Rather than questioning such folklore as the need for complete bedrest for ten days following delivery, and the belief that maternal impressions
could mark a child, physicians used the language of science to validate them.
In Maternal Impressions, Cristina Mazzoni, an academic and mother of three, brilliantly analyzes myths of maternity related to pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and breastfeeding.
Mazzoni proceeds to discuss maternal impressions in turn-of-the-century science, mainly in two male texts that are analyzed throughout the book: La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale by Cesare Lombroso and Fisiologia della donna by Paolo Mantegazza.
The exploration of maternal impressions in Italian women writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Neera, Carolina Invernizio, Annie Vivanti, Ada Negri, Grazia Deledda, and Sibilla Aleramo, constitutes the most interesting part of Mazzoni's research.
Maternal Impressions definitely impressed me, partly because I was pregnant and about to become a mother myself while reading it.
To understand how the wounds or marks on the body of the deceased may take the form of birthmarks on a newborn child, Stevenson has looked into three related phenomena: stigmata, telepathic impressions, and maternal impressions.
It is interesting that in 1890 a predecessor of Stevenson at the University of Virginia made a survey of maternal impressions.
Stevenson points out that maternal impressions are paranormal, insofar as current scientific concepts do not allow for transmission of a mother's mental images to her embryo or fetus.
Stevenson does not offer the hypothesis of telepathically derived maternal impressions as an alternative to the rebirth hypothesis, but it seems to me that an argument can be made for this position.
1) Thus sociologist Ann Oakley describes the theory of maternal impressions as a "key theory about pregnancy commonly held prior to the modern obstetric era," which "stated that the condition and viability of the fetus was profoundly influenced by the mother's mental and emotional state--a view that, of course, fitted well with the prevailing model of successful pregnancy as guaranteed only by a life-style properly balanced in accordance with natural dictate.
This once prevalent theory of maternal impressions constitutes a chapter in the history of the body as "symbolic construct" and "cultural form" (in the words, respectively, of Susan Rubin Suleiman, 2, and Susan Bordo, 16), and has been one way of accounting for the intricate relationship between the psychic and the somatic and for the passage from the former to the latter--that very relationship which during these same years (Studies on Hysteria was published in 1895) was occupying Sigmund Freud (thus the theory of hysterical conversion, for example, displays several analogies with that of maternal impressions).
The workings of maternal impressions form one aspect of the relationship between mother's and fetus's body which is confronted, in a more or less subtle, subversive, or submissive way, in much female-authored literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century--which in many ways rewrites the impact of anthropological findings on the female body.