Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/May 1904/Alumna's Children



THE latest publication of vital statistics in Massachusetts has again called attention to a subject often discussed in this magazine and elsewhere—the decreasing number of children in native American families. According to the majority of opinions given, this decrease is due mostly to 'social ambition.' This means that the women who should be, in a real sense, the pillars of our society prefer other things to bringing up their own children. If this is true, it seems a very serious indictment of the American woman.

But is the case settled yet? While social ambition may be operative in many cases, perhaps peculiarly among those coming to the notice of a specialist in medicine, may there not be some data that the statistician can not collect—some pertinent facts which in the nature of the case are not within reach of the investigators?

Among all the talk by learned men and high officials, it is strange that no member of the class under discussion has spoken to the question. On further thought the reason is obvious; the case is necessarily of great delicacy and incapable of proof. But because the charge seems to me in many cases so peculiarly unjust, hereby do I rush in where angels have feared to tread.

Dr. Engelmann in his especially interesting article spoke particularly of the college graduates, that 'group having a lower birth rate than any other.' There may be no need to separate alumna from the rest of her racial group for consideration, for the body of college women now is made up of nearly all the elements of what may be called the middle class. But because narrowing a subject makes it easier to view; because the birth rate of the alumna? is the very lowest; and, especially, because I happen to know more of the conditions among college girls, I confine myself to that group.

There is no need to question the figures—that 1.8 children is the average family of an alumna wife; but let us consider in the beginning just what that 1.8 children mean. Incidentally, we may think a moment of the marriage rate among college women. Both these relatively low numbers are inspiring in one respect—in the thought of the elements which have been eliminated. If less than 50 per cent, of college women marry, yet of that number few take husbands 'for a home' or because they have nothing else to do. Perhaps there are as many happy marriages of companionship among a hundred college women as among a hundred women selected from any class, and does the state lose by the elimination of all others?

Alumna's marriage, then, means that a mature, independent, trained woman deliberately chooses to give the direction of her life to a man, because she loves him well enough to find in so doing her greatest happiness. Of such a mating are alumna's children born—of a 'selected' father, of a mother who has at least had an opportunity for knowledge—born to a heritage of intelligent love and care. So they ought to be a power for good, even though they are few. But just because they are of such a quality, society wants more of them; and it behooves the state to determine why their numbers are so few.

Yesterday I received some evidence on this question which seemed to me pertinent. I spent the day with a member of this group 'having a lower birth rate than any other.' She had recently buried her only child, hardly a month old. As I was on my way to her, my mind went over her past year; her hope that she might at last be strong enough to bear a well child, the months of illness, the forty-eight hours of agony, the supreme joy so soon followed by anxiety, and the awful loss. And when I saw her face I could not speak. But she spoke, and with a smile: 'Don't pity me so. It paid! it pays!' During the hours I spent with her she showed me two books of letters, mostly from college friends of ours. One collection was received when her baby came, the other when he went. 'I am so happy to know that your life has been made complete'—this thought was expressed over and over again in the letters of congratulation. Mothers or childless, all these women seemed to know that any woman's life is incomplete until she has known motherhood. Of those notes that came at the little one's death from childless women, married or single, all said, in one phrase or another, 'how much sadder than yourself am I, who have no child to die.' These letters inevitably suggest the question, why are so few of these women mothers, when all of them speak of motherhood as life's greatest good? It seemed to me a very solemn question, and I went over the list of those whom I know best and found what seems to me a suggestive unanimity.

There is A, the brightest girl in our class, kept from the really brilliant literary career of which she is capable by her physical weakness. She loves a man who is her ideal mate and he returns her love, but they live their lives apart. A short time ago I said something to her about her being married. "Be married!" she said. "What right have I to be married? My physician tells me that I am no more a woman physically than is a twelve-year-old girl. What right have I to give to any man an invalid wife and take away from him his hope of children? I shall never be married!"

B has just adopted a baby, 'because I may never hope to have one of my own,' as she wrote me. C, apparently well during college days, came to decennial the mother of three children, but such an invalid that she only with difficulty sat up during class dinner. D had one child who died at birth, and no other has ever come to her. E, an especially close friend of mine, has one child and longs for more, but her physician husband is unwilling that she should again take the risk, saying she was 'never meant to bear children.' F's case is almost the same; a woman of magnificent physique, she refused to heed her doctor. Her first baby lived, but she barely escaped herself; her second child was sacrificed to save its mother's life; 'and I can never hope for another,' she said to me, her eyes full of tears. G also would not believe her physician, but her hope was finally justified. Though three times she was disappointed, her fourth suffering gave her a son, who, she says, much more than pays for all. H has two strong, beautiful children. 'I wish we had six,' said her husband, a college dean, by the way, 'but the two that we have cost their mother so much that we shall never have any more.'

These women are all among my classmates, but the conditions are not peculiar to my class or to my college. I could cite as many instances among other college friends, but they are so nearly identical that they would seem merely a repetition. Two friends of mine now are fighting hard for the lives which have been threatened ever since their first babies came, in each case over a year ago. The example of greatest courage, perhaps, is not a college woman, though decidedly a schooled woman. Five times she went to the very gates of death for her great hope, but only once did she see the face of a living child of hers, and he died at six months.

In connection with a woman's ruling passion, I always think of that gracious lady preeminent as scholar and citizen, who recently left this world so much the poorer, especially for those who enjoyed the distinction of her friendship. I once heard a woman ask her whether she had any children. "Do you suppose," she replied, "that if I had any children, I should be running around the country talking?" And her tone said 'since all that my life seemed meant for, fails,' though all other honors were hers, save only motherhood.

Throughout my acquaintance, among not only my college friends but also my husband's college friends, I find, it has seemed to me, a large proportion of childless homes. And wherever a word has been dropped in my hearing as to the feeling of the wife in the matter, it has always been referred to as a great sorrow. I have been considering the question for some years and have tried to receive any light that appeared.

In many homes that I know there is an only child. It may seem that here are mothers who can have children but do not want them. The only child does not mean this, but that the one came so near costing its mother her life that he to whom she is dearer than even his hope of children can not bear to let her undergo the ordeal again. Dr. Engelmann has referred to the fact that men more often than their wives wish to limit the number of their children. I shall never forget the pathos of the day when K, a boy who had graduated from college and married hardly a year before, came to tell me of the birth of his son. For twenty-four hours his wife had striven between life and death; as soon as she was out of immediate danger, he came to me, her long-time friend, and broke down. 'If this is what babies cost,' he said, 'there will never be any more at our house.' The son born that day is seven years old, but he is still an only child. I know many instances where children are few because the one or two who have come 'have cost their mother too much.'

These women are not cowards. Undoubtedly the first six hundred women who cross the campus to-morrow morning would make a Balaklava charge without a desertion. But how many men would go one by one into an advance in which they have been told there was no hope of winning and every chance of being left burdensome cripples for life? I have known many, many college women who have said, 'I will have my baby!' Some of them died for the faith that was in them, some of them are happy mothers; a good many are invalids, of higher or lower degree.

Occasionally we find an alumna who, not strong before maternity, is well thereafter. The stunted system develops, and she becomes the woman that she was meant to be. And what beautiful families these women have! I recall two; in one there are four children under six, in the other, five under twelve, and all hearty, beautifully brought up children.

That it is alumna's misfortune, not her fault, that her children are so few I do not expect to prove. The testimony for the defendant can not, in the nature of the case, be brought into court. Even were I made an accredited observer, the examples quoted could give no scientific proof, since so small a per cent, of the class has been examined. But naturally they influence my opinion because they are 100 per cent, of the cases which I happen to know all about. But I can not even say 'name and address given on application,' as the patent medicine advertisements promise.

The theory which attributes childlessness to physical weakness is by no means a new one. It has been consciously or unconsciously suggested over and over again by students of vital statistics. Dr. Holmes touches upon it in a medical address given in 1867; the declining birth rate was attracting attention even then. And again and again in discussions of the subject by students who are advancing various theories this element in the problem appears. Among later utterances, Dr. Engelmann said, 'Race decline is not due to education, not of the educated man at least. The educated woman is in a different class.' Professor Thorndike concludes that 'the condition is due to a decrease in fertility in the racial group to which college men and their wives belong.' In passing we might quote another sentence of his: "The opinion of metropolitan physicians may here be as wide of the mark as the common belief that unwillingness is the cause of the failure of the women of the better class to nurse their own children."

If you grant me for a time that the cause of the 1.8—it seems like the judgment of Solomon to speak of tenths of a child!—be physical inability, what is the cause of this inability among the, let us say, schooled American women, with the rate the lowest among those who have been longest in school? What is the cause of the extirpation of that function which one would think would be of all others promoted by natural selection? Is our system of education an element in this result? These questions are surely vital in more senses than one.

Thus far I have been sure of my ground, even if I could not make it clear. Now the way is more obscure, for undoubtedly different influences operate in different classes to undermine the health of our girls. If this weakness of function appears especially among college girls, is then the college course at fault? The birth rate is only a little lower among the alumnae, and we may find that their disability is due to conditions not directly a part of the college course, which each college woman undergoes and only nearly all other women. Observation has almost universally brought the report that the average girl improves in health during her college course.

Is then the responsibility in the high school, where the greater part of our girls do their preparatory work? Very many girls break down here, we know. Frequently a high school teacher attributes a high school boy's inaccuracy in arithmetic or his slovenly English to 'poor preparation in the grammar grades.' This may or may not be just, but I wish some one could find how much of the poor health in high school and college and during later life is due to the way in which our girls go to the grammar school.

'The way in which they go.' There is no especial fault in the content of their education, primary, secondary, collegiate or university. There is no need of making their curriculum feminine, lest womanly instincts be dulled. It is the way of taking the schooling, the physical demands of it, that have been responsible for most of the invalids that I have happened to know. Alumna's fate was sealed when she was in the grammar school.

When the bee larvæ are about a week old, you remember, it is determined whether they shall become queens or workers. It is simply a question of nourishment; the queen has an abundance of the best food; the worker has a limited supply of inferior quality. The result is a stunting of the reproductive system of the worker bee.

May it not be possible that a similar effect comes in some degree to our women from our school system? The grammar school girl is a larva, if you please, at the age when she should develop a new system of her being, vital both to herself and to her race. To perfect these organs she needs all her rich red blood, all her nervous force. If the brain claims her whole vitality, how can there be any proper development? Just as very young children should give all their strength for some years solely to physical growth before the brain is allowed to make any considerable demands, so at this critical period in the life of the woman nothing should obstruct the right of way of this important system. A year at the least should be made especially easy for her, with neither mental nor nervous strain; and throughout the rest of her school days she should have her periodical day of rest, free from any study or overexertion. Most school girls have many unhygienic habits, all of which tend toward checking her development. Exactly these points were suggested in an editorial note in this magazine some months ago, I remember. The physical conditions and irregularities general among high school girls are appalling, in reference both to their own enjoyment and to the larger interests of the race.

But this is not an argument against our system of education in itself; the matter is not one for school boards to regulate. The intelligent fathers and mothers of our little girls of to-day are the only ones who can remedy these conditions. They can make the girl take one easy year, even though it means 'losing a grade,' that bug-a-boo of school girls; and they can keep for her her needed days of rest throughout her course. Even a year's delay in graduation is not so bad as a dwarfing of development. To hear a school girl speak to the question of her waiting a year, one would judge that existence out of her own particular class would necessarily separate her from all the desirable pupils in school. But those arguments—have you ever noticed?—are never employed when a girl is given a double promotion and advanced a class.

Losing a grade would not often be necessary, however. Ideal conditions would permit a mother to take her daughter to herself for that one year—to teach her the school work and all the other things in which she needs wise and loving instruction especially at this time, welding a companionship which will be the greatest possible barrier against future mistake and sorrow for the young woman in shaping her life.

That it is not always possible for a mother to follow this course I recognize, though it might be arranged much more often than it is if once the mother realized what it would mean. When the mother can not do it, perhaps she can arrange for a little time of private lessons, when her daughter, working at just the rate right for her, can accomplish a term's work with a minimum of study and with none of the nervous strain which comes from competition. I can think of nothing better worth a mother's time than to establish her daughter's health for the rest of her life and make possible for her all the blessed things that womanhood may mean.

Finally, there is no doubt that some husbands and wives limit their families to one or two that they may thus do more for those few children, or have none because they can thus do more for themselves—'social ambition,' in other words. There may be to some extent a decrease in race fertility in certain racial groups without other signs of physical deterioration; yet there seems to me an amount of evidence too large to disregard which goes to show that the small families among schooled women are due to the physical weakness of the wives. Ask yourself how many really strong women you know. And while there are undoubtedly differing conditions operating in different classes and in different countries, and the contrasts between England and Germany (the birth rate is even lower for the English alumna than for the American), France and Italy, the United States and Canada, can by no means all be explained by this theory, yet I wish some investigation could be instituted to determine how much of the decrease of birth rate among native born American women comes from arrested development in our young girls—due in some classes to lack of proper food, to lack of sleep, to physical overwork, but in very many cases to their unwise manner of work and to untimely nervous strain in our grammar and high schools.