Heredity And Prenatal Influence
( Originally Published 1918 )
HEREDITY is a subject which is, as yet, only partly understood by the most advanced thinkers and largely misunderstood by the general public. We hear, for example, that someone has inherited consumption or some other disease, whereas in reality what is passed on is not the diseae itself but simply a weakness of the physical constitution which makes it more prone to succumb to the attacks of this particular disease. There is a lowered state of the vital forces which renders the body particularly susceptible to attacks of this kind. The same may be true of other diseases.
It may readily be seen from the above that, while one may inherit a tendency toward one form of weakness or another, there is no reason why one should sit down in hopelessness and give up to the inherited tendency. Rather should the knowledge that such a weakness exists spur one on to greater effort toward building up one's vital forces. It is always possible to add to the amount of vitality which we receive at the beginning of our existence, and the duty rests upon us to do so in order that our offspring may receive a better start in life than that with which we were blessed. That this is possible has been demonstrated in innumerable instances.
There are two poisons which may well be termed "racial poisons," because they make a direct attack upon the germ plasm. One is the poison of alcohol; the other is the poison of syphilis. These facts should be carefully considered by all who have the welfare of future generations at heart. Could these two poisons be removed from the bodies of the human race and the natural tendency of the living germ plasm to maintain its force and vigor be allowed undisturbed sway, who can say to what heights of vigorous development we might not attain !
Although parents are markedly able to affect the inheritance their children are to receive through their own bodies, they are not able to change the heritage of previous generations. It is for this reason that young people contemplating marriage should know something of each other's family history. The discovery of insanity, epilepsy, idiocy, alcoholism, or syphilis, in the ancestry of an individual should make one pause before choosing such an inheritance for one's offspring. A single case of such afflictions may not be serious enough to warrant the breaking of an engagement, but a long line of such cases would be more than sufficient to make such a decision imperative. In the case of tuberculosis, while one would not intentionally choose a tuberculous individual for a parent, the mere fact that in the past there have been tubercular individuals in the family need not necessarily cause a panic of fear. Tubercular tendencies can be overcome through simple diet, outdoor living and vigorous exercise.
The gift of inheritance which we are to hand on to our children has been partly decided for us, but our own physical condition at the time that the gift of life is bestowed rests entirely within us. Ideally considered, those who contemplate becoming parents should see to it that they are in the finest possible physical condition before they assume the great responsibility of be-stowing life, for if they cannot directly affect the inheritance of their children, the building of the child's bodily organism during the nine months preceding birth is largely within their control.
The physical integrity of the child's body will depend, in very large degree, upon the quality of the material furnished by the mother's blood during this vitally important time. Not. only will her physical condition be affected by the food she eats, the air she breathes and the exercise which she takes, but it also will be affected by her thoughts and emotions. Fear, anxiety, worry, jealousy—all of these negative emotions have a depressing and disturbing effect upon the physical organism and therefore really produce poisons which, carried in the stream of the blood, may react deleteriously upon the forming embryo. Here is where the husband can be of great assistance in protecting the expectant mother as much as possible from these undesirable emotions, and encouraging her to master and rise above those conditions which cannot be avoided.
The husband's loving, watchful solicitude will do more than anything else in the world to make these nine months a period of happiness and harmony, and will, therefore, contribute directly to the welfare of his child.
That the mother possesses great influence over her child during these nine months has been believed from time immemorial. Many of these ancient beliefs have been proven false by the discoveries of science. It is no longer believed that an ungratified appetite on the part of the mother will result in some unfortunate marking of the child. Where the mother's desires are for things not detrimental to her, there is no reason why her wishes should not be gratified; but if her appetite seems abnormal and the things desired in-advisable, she can produce the best effect upon her child by having enough strength of will to
put aside cheerfully her own wishes in accordance with the advice of her physician. It is doubtful if even a great shock to the mother at this time will have any direct effect upon the child, though it may be indirectly injurious through the impaired health and nutrition of the former. The probability is that the mother who has self-control enough to meet the disagreeable experiences of life with courage and optimism will, by her very attitude of mind, protect her offspring from any deleterious results. The mere sight of one who is crippled or de-formed should not produce any effect upon the child in utero and will not, unless the mother allows herself to be thrown into hysterics through such an experience, or otherwise to exhibit an unfortunate weakness of will power.
Let it be understood that the body of the child is practically complete by the end of the third month. In the majority of instances, the occurrence which the mother thinks of as the possible cause of a certain physical formation in her child will be found to have taken place after she had felt the sign of quickening, which does not come, as a rule, until the child is four and a half months along.
The important thing for the mother during this period is to remain serene and well-poised in spirit, knowing that this attitude of mind is most conducive to the best possible condition of the body.
The fact that peevish, fretful babies are some-times born to women who have spent their nine months of pregnancy in weeping and bemoaning their condition would seem to indicate that there is some relation between the attitude of the mother's mind during this period and the disposition of the child. Certain it is that the child who is desired, planned for and welcomed from the moment of his conception, comes into the world in a much more harmonious state of mind and body, probably because of the better quality of blood from which it has drawn its sustenance. On the other hand, pregnancies which have been attended with much sorrow and trouble have often resulted in the happiest babies. Almost every one knows cases of this kind.
The reason why it is important for women to know and understand the truth on this subject is because faith in the old theory of maternal impressions is in itself a cause of worry and ill-health. The woman who fears that she has "marked" or is going to "mark" her unborn child, loses sleep, exhausts her nervous system and deranges her health generally, worrying over these expected results.
Only recently a letter was received from a woman who had been reading about these sup-posed prenatal influences and who, even though she did not have complete faith in the old theory, yet was so harassed by doubt upon the subject that she could not bring herself to the state of mind in which she would be willing to have children. Her one great desire in life was for motherhood, but through her fears as to the possibilities of marking her child by various experiences, and seeing it "cursed before birth," she had up to that time denied herself this blessing. In a case like this, also, the theory of pre-natal influence is vicious in character and result. It is nothing short of a calamity for a woman who desires children to be deprived of them on any account.
If a woman can feel that, with general conditions of good health, she can go through the experience of pregnancy and have a normal; healthy baby irrespective of her mental activities and experiences during this period, she will then find joy in the experience and feel free to concentrate all her energies on the program necessary for the maintenance of vigorous physical health and good nutrition.
Many there are who have believed that children could be influenced to certain professions, or could have developed within them remarkable qualities by the mother's study or trend of thought during pregnancy. For example, one woman will endeavor to make a mathematical prodigy of her child by devoting the nine months to a study of mathematics. Another will try to produce a musical genius by devoting her time to music, while a third will endeavor to turn her child in the direction of science by reading the works and studying the lives of scientists. The theory is a beautiful one, but it does not seem to work out in practice. Of course, if the mother is already musically inclined, with much native ability, her offspring will show the same characteristics, probably to about the same degree, whether she practices much during that period or not. It is hereditary. If, however, the mother and father lack musical ability, it is rather hope-less to expect the child to show it, unless some of his other progenitors had that capacity. I know of one instance in which a mother made such an effort to develop a musical temperament in a family having no ear for music on either side. The child showed absolutely no capacity for learning music, in spite of the fact that the mother had practiced most assiduously during her nine months. It was noticed, however, that the boy did show a remarkable degree of perseverance in whatever he undertook. Possibly her determination and stick-to-itiveness had contributed somewhat to that result. But that, too, may have come as a matter of heredity. He was merely the son of his mother, in that respect.
The most important thing for every human being, however, is to be born into the world with a healthy, vigorous body and a well-poised, harmonious mind, and this, particularly, all parents. should seek to insure to their children. As one writer has said, "What one habitually is, not what one occasionally or periodically does, has the greatest influence in determining the character of one's children."