The Wrong Baby

The Internet abounds with separation stories – twins separated at birth, siblings parted through divorce, whole families scattered by war. One story that caught my attention recently, was of a British man and his Salvadoran wife whose baby was switched with another at birth. Mercedes Casanellas needed an emergency caesarean 5 weeks before her due date. She had the procedure in a hospital in El Salvador and as soon as it was completed, she kissed her son before he was taken away to the nursery.

It was the next afternoon before a baby was returned to her. Straightaway, Mercedes knew it wasn’t hers. It was 4 months before DNA evidence proved she couldn’t be the mother to the baby she and her husband had taken home from hospital. It was only when DNA was taken from the babies of other mothers who had shared a ward with Mercedes that their real son found.

What anguish those parents must have suffered, anxious for the fate of their real son. Where was he? Was he loved and well cared for, or had been sold to child traffickers as Mercedes feared. And all the time, an attachment was growing between them and the wrong baby. Just voicing their suspicions would have felt like a betrayal and giving him up must have been heart wrenching.

But there’s another reason this story resonates; as a young girl I was convinced I had been switched at birth.

Many teenagers at some time entertain such thoughts. Many are plagued by doubts about their place within their family and as a blond, blue-eyed child growing up in a household of brunettes I certainly felt at odds with my sibling and parents. But there was more to it than a lack of family resemblances: an anecdote I grew up with entailed just such a switch.

My mother had had a difficult time giving birth to me. I was fine – a healthy 7 pounds 7 ounces – but complications had meant Mum needed two blood transfusions and so we remained in hospital for a fortnight after I was born. I spent most of that time in the nursery, only being brought out onto the ward for feeding. This was the custom in the sixties but it was also to give Mum peace and quiet so she could recover.

My aunt was one of the first to visit, as soon as Mum was well enough. She asked the sister if she could see the baby and was escorted down to the nursery, a glass panelled room just off the ward. The sister went inside and picked up a baby and held it up to the window for my aunt to see.

“That’s not our baby!”

I can imagine my aunt, who at 84 is still incredibly feisty, chastising the sister, who in tern would have become defensive. She maintained that the child most certainly was Baby Brittan and that no mistake had been made. I don’t know how long the impasse went on for but eventually records were checked and yes, the baby my aunt had been shown wasn’t me at all.

Whether anyone entertained fears of an accidental switch I’ve no idea. But whenever I was in dispute with my parents, rampant hormones would present ugly thoughts. What if a mistake had been made? What if I was living with the wrong family? What if my real parents were easy going, more understanding, less strict?

As an adult I can see these thoughts for what they were – the insecurities of a teenager looking for reasons to explain why her family life seemed different to that of her peers: a clear case of the grass being greener.

In photographs I can now see family likenesses that were hidden in my youth. My sister and I have the same mouth and in certain situations, I have my mother’s smile. There is a family trait for a shortness in the arms which means sleeves are frustratingly too long.

But there is one thing I still can’t understand: how did my aunt know she’d been shown the wrong baby? Don’t they all look the same?

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