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The Chosen Child

 

            I remember when I was searching for information regarding my birth records and my birth mother, I decided to research what happened to the hospital where I was born.  I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital and Home for Unwed Mothers in Syracuse, NY in the 1960’s. As I began my search, I was told by other adoptees I knew that St. Mary’s had burned down some time in the 1970’s and all of their records had been lost in the fire.

          I was hoping for a bit more specific information, so I did a Google search for St. Mary’s Hospital to see if I could narrow down when the hospital was destroyed.  After a pretty exhaustive search, however, I could find no reference to any fire that had ever happened there. The only thing that I did find was a brief history of the hospital, which opened in the 1890’s in a small downtown location where it stayed until they moved to their future home in what then would have been the suburbs of the city. The hospital itself closed in 1973 and the picture of the building as it was then appeared the same as it does today.

     

      A bit confused, I wondered if perhaps the story of such a small maternity hospital, which closed long before the internet was conceived, would have been fully reported on in a modern Google search.  So, I went into the local city newspaper archives figuring if there was a story to be had on the fate of this maternity hospital, the local newspapers surely would have covered it. But, after a long search, there wasn’t any further information about any type of fire that occurred there. I found nothing about any lost hospital records. Only that the hospital closed in 1973 and the maternity staff merged with another local catholic hospital.

 

            Just as I was getting ready to finish my search, my eye caught the headline for an article from 1931, from one of the local newspapers, which advertised 25 babies of various nationalities available for adoption. Deciding to take a quick read, I was quickly mortified by the short article that I started reading:

 

15 Boys and 10 girls at St. Mary’s Hospital

cover wide range of complexion to suit tastes

(Taken from the Syracuse Herald, Sunday May 17, 1931)

 

Twenty-five babies ranging from two weeks to 3 1/2 years in age are at St. Mary’s Hospital awaiting prospective foster parents. The range in nationality and complexion is wide enough to suit the most varied tastes. Included in the group are Polish babies, Germans, Italians, Irish and one of Jewish descent.

Titian-haired beauties, blondes, brunets and intermediate types; babies with blue eyes, gray eyes, brown eyes and hazel eyes are among the happy crowd that need only good homes and loving parental care to develop into useful men and women.

Babies are placed in home on six months’ probation, at the end of which time, if parents are not satisfied, they may return them to the hospital. The only expense connected with adoption is the legal fee for the preparation of adoption papers.

 

 

            So, not only were you able to choose which baby you wanted from an ample selection to suite your taste, but then these babies came with a six month return policy if the perspective parents weren't satisfied with the baby they had chosen. Given the description here, there is no way to argue that these babies weren’t being treated like any other possession that comes with a warranty, like a new car or new refrigerator. If you’re not satisfied, return them free of charge. I wonder if my adopted parents were given this same type of warranty when they brought me home from the maternity hospital.  Although I would never have asked my adoptive parents if this was true, I do wonder if it was part of the deal.

 

          I wonder what the mothers of these children, who surrendered their children for adoption with the promise of being placed in a loving home, thought when they read this newspaper article in 1931. The children’s ages were listed as 2 weeks to 3 ½ years. I wonder if any of the mothers of these twenty-five children wondered quietly to themselves if their child was the 3 ½ year old who was still there at the maternity ward and not with a loving family that they had been promised when their child was just a newborn.

 

            I was born in that very hospital thirty years after that article was published in the newspaper. I was also surrendered by my mother at birth for adoption, with the same promise that I would be placed in a loving home with two parents.

 

            It is this promise, and a gentler version of the newspaper article, which gave rise to a popular story called The Chosen Baby, by Sophie van Senden Theis, which came about somewhere around the time the newspaper article was published. The first children’s book publication of an illustrated version of The Chosen Baby story was published by Valentina P Wasson in 1939.

 

            For those who are not familiar with the chosen baby story, the following is a copy of the story published as an illustrated children’s story in 1939 by Valentina P Wasson and republished online at The Adoption History Project website: 

 

 Once upon a time in a large city lived a Man and his Wife. They were happily married for many years. Their one trouble was that they had no babies of their own.

 

One day they said to each other: “Let us adopt a baby and bring him up as our own.” So, the next day they called up a Home which helps people to adopt babies, and babies to adopt parents, and said: “We wish so much to find a baby who would like to have a mother and father and who could be our own. Will you help us find one?”

 

The Lady at the Home said: “This will be difficult because so many people wish to adopt babies and are waiting for them, but come and see me anyhow.”

 

So, the Man and his Wife went to the Home and said to the Lady: “We wish so much to choose a baby. We want to have a lovely, healthy baby boy.” The Lady at the Home asked them many questions and said: “I will try very hard to find a lovely baby boy, but you must wait for a long time.”

 

A little later another Lady from the Home came and looked over the house where the Man and his Wife lived to make sure that the Chosen Baby would live in a light, clean home.

 

Many months went by and the Man and his Wife would say to each other: “I wonder when our baby will be coming.” And the Wife would call up the Lady at the Home and say: “We are still waiting for our baby. Please don’t forget about us.” And she would be told not to worry, for the baby was sure to come someday.

 

Then suddenly one day the Lady at the Home called up and said: “We have three fine babies for you to choose from. Will you both come and see them?” So, the very next day the Man and his Wife, feeling very excited, hurried to the Home. The Lady told them all about the babies.

 

The first baby was a little boy with blue eyes and curly blond hair. He laughed and played with a rattle. The Man and his Wife watched the baby, then they shook their heads and said: “This is a beautiful child, but we know it is not our baby.” And they were taken to see the next.

 

And there asleep in the crib lay a lovely, rosy, fat baby boy. He opened is big brown eyes and smiled. The Wife picked him up and sat him on her lap. The baby gurgled, and the Man and his Wife said: “This is our Chosen Baby. We don’t have to look any further. We will have everything ready for him by to-morrow, and would like to take him home then.”

 

So that day the Wife went to a shop and bought a crib and a carriage and bottles, and all the clothes and things that babies need.

 

And the very next morning the Wife went to fetch the baby, and brought the baby home and put him in his crib, and fed him milk and cereal and orange juice. A nice, fat Nannie helped to look after the baby.

 

“We must find a good name for our baby,” the Man and his Wife said to each other. So, they decided to call his name Peter, after his uncle. After a few days all of Peter’s new uncles and aunts, and his grandfather and grandmother came to see him, and they thought he was a lovely baby…

            When I was three months old, I was placed in a home with a couple who would legally become my adopted parents when I was eighteen months old. The adoption agency believed that all babies adopted through their agency should know that they were adopted and made my parents promise that they would tell me from a young age that I was adopted.  When I was somewhere around five or six years old, I was told a version of the chosen baby story by my mother and father. This story has been a very popular way over time to first explain to young children that they are adopted.

 

          Of course, it doesn’t take long, even as a young child, to figure out that your parents didn’t go to a baby nursery and pick you out from a room full of babies just waiting for a family. Especially when you look nothing like your adopted parents.  It would only make sense, even at a child’s understanding, that if parents had an opportunity to choose any child available, that they would have picked a baby that looked more like them.

 

            It also didn’t take long for me to realize first hand that, unlike the chosen baby story ending, not all of your aunts and uncles and grandparents were happy that your parents brought in an outsider who doesn’t look anything like them. To them I was just someone else’s bastard child that needed to be taken care of.  And there were even some in the family who did not understand why my parents were so desperate to have a child that they were willing to take on somebody else’s problem.

 

            Even if that wasn’t a factor, the chosen baby story has another consequence that you cannot get around. When you tell a child that they loved you so much that they chose you above all other babies, it leaves you to wonder why your own mother didn’t love you enough to keep you and raise you herself. When you ask why your mother didn’t keep you, you’re told that your birth mother loved you so much that she gave you away so that you could have a better life than she could provide for you, with two parents who really wanted you. The problem for adoptees always comes back to the simple idea that your own mother, who carried you and bonded with you for nine months, didn’t want you and abandoned you after you were born, leaving you with strangers. If your own mother didn’t love you enough to keep you, if your own mother could just walk away from you and leave you with strangers, how are you ever supposed to believe that anybody else you encounter going forward in your life, including your adopted parents, won’t do the same.

 

            The good news is that as you get older you realize that you weren’t really chosen from an imaginary nursery full of babies. You were just the next child on a list of babies available that needed a home and needed to be adopted. And given the fact that your adopted parents had waited on a waiting list often for a long time, they were not about to turn down the next child on the list to wait even longer for another child that may not be offered to them for a long time going forward.

 

            The bad news, however, is that the seed of feeling unwanted by your birth mother, whether intentional or unintentional, has already been planted and will not fade from memory or emotional triggers. The feelings of abandonment that you felt since early childhood continues to haunt your psyche with all of your adult relationships going forward your whole life long.

 

            I have thought often about those twenty-five babies at St. Mary’s Hospital and wondered what became of them. I wonder if they were given the loving home that their birth mothers were promised back then in 1931. If they were adopted, I wonder if they were told the same story of the chosen child and if they ever found out that they were one of those twenty-five babies featured in that 1931 article. I know that if a similar story had been in the newspaper thirty years later when I was adopted from St. Mary’s, my adopted mother would have cut out that article and saved it along with my adoption papers to make a point that I should be grateful that they adopted me when nobody else wanted me. I wonder if any of the twenty-five children in that article also received copies of that article from their adopted parents when they were old enough to know the truth. If they were indeed adopted.

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