Margaret Sanger, "The Tragedy of the Accidental Child," Apr 1919.
Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Apr. 1919, 5-6 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S70:819 .
The first right of the child is to be wanted--to be desired with an intensity of love that gives it its title to being and joyful impulse to life. It should be wanted by both parents, but especially by the mother, who is to carry it, nourish it, and perhaps influence its life by her thoughts, her passions, her loves, her hates, her yearnings.
We have observed how strongly children inherit their mother's traits. Freud has told us of children so greatly influenced by their mothers as to be incapable of a mate love for anyone who does not resemble them. We are all familiar with the old wives' tales of children "marked" because of a mother's fright or other strong emotion, though we know little concerning the truth or falsity of this theory. Just as little do we know of the effect of fear, hate, yearning, or disgust in the mother at the time of conception.
Until scientists give years of careful study to the problem there will be no accurate information concerning it. At most we can only speculate upon it now. But since the life of the mother in its other phases, seems to affect the child so vitally, is it not probably that strong emotion at the time of conception, emotion which lingers and preys upon the mind of the mother in the months following, leaves its impress deeply if not indelibly upon the life of the child? And is it not time that the scientists were making a direct and exhaustive study of a problem which may be fraught with so much of weal or woe for the race?
My personal opinion, founded upon observation as nurse and as worker in the Birth Control movement, is that these emotions have a profound effect upon the child. I believe that the mother's fear of pregnancy has a most unhappy influence upon the life of her offspring. I believe that this fear and the unsuccessful practice of coitus interruptus are responsible for the timidity, the fretfulness and feebleness of many infants.
Does it stand to reason that no child can be what it should be, physically, mentally or spiritually, if it is conceived and carried by a mother to whom the embraces of her husband are repugnant? Can a mother who begins the creation of the little life in disgust and in disgust brings it to birth, bequeath to her baby the strength, the mental vigor or the disposition to happiness that is its inherent right? Can a mother whose very being is trembling in terrified submission or quivering with hate at the time of conception and who for months thereafter experiences a measure of these same emotions, bring her child forth as well equipped for the life struggle as it would otherwise have been? We know something of the effect of worry upon the mother's milk. What may we not yet discover concerning the effect of worry or even stronger emotions upon her blood that for nine months flows through the very being of the child?
Why the great numbers of feeble-minded children? Why the hosts of infants born too feeble to withstand the difficulties of the first year of existence? Why the weakling manhood and womanhood, too timid to make effective protest against the great social wrongs and tyrannies which crush them?
Science has answered these questions in part, but only in part. I do not believe that they will be conclusively answered until account is taken of the condition of the mind of the mother from the moment of the creative embrace until the child is born.
The tragedy of the unwanted child--of the accidental child-–only begins with whatever evil prenatal effect the emotional condition of the mother may have upon it. The right to be wanted is it first right but only the first of many that are ignored. Usually it suffers a further handicap by being carried by a mother who is physically ill or overworked. Fear of pregnancy is frequently inspired in the mind of the mother by the burden of too many children, or by want or by both. When it arrives, the accidental child usually finds itself in the ranks of the millions of hungry and neglected infants. Often it is merely a candidate for an item in the infant mortality statistics. We have before us always the horrible spectacle of hundreds of thousands of children dying miserably before they have lived twelve months, of other hundred of thousands dying just as miserably before they reach the age of five. Worse still, is the lot of those other millions who after the age of five take their places among the toilers in mills and factories.
What have we to offer those who do not go to the places of toil? To the majority of them, dwelling places too cluttered and crowded to be called homes. Schools that are crowded, in which "half time" is the sop of the state to the needs of childhood. Streets, filthy and crowded, as their playgrounds. And for some of them, finally, crowded jails and crowded institutions for the feeble-minded. Crowded always, from the beginning to the end of their monotonous lives, the hordes of unwanted children seldom have a chance to forget their unwanted state.
We hear a good deal of sentimentality about unfailing mother love. We are told that even these unwanted children have that to protect them in their hard lots. But how few of the poorer women have the time and the strength to let mother love develop and express itself? We make a mistake in assuming that mothers are always kind. We forget that under the stress of caring for many children, under the strain of helping to earn bread for hungry mouths and clothing for bodies clothed in rags, the strongest mother love may turn bitter and cruel.
Is anything more horrible, more hopeless than the cruelty of a mother worried and tired to distraction? Oh, yes, there is much of it! If you doubt, go for a little while to live among the families whose mothers are over-burdened with children whose, bodies and brains are worn threadbare with toil inside and outside the home. Unfortunately it is not only the hardhearted father of the story book who is cruel to the children-–there is an appalling amount of cruelty from the mothers too.
Which of us has not seen such cruelty, even in the streets? A case significant only because it is of frequent occurrence came to my attention a few months ago. A woman, evidently worn out by a day's work, was wheeling a child in a baby buggy in fourteenth street. Another child, about three years old, was trudging at her side, clinging heavily to her skirt. It had on badly shaped, cheap shoes, which probably hurt its feet. It cried monotonously as it walked. The mother, apparently in frantic haste to reach home and prepare supper, doubtless for a husband and several other children–-suddenly felt the drag of the weary, crying child. She struck it, first across one side of its little face and then the other. The tiny thing, surprised by the sudden attack, fell face downward upon the sidewalk. The furious, nerve-wracked mother, picked it up by the chin and struck it again and again on the back until a passer-by interfered. To a threat of arrest she retorted: "Oh, you shut up. This is my kid and I'll lick it when I want to."
Do you hesitate to believe that this happens often? It is common–-as common, almost, as unwanted children. Of course, the mother later on rocks the child to sleep, covers its bruised face with kisses and seeks to wipe out the memory of the blows in a flood of remorse. But the scars are there, in the mind of the child, if not upon its body. Our militarists and ecclesiastics who shout for more and more children, who speak of them as "blessings," shut their eyes tightly to this aspect of child life among the harassed poor.
In France, where a knowledge of contraceptives is available to a large proportion of the working-class mothers, another typical scene is often witnessed. The mother arranges with her employer to leave her work for a time in order to fetch her child from school through the dangerous crossings and see it safely past the groups of older and rougher boys. Her attitude is almost invariably one of tenderness. The differences lies in the number of children. This French mother is not so badly overburdened and her child is the more precious to her because she has only the one, or two.
The child's right to a different lot from that depicted here is no longer questioned by thinking people. Many men and women are now working to alleviate the burdens and sorrows of the army of unwanted infants. The material side of the child's life is bound to receive a certain amount of consideration now and in the future. Even the unwanted children are becoming fewer. And the medical profession, even the church, the imperialist, and the employer of "hands"-–all those who are in need of cheap and ignorant humanity-–will see to it that children have better shelter and get more of the food and clothing necessary to their existence. This they will do in the interest of their own institutions.
Material rights of the child, however, are far more easy to enumerate and to obtain-–when children are scarce–-than are others of its rights which, for want of a better name, we may call spiritual. The awakening of the parents to these rights of the child, some of which have been indicated in the present article, must follow quickly upon the heels of its material rights.
The eugenist very correctly contends that the parents should be in good health, mentally and physically, when the child is conceived. They do well to insist that it is the first material right of the child to be "well born." But have they taken into consideration all of the factors?
From what deep spring of moral and spiritual weakness arises this huge stream of the cringing, the suppliant, the submissive? Whence come the natures of these millions of human beings who are but timorous pawns moved hither and thither upon the chess board of existence by a few powerful hands?
Who can say that it is not because we come into life with the feeling, conscious or subconscious, that we are not wanted-–that we are accidents? Who can say that it is not because we have graven upon our natures, the fear, the disgust, the loathing, the shrinking of our mothers? Men and women who have lived through the past four years, in any country on the globe, know what it is to be pawns. Not all the power of the church, not all the teachings of Christianity, not all our education, our theories of right and wrong, availed the weak wills of the millions of "accidents," when a few tyrants plunged the civilized world into warfare.
When we people the earth with men and women who are not "accidents," these human holocausts cannot occur. When we have men and women whose wills, whose moral and spiritual natures have not been marred by fear and hate from the moment of conception, war will be impossible.
When we insist that conception be surrounded by its normal atmosphere of triumphant love and happiness, and thus infuse into the new life the spark of love, with its impulse to live, to love in its turn, to be strong, we shall have a new sort of humanity. There will be no more "dumb, driven cattle" in the guise of men. When we can visualize out of the surging love and happiness of the creative act the strong, healthy, happy, mentally and spiritually vigorous child, we shall produce individuals with intellectual and spiritual gifts beyond those of any race that has yet appeared upon earth.
Our imaginations are as yet too weak, too uninformed, to portray to us the strength, the beauty and the wonder of a humanity yet to be brought into being-–through children created in the flame of love.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project