Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Foundling homes and the lost babies of Europe

I wrote this post in its entirety in November 2012 but hesitated to publish it, I suppose because the subject matter is so grim. But I think it's a worthwhile topic to consider, so here it is now, one further baby in for me!

Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer HrdyI'd like to share some more of my notes and thoughts from reading Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a weighty tome I picked up in the immediate postpartum period after Alrik's birth and dutifully and interestedly crawled my way through — all 541 densely printed pages. I found it fascinating, and disturbing — informative and resonant (Hrdy is an anthropologist, so she knows humans) and yet frequently distressing (humans don't always play nice, even — especially — with babies).

Today's article is about the crowded foundling homes of Europe, which were most used in the 1400s to 1800s. I give you fair warning now to bow out if talking about abandoned children and high infant mortality rates is triggering or overly distressing for you. (I wouldn't blame you one bit. I sometimes wonder why I read Mother Nature when I had a newborn, but I actually think the discussion of maternal ambivalence dovetails perfectly with the sleep-deprivation period.)

A lot of detail in the book went into rituals and rules of infant abandonment and infanticide (which, let's be honest — exposing one's newborn to the elements has the same effect as more outright infanticide) in various cultures and time periods. For instance, and I don't have the book in front of me so forgive my vague searching of memory, there was one tribe that had as a rule that a woman gave birth a little way separate from the other women attending her during labor and hidden from them. If she came back without a baby, it meant she had left the newborn under some leaves, and it was never spoken of again. If she came back with the baby, then she was obligated to care for it, and the baby was welcomed into the tribe.

Infanticide and abandonment across cultures

There were a lot of these anecdotes and statistics of after-the-fact birth control, as it were. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. For long centuries, women have chosen what babies to rear — and been very particular about it. Babies with obvious defects and multiple births were easy targets, but sometimes women needed to be more calculating: Children spaced too closely together would vie for the same scant resources. (Keep in mind that for millennia we were hunter-gatherers always on the brink of starvation.) Children born too early or too late in life might be an inconvenience, babies of uncertain (or certain but wrong) paternity could be dangerous; a weak and passive baby might be seen as an unlikely investment, whereas a vigorous and large baby might be seen as overly needy.

Just think here for a moment about how babies have had to balance this knife's edge and evolutionarily develop wiles to entice mothers to keep them: abundant fat stores (most other species of primates and mammals are born skinnier than human babies), smiles early on (to engage the mother's affection), looking like the father to cement paternal tolerance (in the first year, babies more greatly resemble their fathers), being cute with big eyes (the Disney trope writ large).

Then there are other specific reasons to rid the family of babies that don't measure up, like the sex-specific infanticide practiced in various cultures and times but to extremes in the highest and lowest castes of India. Nineteenth-century visitors to the highest caste remarked on the absence of daughters, thinking it was a curious genetic oddity, or that the women were hidden away. But not so: There was no reason to keep a daughter, because she could not marry "up." In the lower castes, this was reversed, and male children were unfavored, because no one would marry "down" to them.

It's easy for a modern-day American, particularly a white one of recent European descent, to read these accounts of culturally sanctioned infanticide and dismiss them as historical and foreign. That's where it's illuminating to explore the reality of foundling homes in Europe in the not-so-distant past.

The European method of family planning

Many large European cities started foundling hospitals to halt the practice of abandoning and exposing babies before they could be baptized. (Exposing means to leave a newborn outdoors; i.e., leave the baby in a remote location to die alone.) The foundling homes offered a safe and usually anonymous way for parents to drop off unwanted infants. Some even featured a revolving wheel in the outside wall similar to a sort of baby-book-drop or bank drive-thru. The baby would be placed in a compartment and a bell rung, and the staff inside would know to rotate the compartment in to face them and retrieve the infant.

As many as 5,000 infants a year were pouring into the foundling homes in the larger European cities. And the death rate averaged 80%, in some years closer to 100%.

Foundling homes served as the culturally sanctioned birth control and abortion rolled into one. It was not immoral to place a child into a foundling home (although it was viewed with distaste, similarly to the stigmas that birth mothers who place their children for adoption can still face today), and of course the hope of each foundling home was to save as many children as possible and allow them to thrive — it's just that it didn't happen, for almost all the babies who came through the (revolving) doors.

Deaths of the foundlings

The mortality rates in foundling homes soared due to the shortage of wet nurses, the lack of formula or any other sterilized feeding method (thank goodness for today's feeding choices, even if you're pro-breastfeeding, yes?), and the rampant diseases (dysentery, smallpox, etc.) in close, unhygienic quarters.

The scale of mortality was so appalling, and so openly acknowledged, that residents of Brescia proposed that a motto be carved over the gate of the foundling home: "Here children are killed at public expense." [p. 304]

By 1640, 22% of all children baptized in Florence were abandoned babies. In the 1840s, it reached 43%. There was no stratum of society unaffected by abandonment, and very few families. If you lived during that time, you would know people who had given up children to foundling homes — and you likely would be one of those yourself. Most women making use of the foundling homes were in fact married and had other children — and therefore knew the cost of raising another baby.

Plus, religiously, sex during the nursing period was frowned on. You can see how this all created a vicious cycle: A woman abandons a baby, thereby stopping breastfeeding. She can resume her marital relations now, and without birth control, she'll likely conceive again shortly — giving her another potentially unwanted baby on the way. The foundling homes were creating their own victims.

The foundlings were baptized as soon as possible after arrival, since their days were likely to be short. The hospitals at first gave them names reflecting their (lack of) heritage: Exposito or Esposito (exposed), Colombo (for the pigeons that alighted on the roof of the foundling home in Milan), Trouvé (found). After a time, they had enough surviving members with those names that they branched out and got more creative. Still:

A durable fraction of these foundlings were lucky, robust, or resourceful enough to survive. They grew up and went on to have families of their own. … In "Les Pages Blanches" for Paris 1996 there were 46 Espositos, 1 Esposti, 2 Espostos, 8 variants on Degli Esposti, 64 Trouvés, plus—as if to advertise just how this family's fortunes have improved—one listing for a family business that read: "Trouvé, Per et Fils." [p. 307]

Reading that made me a little happy in the midst of this dark chapter, imagining the enduring resilience of the foundling home survivors. Likely they were the lucky few who got sent to the country under the auspices of a healthy wet nurse. (Not many foundlings were adopted; besides families already having more than enough children, as is evidenced by the popularity of the foundling homes, there was a stigma attached that foundlings bore the immorality of their — theoretically unwed — parents.)

The toll on the infant population was, of course, disturbing. Hrdy was preparing (or listening to?) a presentation on the subject when it hit her. She writes:

Gradually it dawned on me that this phenomenon affected not tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of infants, as I had long assumed, but millions of babies. I grew increasingly numb. I recall that I had difficulty breathing. … At that moment they clearly represented ghosts, streams of babies flowing from the city out to wet nurses in the country in one direction, and from poor peasant households in the countryside into urban foundling homes, flowing back the other way. There was nothing exotic about this heritage. It was my own. [p. 303-304]

We are not different now

I can think of plenty of modern correlations with birth control, abortion, and adoption, but I don't want to turn this into a controversial political piece. Since I am well versed in a range of opinions on the subjects, both religious and progressive, I know how the various sides will view these connections.

What strikes me is just, as Hrdy points out, that we are all connected to these mothers who give up care for their young. We are all descendants — either recent or far past — of mothers who chose not to raise one or more babies, and we perhaps have made similar choices ourselves (even in regards to relatively benign child spacing techniques like natural family planning).

There is no separation of our maternal nature from these other people's. We are not better. We are all human, and we all struggle with the difficulties of making reasonable choices about our families — about how to portion out limited resources, how to ensure that those who exist already as part of our family continue to thrive, how to preserve our own health (physical, emotional, mental), how to appease those who might attempt to control our childbearing or childrearing (such as birth fathers, or families of origin in the case of younger or single mothers).

Attachment and its effect

There is one technique that categorically reverses the potential abandonment of a child, and that is: time spent between the parent and baby.

Most abandonment happened within 72 hours of birth. One state-run charity hospital across the street from a foundling home instituted a policy that mothers had to stay with their babies for 8 days. Those who did were much less likely to abandon their infants: from 24% to 10%.

As Hrdy wites about those mothers who changed their minds:

Neither their cultural concepts about babies nor their economic circumstances had changed. What changed was the degree to which they had become attached to their breast-feeding infants. It was as though their decision to abandon their babies and their attachment to their babies operated as two different systems.

… Infants whose destitute mothers left the hospital on the day of birth had a fifty-to-one chance of being left behind. Infants whose mothers left just two days later had a six-to-one chance of being abandoned. [p. 315]

That also was a ray of sunshine to me in that postpartum fog. Every nursing session Alrik spent at my breast was like one more welcome link in the chain binding us together.

There's some confusion between "bonding" (which was a term used originally for animals like sheep and geese who honestly do have a limited imprinting window for the mothers to accept or reject them) and the attachment that develops (or can develop) between human parents and babies. We know there's not a limited window for that, because just witness adoptive parents who "bond" (so to speak) with older toddlers and children.

I did like to think, though, that there was something primal and biological about my attachment to my babies. That I didn't have to work at it or fear ending up like one of the foundling home clientele. That I can have sympathy for the mothers who chose foundling homes, sorrow for the millions of babies' lives cut short, and yet move on and appreciate the resources open to me today, including my own access to more humane forms of family planning but also the cultural strengthening of maternal-infant bonds (making me expect to love my kids; I really do think that helps) and the economic and social privileges I have as someone who can afford all the children I've had so far. It's also made me much more aware of the myriad and practical reasons people choose not to conceive children, not to bear them, or not to raise them, and given me more understanding and empathy.

I also appreciate hearing the truth of history like this, because I think all too often in echelons of privilege, we think that we don't (or shouldn't) make the kind of calculations that inform us on whether a certain child should be borne or raised. We also lose sight of the fact that we as mothers have always made such decisions, throughout history and across all cultures — that we and those around us are making them now, and that we should be grateful that our decisions are not typically as dire for our children as the foundling homes were for the unwanted babies of Europe through those several centuries.

What are your thoughts on the long history of foundling homes and other forms of post-birth family planning?


Inder-ific said...

Such a great summary, Lauren. This is what I took away from this chapter (and this book!) as well - that mothers have always done some degree of "family planning." There is no idyllic "state of nature" in which mothers are always nuturing and motherly. Rather there have always been compromises and calculations. I always walked away thinking, WOW, good birth control is lifesaving! Who even knew? And if we want a society where life is valued, we need to make sure that poor women are provided real and tangible support, financial and material, not just ideological.

Gosh, that chapter was just heartbreaking. I read this book when Joe was a baby too, and while it's disturbing as all get out, I appreciated a theory of attachment that wasn't based entirely on other types of primates who are probably less ambivalent than humans (i.e., Our Babies, Ourselves). In some ways, the realism is refreshing.

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