before octomom there was octobaby

Dear Uma: I watched a television program the other night about teaching young couples how to shop and cook for themselves.

Dear Uma:

I watched a television program the other night about teaching young couples how to shop and cook for themselves. It seems few of the newly married these enlightened days have any idea of the hows or whys of food, outside of restaurants and the drive-through windows of fast food emporiums. The show was interesting to me because until I moved to a small town in the Canadian North I too had very little experience of how to feed myself and my husband. Necessity drove me to learn how to shop for and cook food and soon I was happily increasing my knowledge; I discovered I truly liked the whole business of food and feeding.

The young people participating in the television show had a similar experience; they were delighted to learn how to make good-tasting, nutritious meals for themselves, though what really blew them away was how much money they could save by shopping and cooking. It was pleasant to note that the men demonstrated as much, and sometimes more, interest in the finding and prepping of food as did the women.

Studies show the biggest deal-breaker in marriages for young women these days is the lack of participation by their men in the domestic scene. It even trumps being unfaithful. Not too surprising when women are holding down fulltime jobs as well as doing household chores, raising children, and doing most of the community volunteering. One could read into these stats that cheating will be tolerated so long as the man does not become derelict in his chores at home. I think if men worked as many hours as women work, at the job and at home, they would be too tired to cheat, and too tired to be appealing to a single woman – problem solved.

Hard to believe that until as late as 1969 there were domestic science programs in high schools, colleges, and universities across the USA and probably in Canada. These were aimed solely at women, of course, but they were remarkably thorough in their approach. In the early 1900s, there were hundreds of collegiate home economics programs which included ‘practice houses.’ At Cornell, for example, eight women students lived with a resident adviser in the practice apartment where they took turns performing a full range of homemaking activities in a scientific and cost-effective manner.

One dean called the apartments “essential laboratory practice for women students.” An early proponent of these programs believed babies were essential to replicate the full domestic experience, so in 1919 they took this educational endeavour to the logical next step by acquiring practice babies. Startling, but true; the babies were leased from orphanages and child welfare associations through a contract that either side could terminate if the arrangement proved unsatisfactory.

I would love to see one of those contracts but I couldn’t find one in any of my searches, and I am a fairly good seeker. I did find that the babies were named by the team of ‘mothers,’ with that first leased baby being called Dicky Domecon, a surname that stood for ‘domestic economy’ and one which was given to all the rented babies involved in the program.

The babies were nurtured according to strict guidelines. Meticulous records were kept, and there was a baby book, complete with photos. I did locate some old black and white photos from one of the baby books and it was quite sweet; all of those impeccably turned out young women gathered around the Christmas tree to dotingly watch adorably garbed little Dicky or Joan pull at the ribbons on gaily wrapped parcels.

At the end of the school year, the babies were put up for adoption. These children were very much in demand by adoptive parents because they’d been raised with the latest scientific principles. And Uma, wouldn’t a lot of the icky parts of child rearing be done by then – like the potty training, the teething, and the learning to feed themselves?

LIFE magazine did some prominent coverage of the program in a 1952 issue featuring several pages of photos and text, with the feature bearing the caption The Making of a Home: Cornell Girls Study for Their Big Job.

The programs were dropped from curriculums in the late ‘60s when it was finally acknowledged that this focus of domesticity for women students seemed old-fashioned. It took that long for the penny to drop? About the time it was recognized large numbers of women were choosing studies that would lead them great distances from a kitchen and a nursery, or indeed, a husband, another discovery had been made that reinforced the need to spend the educational budget elsewhere. New research in the field of child development revealed a primary bond with a single caregiver best served the healthy growth of a baby, both physically and emotionally.

As to what became of those practice babies, with their eight primary bonds, I wish I could tell you. The only interview I was able to find in the short time I allotted to pursuing this subject (I am hard at work again and have little time for these interests) was with an ancient woman in an old folks’ home somewhere in the southern States. She was having some difficulty in remembering her age or her name, so that questions about her early childhood seemed a waste of time, but some determined student with some grant money persisted with the old dear until finally she quavered that she’d had a ‘perfectly lovely time’ and pulled out some photos to prove it. They looked just like the ones I’d seen on another site: matronly looking young women all googly-eyed over a plump little girl baby in a lavishly ruffled crib.

Something must have worked in that baby’s favour, however, because there she was, nearly a hundred years later, being interviewed in what looked to be a very pleasant place and having a mouthful of what she asserted were all her own teeth. Must have been that good nutrition, those scientifically prepared meals cooked with 16 loving hands that produced those choppers.

Even by today’s seemingly unlimited lunacies, this story beggars belief; leased babies, and teams of mommies-in-training getting academic credits for their learning while child hungry couples line up to take the finished product home when the year is up.

Wouldn’t this make a hell of a reality TV show? Instead of Octomom, a woman with eight babies, there could be Octobaby! The baby with eight moms!

Given that there are so many remakes of old movies, a remake of an old school program might prove attractive, though it would require a few modern twists, with the first one being the participation of boys. It may prove to be tremendously popular and could lead to the remake of other old school programs, like teaching children to read and do sums.

After watching these young couples learning to buy and cook food, I have come to realize I like television that is instructive. I find my enjoyment is more if it is instructing others, and I particularly like it when it is instructing others on how to do something I already know, which finally explains why I don’t like shows about decorating or buying clothes.

Speaking of clothes, ask your mother to please not send me any more. I got another soft parcel from her the other day; I think it is a scarf but I could be wrong. It has a slit down the middle and a puzzling arrangement of small beads at one end. Did you get one? I am willing to wear it if you could give me a hint as to which part of my body it ought to be on. I have begun to be more adventurous in my attire and this looks as though it could be a bold fashion statement, unless it is as Pete suggests – a cloth to hide the television set, with the slit being for quick access?



Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.