It’s time to stop viewing pregnant women as threats to their babies

Both popular and medical literature abounded with stories of babies born deformed in various ways because of maternal imagination: the baby born with hair all over its body because its mother looked at a picture of John the Baptist dressed in animal pelts while having sex; or the baby that looked like a frog because his mother had been holding a frog in her hand (a cure for fever) while having sex; or the white princess who gave birth to a black baby because she looked at a picture of a “Moor.” These stories circulated well into the 19th century, and maternal imagination continued to be invoked as a cause of congenital anomalies and disabilities until well into the 20th century.

So strong was the belief in the power of maternal imagination that doctors advised husbands to treat pregnant wives gently, to avoid upsetting them and to indulge their cravings for strange foods. But even these positive practices suggest a lurking fear of the harm that the mother’s imagination could do without proper disciplining. Women, naturally irrational, unstable and emotional, made poor caretakers of fetuses.

While “maternal imagination” is no longer a medical category, the basic idea that mothers pose a threat to their fetuses has continued to permeate our culture. Maternal imagination has been replaced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries with concerns about the effects of “stress” on pregnancy, which indicates lingering concerns that a woman’s mental state can harm her fetus.