Just as our taste buds and metabolism are developing in utero, so too are our responses to stress. Recent studies of pregnant women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show that there is a “transgenerational transmission of PTSD risk.” Even after controlling for early-childhood experience and parenting, the evidence suggests that susceptibility to PTSD is passed down from mother to child in the womb. Likewise, various forms of depression, anxiety, and mood disorders affect the developing child. Doctors are finding that “a pregnant woman’s emotional state can influence the fetus’s developing brain and nervous system, potentially shaping the way the offspring will experience and manage its own emotions.” While Paul makes clear that she is no determinist — “prenatal experience doesn’t force the individual down a particular path; at most, it points us in a general direction, and we can take another route if we choose” — she is equally clear that our personalities begin to form remarkably early, and much hinges on the mother.
Paul encourages people to reach out to assist pregnant women, especially during times of personal crisis and national emergency (research from 9/11 pregnancies shows the impact of crisis on the unborn). She quotes one researcher: “Historically, people knew that it was a good idea to take special care of pregnant women. But in modern times, we’ve forgotten that.” While she cautions against going too far and treating women as invalids, Paul urges all to realize that “pregnancy and childrearing do make us more dependent on others.” This statement is typical, as she is nuanced in her discussion of the various influences on unborn life and what we should do about them.