The story of 20-year-old Manon and her accidental mother — who raised Manon after a French hospital unknowingly switched two newborns sharing a cradle — takes turns more complicated than most fiction, challenging cherished assumptions about maternal attachment.
GRASSE, France — When Sophie Serrano finally held her daughter, Manon, in her arms after the newborn, suffering from jaundice, had been placed under artificial light, she was taken aback by the baby’s full head of glossy hair.
“I hadn’t noticed it before and it surprised me,” Serrano said in an interview at her home here in southern France, not far from the Côte d’Azur.
Serrano, now 39, was baffled again a year later, when she noticed that her baby’s hair had grown frizzy and that her skin color was darker than Serrano’s or her partner’s.
But her love for the child trumped any doubts. Even as her romantic relationship unraveled — in part, she said, over her partner’s suspicions — she painstakingly looked after the baby. A paternity test more than 10 years later showed that neither she nor her partner was Manon’s biological parent. Serrano later found out that a nurse had accidentally switched babies and given them to the wrong mothers.
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The story made headlines in France for the first time in February, when a southern court ordered the clinic in Cannes where the babies were switched, as well as the clinic’s insurer, to pay a total of 1.88 million euros ($2.13 million), to be split by the families. The money, Serrano said, would repair “an invaluable damage” and put an end to a 12-year ordeal.
Tales of swapped newborns tend to crop up in popular culture, most recently in the ABC Family television series “Switched at Birth,” in which two teenage girls learn that they were mistakenly swapped in a hospital and their families try to live together for the girls’ well-being.
But the story of Manon and her accidental mother takes turns more complicated than most fiction could anticipate, challenging cherished assumptions about maternal attachment.
Serrano’s love for Manon, she said, grew stronger after she learned that the girl was not her biological daughter. She also said that, after meeting the girl she had given birth to, she felt no particular connection with her.
“It is not the blood that makes a family,” Serrano said. “What makes a family is what we build together, what we tell each other. And I have created a wonderful bond with my nonbiological daughter.”
The court decision ended Serrano’s long struggle to obtain damages for the nurse’s negligence. It also helped her, she said, silence neighbors and others who accused her of lacking maternal instinct and criticized her inability to identify with her own child.
Serrano answers such disbelief by pointing out that she was 18 at the time and that Manon, now 20, was her first child. “I could never have imagined such a scenario,” she said.
When Serrano gave birth, the baby developed neonatal jaundice and was almost immediately placed in an incubator. Because of a shortage of cradles, a nurse put the naked baby in the same cradle as another naked baby.
Daniel Verstraete, the lawyer for the other family, which refused to speak publicly about the case, said that only one of the two babies was wearing an identification tag, which “may have fallen off.”
When Manon was handed over to Serrano after the treatment, mother and child had spent very little time together. Serrano noticed that the baby’s hair was thicker, but she said she was persuaded to put it out of her mind.
“The nurse said that the lights from the phototherapy treatment made the baby’s hair grow,” Serrano said.
The other mother, also 18 at the time, asked another nurse why her baby lacked hair. She was told that phototherapy could also shorten hair.
“My client didn’t ask herself questions,” Verstraete said. “A baby swap was unthinkable.”
Serrano, who lived with her partner in a tiny village near Grasse, raised her child while facing growing suspicion from neighbors that Manon, so physically dissimilar to her parents, might have been the “postman’s daughter.”
The couple’s relationship eventually collapsed, in part, Serrano said, because her partner was also suspicious and refused to care for Manon. When they separated, her partner demanded a paternity test.
“It had the effect of a tsunami,” Serrano said.
In order to find the family that had received her biological daughter, Serrano filed a civil complaint against the clinic in 2010. Police investigators discovered that Manon’s biological parents were a Creole couple from the island of La Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, who, as it turned out, now lived just a few miles away from Serrano.
“When I first met them, I noticed how much I looked like them,” said Manon, a wide-eyed young woman who studies management at a nearby technical school. “But I was sitting in front of complete strangers, and I didn’t know how to position myself.”
The families saw each other several times, during which Manon explored her Creole origins. But the parents and daughters had trouble building any rapport, and they eventually stopped seeing each other. In the end, after some discussion, both families preferred to keep the child they had raised, rather than taking their biological one.
Neither Serrano nor Manon would say how they would spend the money from the trial, but Manon said she dreamed of settling in Britain and of a career in management.
“The story of my birth has made me stronger,” Manon said. She found balance, she said, through therapy, her mother’s love and her own “deeply ingrained” pragmatism.