thinking, gosh, you know, I didn't know you did that, and probably a lot of the things I did with them, and still do with them come of that program.

NORRIS: Well, Barbara Hutchison, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HUTCHISON: You're so welcome.

NORRIS: Barbara Hutchison took care of a so-called practice baby as a student at Seton Hill University in the late 1950s.

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