January 19

Motherlode: Abandoned babies give family profound lessons

A charity in Albania helps an adopted daughter understand why mothers sometimes give their children to others.

By KJ Dell-Antonia

I recently asked readers to share stories of charities that had touched and inspired their families and sparked in their children an urge to give. Here is one of their stories.

ANGEL’S CRADLE, BY ANNE F. CUNNINGHAM

I am an American living in Tirana, Albania. I am writing about an American charity that has carved out a tiny but incandescent presence in this small, impoverished, easy-to-overlook country, and has involved our entire family in surprising ways.

Our family is posted to Tirana, where my husband is the United States ambassador.

Last year when our daughter was 5, I took her to visit the Angel’s Cradle, a nursery run by the Organization to Support Albania’s Abandoned Babies (OSAAB). The nursery is a clean, light-filled, quiet room in Tirana’s maternity hospital. There are about 12 cribs, each containing a baby (from newborn to several months old), and one playpen, occupied by a now-toddler with Down syndrome.

This is a place where women may safely abandon their newborn children. Women come from far-distant villages and towns to do just this: give birth at this hospital so that the child can be left in this nursery.

There are many sad and terrible stories behind these births. Albania is only now emerging from a long isolation from the world, and it grapples with domestic violence, child exploitation and many other heavy issues. If OSAAB did not exist, babies would be left in market stalls, sidewalks and trash bins. And they still are, but in fewer numbers. When they are found, many are brought to OSAAB’s Angel’s Cradle.

My daughter, now nearly 7, is enchanted by all these babies, especially as the staff lets her hold them and feed them. And she does, for hours at a stretch. She also plays with her toddler friend, the girl with Down syndrome, putting her in a swing or rolling a ball to her.

She learns how much formula and how many diapers so many babies need each day, and how much all of that costs. She learns how many volunteers provide much of that, and she goes with us to buy our share.

Most important for me personally is that she is learning empathy, not pity. We are in a long, ongoing conversation about why mothers sometimes cannot keep their babies. My husband and I adopted our daughter, and I see the hard thinking she is doing to understand why she is not growing up with the mother who gave birth to her.

She sees that the OSAAB babies are all different, but all beautiful and sweet. But they still need new families. They were not left behind because they were not loved or lovable; they were left because they need more than their mothers could give them. This is real life, not an abstraction.

She knows that is why her father and I speak out about adoption in Albania.

Self-awareness in Albania is deeply rooted in knowledge of one’s family and origins, and “adoption” is not an easy concept for this traditional culture to absorb. Women abandoning their newborns are viewed with suspicion by many Albanians. I frequently hear, “How could a mother …?” or “I would never …” But I tell them that we are so grateful to the young woman who gave us her daughter. She was in circumstances very similar to the women coming to OSAAB: young, unmarried and struggling. And by giving us her daughter, she changed our lives.

Had that not happened – had we not become parents – we would not be so passionate about OSAAB and the Angel’s Cradle. Many potential visitors, foreign and Albanian, shy away from it, fearing that it is depressing.

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