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Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.
Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

Personality Begins Before Birth

What the fetus learns...

"Research indicates that even before birth, mothers' moods may affect child development," comments Dr. Catherine Monk, a researcher at Columbia University. In summarizing Monk's work, Anne Murphy Paul in her cover story for Time magazine writes, "a pregnant women's mental state can shape her offspring's psyche." These observations and those of others investigating fetal origins — the study of how the nine months of gestation influence physical, mental, intellectual, and emotional functioning — mirror empirical observations long noted by mental health providers.

I write about such observations in my recent book, The Favorite Child. One couple, Carla and Tom, had worked with me to explore their feelings about having children. They did have children and, about 20 years later, contacted me because of concern for their older daughter, Peggy: For the prior several summers, on the eve of leaving home to study abroad or for internships in remote cities, she became so anxious that she could not carry out her plans. Her jealousy for her younger sister, who studied in Europe and had summer jobs in exotic settings, created family tension.

In the family sessions that ensued, Carla and Tom reminisced about their excitement when pregnant with Peggy. Tom, insisting on being an active participant in the pregnancy, decided that he wanted the fetus to be as familiar with his heartbeat as it was with his wife's. Thus, he placed his heart on his wife's stomach each night before going to sleep and each morning before getting out of bed. In that position he declared his love for the fetus and his wife, always ending with the words, "Little One, we will always be one, a united family."

In the seventh month of pregnancy, Tom left on a two-week business trip. While he was gone, the fetus kicked endlessly, creating distress for Carla. She endured sleepless nights and struggled through the days, tired and uncomfortable. When Tom returned home and resumed the ritual of placing his heart on Carla's stomach and whispering his loving words, the fetus immediately calmed down.

During our session, as Tom and Carla recited in unison "Little One, we will always be one, a united family," Peggy sobbed uncontrollably. The words reflected her deepest belief — one she had never put to language — that she could not live a life separate from the family. Now, Peggy could attach language and meaning to these raw feelings she had absorbed as a fetus, which drove aspects of her behavior. Peggy could work towards behavior influenced by rational understanding, rather than irrational instinct. She could proceed with the important psychological task of establishing her own identity, distinct from her parents.

Unlike Peggy, whose primitive association was jarred by the open exchange with her parents, most people with whom I spoke when researching my book reported that their appreciation for the power of primitive feelings was stimulated by dreams or body-based — not language-based — therapies, such as massage, polarity, or watsu. People hesitated to talk about such deep, powerful connections, fearful that they might be judged as crazy. They wanted these experiences — which they connected to preverbal experiences only known to them in their inner lives — respected.

One person reported profound feelings stirred during a watsu treatment. In this treatment, clients are securely held in the arms of therapists, who move the clients through the calm waters of a pool. For Yolanda, a 40 year old who excelled professionally, but struggled with intimacy, the watsu stimulated feelings of having to fight for her life: She feared the therapist would drop her, and she would drown, or that her head would collide with the side of the pool, giving her a concussion and killing her. She associated the pool's water with amniotic fluid and the therapist with a mother who wanted to injure her.

Several months after the watsu experience, Yolanda was at the bedside of her dying mother. Her mother, usually tightly controlled, vomited cruel and hurtful feelings.

"You're a selfish pig," her mother shouted when Yolanda returned from a quick lunch.

"You've always felt that way about me," Yolanda retorted.

"You've got that right," her mother snapped.

"I don't think you've ever loved me or even wanted me," Yolanda exploded.

"It is about time you get what's true," her mother shouted. "You have been the bane of my life."

In that moment, Yolanda sensed the gift of her unease stimulated during the watsu. Later, in her psychotherapy, she worked to more fully grasp the deeper meaning of that experience, as well as her encounter with her mother. Yolanda's compassion for herself grew as she more fully appreciated the legitimacy of her vulnerable and distrustful feelings. She better understood why as she grew closer to someone, she came to distrust the person and eventually sabotaged the relationship. She grew to appreciate that her professional success, in part, reflected her instinct to fight for clients as if she were fighting for her life.

Yolanda's story illustrates the potential implications of possible hardwiring or epigenetic modification (the process in which environmental influences affect the behavior of genes without altering the DNA). In the growing fetus, the right side of the brain, which governs affect, feeling, and creativity, develops more fully than the left side of the brain, which governs language, abstract thought, and reasoning. It is not until after birth, as the infant approaches two years old, that the left side develops fully enough for language skills to emerge. It is language that allows children to convert the feelings generated by the right side of their brain into appropriate actions. These deeply rooted feelings, even if they remain an instinct without the gift of language, are strong influences on personality. The influence of primitive feelings on human development is profound.

As the science of fetal origins matures, we may come to learn the process by which the fetus absorbs communication from the mother and the outside world. The womb is not the closed world once envisioned, but rather a world in which the developing infant is affected in ways that challenge our imagination. In the meantime, our respect grows for knowing that even if we can't put language to thoughts and feelings previously termed "irrational," their basis may be deeply rooted.

About the Author
Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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