The Cooneys and their seven adopted children
When Lillian and joe Cooney adopted their first baby they enjoyed it so much that they adopted another — and another — and another. Now they’ve got seven of them and they won’t stop there. Read this heart-warming story about
THE COONEY family from Toronto, a dlentist, his wife and their seven children, were eating in a hotel dining room in Detroit. last summer when a stranger approached their table. The stranger, a middle-aged woman, beamed at the handsome and well-behaved youngsters. "What a fine family!" she exclaimed. "And the children all look so much alike!"
Lillian Cooney couldn’t resist. “Thank you,” she murmured, putting a cookie in her baby’s fist. “That’s surprising, since they are all adopted.”
Ever since that moment, the Cooneys have been the centre of considerable attention. Word of the seven adopted children spread around the dining room and to Detroit newspapers. They became local celebrities, recognized on the streets and in department stores. Their subsequent entrances in the hotel dining room caused a flurry of waiters, headwaiters and bus boys that spoiled the entire family for normal restaurant service for months. The story spread to Toronto newspapers, and the family, with uneasily smiling parents, posed for photographers the day they arrived home. On the first morning of school this autumn, the Cooneys
fended off more newspaper photographers who wanted pictures of the oldest five children leaving with shining faces and polished apples.
“There are,” observed Lillian Cooney, “a number of special problems involved in publicizing a family of adopted children.”
The first necessity is that the children must not be disturbed by anything they read about themselves. Another is that certain information, such as their ages, must be disguised to prevent the tragedy of identification. For these worthy reasons, some of the material in this article is slightly rearranged and part of the story of the remarkable Cooneys has had to be omitted altogether.
The Cooneys have been married for fourteen years, since the week when Joseph Cooney graduated from the University of Toronto faculty of dentistry, and they have yet to know an affluent period. In fact, when they adopted their fourth
child they were on the brink of bankruptcy. They live in an eighty-year-old house with spectacular infirmities on the western outskirts of Toronto. Lillian Cooney runs her home without any help, except for an occasional cleaning woman. The house has only three bedrooms, but the Cooneys are making room in one of them for an eighth child, a twoor three-year-old boy whose arrival is expected this month.
“The Cooneys are ideal parents,” says Evelyn Roberts, superintendent of the adoption department of the Catholic Children’s Aid. “Whenever we find a child who is unhappy we think of the Cooneys and wish they had more room. Sooner or later a case worker will remark, T know what this child needs—the Cooneys!’ ”
The Children’s Aid has asked the Cooneys to address an audience of prospective adoptive parents this winter. Much of what they say will be highly controversial. The Cooneys have come to some unusual conclusions in the years they have spent raising a family. The Cooneys place more importance in a child’s dignity and happiness than in
the tidiness of his clothes, his company manners or his academic flourishes. They regard as villainous the couple some people consider virtuous—the parents who have set high and unshakable standards for their children. "Don’t try to create out of people or children something they aren’t,” warns Joe Cooney. "Everyone has a pressure point and can’t be pushed beyond it without injury.”
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This is best illustrated in the story of a child who was adopted by the Cooneys a few years ago. This child had been placed first in another home where the parents had attempted zealously to train a perfect child. After ten months the couple indignantly returned the child to the Children’s Aid. The child, now in need of psychiatric treatment to overcome his feeling of hopelessness, was sent to the Cooneys at their request.
"When you’re this small and have been made to feel a failure,” said the case worker, "the damage goes deep.” The Cooneys warmly received the stiffly polite, contained little person with the lifeless eyes. The first night they were aghast when he undressed and folded his clothes impeccably at the foot of his bed, set his shoes side by side, washed and brushed his teeth without being told and came downstairs stolidly to kiss a succession of strangers good night.
"It broke our hearts,” recalls Lillian Cooney. "The child was like a puppet.”
A Child that Needed Love
For months this youngster was cold to all the attempts the Cooneys made to show their affection. As a matter of practice, still maintained, the child was never given a task he couldn’t do easily. He was never given a dish to carry that he might fumble, never given a toy he couldn’t master. "We couldn’t risk a failure,” explains Joe Cooney. "It would set the child back too much.”
A turning point came when Lillian Cooney found the child crumpled at the foot of the stairs one afternoon almost a year later. She picked him up hut he wouldn’t speak to her. She couldn’t learn if he had fallen or if he was ill. She carried him to a rocking chair and began to rock with him in her arms.
"You know what 1 think was one of the most wonderful days of my life?” she began talking to him in her soft voice. "Well, it was a beautiful spring day last year when I was sitting here wishing and wishing that I had a little hoy. I wanted one so badly, and daddy wanted one so badly. Well, this day a car stopped down there at the end of the sidewalk . . .”
The child in her arms didn’t stir, hut Lillian knew by the set of iiis head that he was listening.
". . . and a lady got out of the car with this beautiful little hoy. He was so handsome and so wonderful 1 could hardly believe that he was coming here. And do you know who he was.'*”
The child turned his head and stared at his mother’s face.
"The child was you, my darling. That was a happy day for all of us.
The little boy went limp and closed his eyes. "Tell nie that again, he sighed. Lillian went on rocking for a long time afterward, talking gently. The child had begun to believe, at last, that he could be loved.
The Cooneys have also discovered, to their own astonishment, that a steady wash of uncritical love is not always enough to heal a wounded child. One baby was adopted after several months of institutional care in a nursery that was understaffed. The nurses had time only to feed and change the babies; none could be kissed or cuddled. The baby who came to the Cooneys had reacted by withdrawing. He refused to try to stand, to reach for a toy, to crawl. He sat sloppily and turned his head away when anyone approached him.
Weeks and weeks went by. Lillian Cooney rocked the baby, sang in his ear and kissed his soft neck. The baby twisted away and grew weaker.
"I believe,” the pediatrician remarked one day, "that this baby may even die. He isn’t interested in living.”
Lillian and Joe had a conference that night after their children were in bed. "We had to admit that our system of giving the baby a lot of loving had failed. We decided to let our children give it a try.”
The next day Lillian put the baby on the floor instead of in the playpen.
He sat there while his older brothers and sisters made cooing noises at him and offered him toys. He turned away. A younger child, indignant at the snub, slapped him lightly. A few minutes later a child running across the room accidentally humped into the baby, sending him sprawling. The baby began to cry. Lillian set him up on his diapered bottom and left the room.
"I figured that I’d let. the children do whatever they liked,” explained Lillian, “short of brutality. It was a case of life or death.”
After a few weeks of (his therapy,
the baby made his first move. In the interests of survival, he crawled out of the way. Shortly afterward he was crawling everywhere, pulling himself up to stand, walking around the coffee table. He began to eat heartily and responded with a shy new smile when he was hugged.
"What did you do?” asked the doctor in amazement on the baby’s next visit.
"We didn’t do a thing,” Lillian answered. "Our children took care of the situation.”
The Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, one of the three adoption agencies the Cooneys have dealt with, considers these almost classic examples in the care and cultivation of children. They have numerous other stories about the Cooneys. Mrs. Denise Hewer, a case worker, often recalls the afternoon she arrived at the Cooneys’ unannounced to check on the adjustment of a youngster who had just been added to the family.
"Where is he?” she asked Lillian when the civilities were over.
"Out in the back yard painting a high chair,” Lillian answered casually.
Mrs. Hewer was astonished. "But he’s only four years old! He can’t paint a high chair.”
"He wants to,” explained Lillian simply. "It makes him feel good to be helping me. He isn’t doing a very professional job, but what’s more important—the boy or the high chair?”
The Cooneys came into their marriage with these relaxed attitudes about children already formed. Lillian Cooney was fifth from the top in a family of fourteen children born to Mr. and Mrs. William Mills in Toronto. Her parents nursed a chair-rental business through the Depression. "I used to think we were poor,” Lillian recalls, "but I realize now that my father managed very well. We always had full meals on the table and I don’t think we ever sat down without two or three guests. My father used to drive out into the country on the week ends and buy food in bushel baskets.”
Though the fourteen Mills children had widely divergent personalities (a sister became a nun and a brother a night-club entertainer) they were a happy easygoing family, instinctively loyal and clannish in the tradition of big families. One of Lillian’s brothers, who has seven children, was stricken with tuberculosis recently. Aunts and uncles turned up from all over the province to take the children into their homes for as long as their help was needed.
As a result of the wonderful turbulence of her childhood, Lillian grew up anxious to begin such a family of her own. Joe Cooney, on the other hand, was one of four children of Mr. and Mrs. F. J. Cooney, a well-to-do Toronto family that accepted its family ties more casually. Joe longed for a family of his own that would envelop itself with closeness and warmth.
They met when Lillian visited the dentist with whom Joe was training in his undergraduate days. Lillian, a pretty, bright-eyed secretary, had a serious problem. "My face is all swollen from this impacted tooth,” she wailed. "I’ve got a big date at the Yacht Club this week end and I’ll look awful!”
"I’ll tell you what,” suggested the husky young dental assistant. "I’ll say a prayer for you the next time I go to church.”
"Hah!” scoffed Lillian. "When will that be, Christmas?”
"No, no,” Joe Cooney said. "I go to the novena at St. Patrick’s every Wednesday. I’ll remember you.”
Lillian looked at him speculatively. "That’s fine,” she said vaguely.
The next Wednesday Lillian Mills happened to be standing outside the door of St. Patrick’s as Joe approached.
"Imagine running into you again!” she gasped in surprise.
"A remarkable coincidence,” Joe agreed solemnly and they went inside together. They were married two days after Joe graduated. "We were dead broke,” Joe muses. "We thought we were as broke as any humans could get. We had a lot to learn about the different stages of being broke. By comparison with a few years later, we were in clover.”
Lillian expected that their first baby would be born as rapidly as the process allows. She was furious when she discovered that her hospital insurance maternity benefits wouldn’t be effective for ten months. "They’re promoting birth control!” she raged.
But years passed and the Cooneys had no baby. They moved to a small Ontario city, where Joe launched his practice. One afternoon at a garden party Lillian was mildly surprised to
hear herself remark to an acquaintance that if she were to remain childless another year she would adopt a baby. The year passed and the Cooneys adopted their first baby. They were to discover that adoption in a small community is not without hazard. Their cleaning woman peered into the crib openly puzzled. "Is it local?” she asked. "I hadn’t heard . . .”
The next Cooney baby came from some distance away. Through a freakish set of circumstances so rare in adoption procedure as to constitute a phenomenon, this baby arrived with an advanced case of scurvy. "He cried constantly, but especially when he was touched,” Lillian recalls. "I couldn’t straighten his little legs. When the doctor examined him he could hardly believe his own diagnosis. He’d never seen a case before.” This child, except for a susceptibility to colds, is now healthy and extraordinarily attractive.
Joe Cooney decided to open an office in Toronto. His plans were ambitious: he wanted a bungalow
studio, a kind of dental office unknown in Canada but gaining in popularity in the United States. It consists of a long corridor flanked on either side by offices and laboratories, each serving a special function. One room is used only for cleaning teeth, another for prosthetics, another for fillings, another for surgery. The arrangement permit.® several patients to be in various stages of treatment at the same time.
Dr. Cooney put his savings into an elderly brick house on a corner lot in the south Kingsway district of Toronto. He and an architect planned a twelve-room studio to be attached to the back of this home, with a separate entrance off the side street. Lillian and the two children moved into
the house and Joe started what was intended to be a temporary schedule, rising at dawn each day to commute almost a hundred miles to his practice j in the other city.
Disaster then became a house guest. The building permit for the bungalow ! wing was held up ten months; when ! this was straightened out the con; tractor stalled because of complex difficulties of his own; a decorator built more furniture than could be j moved into the rooms and a lawsuit was required to settle the dispute. The worst moment came when a creditor came and took away their car.
In the midst of the confusion, Lillian and Joe quietly adopted their third baby. "Babies don’t cost anything,” Lillian explains. "The Children’s Aid ! provides a layette and my sisters send me clothes their children have outgrown. Besides, if you’re going to look at this in dollars and cents, these children have more than paid for themselves.”
She has examples to prove it. One evening the president of a dental equipment company arrived to inspect the partially completed studio. Joe needed three dental chairs to begin with, one yellow, one green and one blue. He was broke and he knew the company would require a one-quarter down payment. When the tour was finished Joe brought the official into his home and listed his requirements.
"Nice-looking children you have there,” parried the other. "How old are they?”
"They’re both three, they’re sixmonths apart,” Joe told him.
"Adopted, eh,” the man remarked.
"Í have two adopted children myself.” There was a pause. "We’ll deliver the equipment you need tomorrow, Dr. Cooney. Don’t worry about the down payment.”
Should You Count the Cost?
Later a group of creditors held a meeting to advise the Cooneys how they could cut expenses. One suggested hiring only one nurse instead of two, another commented on the extravagance of two phones in the studio. Another rose to his feet and said, "You haven’t received the final papers on that last baby you adopted. I suggest you send him back.” The rest of the creditors, shocked and disgusted, quickly dissolved the meeting.
With the help of their lawyer, who j loaned them ten thousand dollars, the j Cooneys opened their offices in 1949 j owing fifty creditors. The building,
J worth more than sixty thousand, is I today almost completely clear of debt.
The Cooneys requested another baby. The Children’s Aid hesitated and a priest tactfully approached Joe Cooney one evening. "Ah,” he began, "do you think you’d better delay having this new baby until you get some financial troubles fixed up?”
"Father,” said Joe softly. "If Lillian was having a baby, would you advise j her not to have that child because we couldn’t afford it?”
"Well, no,” said the priest, "but this is different . . .”
"This is the baby we would have been having if we could,” Joe interI rupted. "See if you can hurry them I up, will you Father?”
Their fourth baby arrived a few I weeks later. Every night Joe Cooney j gathered his small tousled children around him and told them a bedtime I story. It was always the same one and it began "Once upon a time mommy and I were very lonely because we had no babies at our house. We went to the hospital to see if they had a baby we could have and we looked and we looked hut we couldn’t
see one we liked. Then one day we saw this wonderful little boy. He was the most beautiful baby in the whole nursery . .
"Don’t forget he had blue eyes,” a sleepy child would murmur.
", . . and he had blue eyes. We took him home with us and do you know who that baby was?”
"Me,” grinned the oldest son.
"Right. And then we thought if we could only find another baby as wonderful as that and . . .”
The bedtime story has been a ritual for years, growing longer with each addition to the family. The Cooney children now are bored by it. "Not that again!” they moan. "Tell us something else.”
But the story has fulfilled its purpose. A few weeks ago when Lillian told the children that one of their aunts was having a baby, they were sympathetic. "She has to take whatever she gets,” mourned a six-year-old. "We were picked!"
The older children once asked their father about tin; origin of babies. When he had finished a simple explanation, one of them was puzzled. "But we weren’t horn from mommy, were we? Where did we come from?”
"The mommy and daddy who had you loved you very much,” Joe said with care. "For some reason, maybe they were sick or had to go away, they couldn’t take care of you so they let us have you. They were terribly sad about it.”
The Cooneys are dismayed when people meeting them for the first time remark, "Aren’t you wonderful!” "That’s so silly,” Lillian says. "People adopt children for selfish reasons. They do it for themselves, not for the child. Our children have no reason at all to feel grateful to us.”
Some People are Stupid
Lillian Cooney, over the years; has made a sizable collection of unfortunate observations commonly made on the subject of adoption. A frequent : one is, "I guess you can’t feel about them the way you would one of your own.” Others are: "Aren’t you afraid of disease?”; "Are they all from one family?”; "You don’t have to worry how they do in school, since they are only adopted.” People who have adopted a baby and later given birth themselves often hear, "Isn’t it a ; shame. If you’d only known . .
A mother of three small adopted children was told, "Isn’t it sweet that they are all different nationalities. They can grow up and teach one another the various languages.” None of these rexxiarks, Lillian feels, are made with intent to hurt. "People are only thoughtless,” she adds. "Thoughtless and stupid.”
The worst comment of all was made a few months ago when the entire family visited the home of an old friend of Joe’s. The children filed in, filling the room with steps of lightbrown hair and lively, curious expressions. The friend studied them and then turned dolefully to Joe and Lillian.
"Not even one of your own,” he commiserated in a loud clear voice. "Too bad.”
Joe looked quickly at his children, who appeared unconcerned. You re mistaken,” he said, keeping his temper cool. "All of these children are our own.”
The Cooney household is in many respects an unusual one. Because they are children of a dentist, none of the youngsters is permitted much candy, soft drinks, gum or popsicles. They don’t go to movies, partly because Lillian is distressed at the bad manners of a theatreful of children. They watch
television in the hour before dinner and again when their homework is finished but they are not allowed to watch family comedies, such as the William Bendix program, which portray either parent as a simpleton. They receive no allowances; the money they earn by such tasks as the office laundry (fifteen cents for a sheet and five cents for a towel) is put away for special purchases such as a baseball glove.
The family searches for entertainment that can be enjoyed as a unit. On week ends in the autumn they drive to a fall fair in the country, in the summer to a beach and in all seasons to a xnonastery farm where they are welcome. They fish together—"that is, everyone but daddy fishes,” explains Joe. "I spend the time untangling lines and putting worms on hooks.” Their summer vacation consists of one week in a metropolis, such as Detroit or Buffalo, so the children can adjust to luxury hotels, and one week driving from motel to motel in Ontario’s northland, so the children can see the country and swim every day in a different lake. "People say we should take a cottage,” Joe adds, "but that’s no vacation for Lillian.”
The family often has a meal in a Toronto restaurant in order to acquaint the children with menus and other complexities. "It also gives me a chance to judge how their table manners are progressing,” Lillian explains.
Religion is the strong steady core of the household. The childi’en pray each morning when they waken; their father goes to Mass nearly every day of his life. They offer grace before every meal and in the early evening they all kneel before a tiny altar on the stairway landing and say their rosary. They pray again at bedtime.
"We believe in the salvation of the soul,” Joe Cooney explains. 'We must do as good a job of living every day as we possibly can. We teach love, dignity and respect to our children. They must never hurt anyone else and they ixiust try to be understanding when they are hurt.”
It appears to be effective. The Cooney household is comparatively free of the bickering and frustrated wailing that characterizes many brother-sister relationships. Differences are easily smoothed. "Mommy,” a voice wailed one autumn evening, "Stephen is eating my bread!” "Let him have it,” Lillian returned easily. "Get yourself a nice fresh piece.”
People have asked the Cooneys how they managed to adopt so many children in an age where the demand for such children exceeds the supply. "Well,” explains Joe, "we don’t lay out any specifications about our youngsters. We don’t fuss about their backgrounds and racial extraction. Every one ot them has a soul and that s what is important.”
"Don’t ever get the idea that it’s easy,” Lillian once cautioned a woman considering adoption. "It’s hard, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s impossible. When you adopt an older child, give him as many years to get adjusted in your home as he has been out oí your home. Wait and be patient. Love him and don’t push him. That s about all there is to it.”
"How many children do you plan to adopt?” the Children’s Aid once asked the Cooneys.
"I haven’t the faintest idea,” smiled Lillian. "But, you know, 1 was one ot fourteen.” ★
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