My Visit to the Cradle

The Next Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

How is it possible that I can so vividly remember the architecture of the third floor, but not the front door?

Strange as it sounds, that was my first thought as I stood outside the Gothic structure.  It had been more than 15 years since I last stood on this sidewalk, in front of this place.  I was adopted from this massive stone building, known as The Cradle.  I was brought here when I was an infant, stayed in the nursery for a bit before being taken home, and visited off-and-on throughout the first few years of my life.

So why would I only remember the top of the building and not the front door? It is a really beautiful door. (When I posted the few pictures I took, a friend of mine even said it looked kind of “magical”.)

Still, I had not come to just stand in front of the building on an overcast day to ponder the reasons why I could only remember certain features.  I wanted to see inside, so I went up to the door and rang the bell on the side.  After a few minutes of no one answering, I read the sign above the bell and realized that it was only for after-hours when the place was closed.  I sheepishly opened the door and stepped inside, hoping that I had not made a complete dunce of myself.

Though I did not remember the exact specifics of the inside, the feeling remained the same.  The Cradle has always had an air of old splendor.  It is much more home-like, with a sense of warmth and charm.  One would think an adoption agency would have a clinical feeling, but thankfully The Cradle does not.  I wandered over to the reception desk and told the receptionist that I was expected.  She smiled, gave me a visitor’s pass to clip on my shirt, and directed me to the living room.

While waiting for my guide for the day, I looked around the living room.  It still has the same soft furniture that I remember from my childhood, but for some reason, the room was much brighter than I remembered.  I fiddled around with my camera a bit, trying to figure out how it worked, when I thought about how strange it was that I was now a visitor.  I began to get more eager to explore the place that has been an incredibly important part of my life.

Gaby, my guide for the day and the Interactive Engagement Manager for The Cradle, greeted me in the living room.  We started down the first hall, where she showed me a picture of The Cradle founder: Florence Dahl Walrath.  Walrath first started in adoption when her sister lost a child at birth.  Knowing how much her sister wanted to be a mother, Walrath found a woman who had to give up her baby for adoption.  After this experience, more childless couples that Walrath knew asked for her help.  In 1923, she founded The Cradle.

The portrait of Walrath is one of a determined-looking older woman.  It reminds me of the portraits I’ve seen of suffragettes.  Before we move down the hall, Gaby brings me back to the living room for a bit and points out that most of the front half of the building is from the original 30s structure.  The back half is from the renovation in 1957, when the nurses’ dormitory was made.  In the living room, there is much of the original furniture.  She brings me over to the large bookcase and takes down one of the books from the year that I was adopted.  The Cradle keeps photos of all the children that have been adopted from there.  It’s a very quaint touch that adds to the overall feeling of home, almost like family albums.  Throughout the rest of the building, we will pass by many pictures of children both recent and old.  In the old staircase, there are pictures of some of the first children that were adopted through The Cradle.

On our way to the old staircase, an original feature from when The Cradle first started (on their website, there’s even a picture of the nurses standing on it), we pause at the Hollywood wall.  Gaby points out a couple pictures of Bob Hope, Donna Reed, Pearl Buck, and Gayle Sayers.  She mentions that The Cradle has placed about 15,000 babies.

As we continue on, we stop in a small room that was part of the original nursery back in the 50s.  It is a fascinating look back into the past.  There are tiny little bottles, a sink, an old crib, and other items that had once, in the 50s, been cutting-edge.  Gaby mentions how The Cradle often led the way in infant care, from studies to publications on the sterilization of instruments used to treat them.  As we exited, she pointed out that the current president’s office had once been a little shop where first-time adoptive parents could purchase clothes to bring their newborns home in.

We went up to the second floor of the building (The Cradle has 3 floors and a basement), stopping in a family room.  The family rooms are brightly colored rooms, often stocked with toys and comfortable furniture.  This is where I discovered the first big change since I had last been there: The Cradle now deals solely in open adoption.  The biological and adoptive parents have to meet at least once in what they call a “match meeting”.  When I asked Gaby about the change, she explained that studies have shown that open adoptions are better for all the parties involved.  I couldn’t help but wonder if my own experience would have been different had I been an open adoption.

There are two teams of counselors at The Cradle, one for the biological parents and another for the adoptive parents.  They are able to provide 24/7 support for biological mothers.  The counselors organize the “match meeting” between the two sets of parents.

The third floor is where the nursery is located.  My mother had mentioned, and Gaby confirmed, that The Cradle is the only adoption agency in the nation with an on-site nursery.  They are incredibly expensive to run, but provide a phenomenal amount of support both for the biological parents and the infants too.  As we stopped in front of the large windows, a nurse and two “cuddlers” (Cradle term for the volunteers who hold and care for babies in the nursery) were at work.  One was walking about, feeding an infant while another was rocking one near a window.  The second volunteer was holding a particularly fussy baby while rolling two more in a stroller.  Gaby mentions that there were five babies in the nursery today.  Last week there were nine.

In Illinois, a woman must wait 72 hours before she can surrender her rights to the child.  The Cradle allows biological mothers to stay in the nursery if they wish.  Birth fathers have to be notified and they are given 30 days to respond.

After the nursery, we continued to the Belonging Room.  This is a feature that Florence Dahl Walrath insisted on.  It is a room where adoptive parents meet their infants for the first time.  It’s a simple room: chairs, a sofa, a changing table, and even a crib.  When looking in the small room, the first thing I noticed was the gigantic Winnie the Pooh in the crib, which was slightly creepy.

After this, we went down to the first floor again and back to the living room.  Gaby mentioned that The Cradle mostly places infants, but will take children up to two years old.  They only do domestic placements but do home studies for international adoptions.  That was another surprise.  I remembered The Cradle had once had a Russia program.  Gaby explained that international adoption has gotten increasingly difficult.  Laws are always changing and the wait times are continually getting longer.  Adoptions on the whole are down, but The Cradle continues to provide full service.

The biggest change that I found, aside from the open adoption, was that The Cradle has now added classes –both online and on site –for adoptive parents.  Most of these classes are seminars on relevant topics, such as open adoption.  Their website has grown quite substantially.  There are new sections dedicated to adoptee stories and families that are waiting for children.  Scrolling through the profiles, it is heartening to see the variety of families; there are single people, same-sex couples, heterosexual couples, and mixed race couples, all hoping to start a family.

Another interesting thing that has changed at The Cradle is their naming practice.  Since switching to open adoption, the yearly reunion held at The Cradle now sees children with two nametags: one for the name given to them by their biological parents and one for the name given to them by their adoptive parents.  When I had been adopted, I went through three names.  My biological mother called me Adrian (a name that I’ve always hated), The Cradle called me Mia (a name that I’ve always loved), and my mother decided on Lauren (a name that she loved –me…not so much).  My brother went through the same thing, though he didn’t like any name that he had been given.

As we parted, Gaby invited me to come back to film my story for their website.  I said that I would be interested, if I could find some spare time to do so.  It had been an overall interesting experience, particularly in regards to the long history of the place that has been such a large part of my life.

As I went down the three short steps towards the front door, I glanced to the side and noticed a simple painting.  It looks like a watercolor, stark contrast to the somewhat shadowy alcove, and it’s a simple painting: a path winding through the countryside.  There’s a similar painting across from it.  They are both quite pretty and appropriate for the agency.

As I left the gothic building, I took a few final shots of the exterior.  I’m determined not to forget that door again.

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