The love of another mother

An "awful" mix-up ... Jaroslava Cermakov and Jaroslava Trojanova,
holding their biological daughters, Nikola and Veronika.

An "awful" mix-up ... Jaroslava Cermakov and Jaroslava Trojanova, holding their biological daughters, Nikola and Veronika.
Photo: Reuters

Anne Karpf
November 2, 2007 - 3:12PM
It started, as it often does, with a tiny doubt that refused to be sedated. When Libor Broza's drinking mates ribbed him about his baby Nikola, as blond as he and his partner, Jaroslava Trojanova, were dark, he decided to silence them by taking a DNA test.

As the story broke last week, it was revealed that the test showed the 10-month-old baby, still being breastfed by her mother, wasn't their biological child. That baby was called Veronika and was living with another couple 30 kilometres away. Staff at the hospital where both mothers had given birth, near Brno in the Czech Republic, had accidentally swapped the babies. Once the mistake was discovered, the couples made the excruciating decision to swap the babies back. The situation, as Libor's partner put it, is awful.

Neither parents nor babies will take comfort from the fact that this isn't a particularly rare occurrence. In Sicily seven years ago, Gisella Franco went to the pre-school of her three-year-old daughter, Daniela, only to encounter Chiara, a classmate who looked far more like Gisella than Daniela did. The sighting confirmed what Gisella herself had long suspected: that Chiara wasn't her biological child.

Nine years ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, it took three years to discover that a pair of baby girls had been inadvertently switched at birth. In thrillers, a jealous or crazed mother swaps the baby in the cradle. In more mundane reality, human error is usually responsible.

There are probably scores more cases that are never uncovered: babies grow up perfectly happily with parents who aren't their biological ones and no one is any the wiser. In some sense, it's not the initial mistake so much as the discovery of it that creates the angst and moral dilemma: to swap back or not?

Just consider: you've brought your baby home from hospital and started to develop loving feelings towards him or her. You have introduced them to the other members of your family and your friends. You've become attuned to their likes and dislikes. And suddenly you face the prospect of treating them like something you picked up in the supermarket, which now needs to be exchanged for another brand. Something deep inside most of us recoils at the thought of the suffering caused to parents and babies.

Professor Jay Belsky, director of Britain's Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, takes a much more sanguine approach. If handled sensitively, he says, such situations need not be traumatic, though this depends on the age of the child. A few days or weeks old is fine, but eight years isn't. And in between?

"Between 10 and 18 months babies can go through a process where they get wary of strangers and cling on to those they know, but given time they can establish additional attachments," Belsky says. "I think the trick here is for both sets of parents to agree to give up the babies they've been caring for, but to commit to not rushing this process.

"The important thing is that these babies love their current parents and are intensely emotionally attached to them. Abruptly breaking those bonds in a cold-turkey fashion is in nobody's interests, including the biological parents'. But there's no reason to believe that if this process is done in a sensitive manner it shouldn't be a blessing."

The babies could end up with double the amount of love and attention, he suggests, and the two sets of parents could even act as babysitters for each other.

Belsky advocates a transition period lasting three to six months during which both sets of parents and babies spend increasing amounts of time together. It helps, too, if both families have similar styles of childcare and manage to keep the babies' needs foremost in their minds. A letting-go is required, of course: the baby you have raised must be allowed to develop an equally close relationship with its biological parents.

But here's a heretical thought: does it really matter if your baby was swapped at birth? It matters because of what you now know and can't unknow. It matters because we live in a culture where a biological link to a child is more highly valued than the connection that comes from raising the child. But what has made you that baby's parent is not so much that you gave birth to it as the fact that you have loved and cared for it. In a sense, baby-swap parents become like adoptive parents and those parent-child bonds can be as intense as those between a birth mother and child.

This isn't to say that biology is a negligible part of our attachment to our kids but biology is often as much a matter of attribution as science: we think we see Granny's cheekbones or Dad's curl of the lip in little Johnnie and, in the process of imputing, we make a family chain. Undoubtedly, members of the same family have genetic similarities but discerning them is to some extent also a social and psychological process - the work that parents do in making a child their own.

These baby-swap cases can also excite other anxieties. The initial suspicion might come from a father, concerned, as Libor Broza was, that his baby doesn't resemble him. Such situations can strike at a man's confidence in his ability to father a child, and foster doubts about the fidelity of his partner.

In other cases, colour is an issue. In Memphis, 13 years ago, a woman refused to handle the baby she brought back from hospital because she was convinced that it wasn't her own. Meanwhile, the other mother was disturbed by the fact that her baby's skin pigment was different.

When most babies were born at home, such mistakes didn't happen, but with the shift of childbirth into hospitals, staff are often overstretched and several babies might be born within minutes of each other. Another factor is the practice of removing a baby from its mother to allow her some sleep: babies who spend all their time with their mother are less likely to end up with the wrong parents.

Most hospitals have some sort of procedure to avoid such mistakes - an identifying bracelet, or ankle- or wristbands. The technology of birth and its removal from the home have helped to create these cases but technology also provides DNA testing. Before such tests, parents could never know for sure whether their babies had been swapped.

Not all parents choose, as Nikola and Veronika's have done, to go down the swapping-back route. In 1995 two South African women discovered that their babies had been accidentally switched at birth six years earlier. Though they sued the hospital for negligence, they decided to keep their non-biological children because, despite the anxiety and depression they had suffered on finding out about the mistake, they had formed such deep bonds with their sons.

As with surrogacy, donor eggs and adoption, baby-switching cases such as these remind us that being a "natural parent" is not as easy as we sometimes like to think.

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