The mere male novelist who takes pen to write on infants awaits the polished comment: "He knows nothing of the subject—rubbish; pure rubbish!" One must run that risk.
In the report of the National Baby Week it is written:—"Is it worth while to destroy our best manhood now unless we can ensure that there will be happy, healthy citizens to carry on the Empire in the future?" I confess to approaching this subject from the point of view of the infant citizen rather than of the Empire. And I have wondered sometimes if it is worth while to save the babies, seeing the conditions they often have to face as grown men and women. But that, after all, would be to throw up the sponge, which is not the part of a Briton. It is written also:—"After the war a very large increase in the birth-rate may be looked for." For a year or two, perhaps; but the real after-effect of the war will be to decrease the birth-rate in every European country, or I am much mistaken. "No food for cannon, and no extra burdens," will be the cry. And little wonder! This, however, does not affect the question of children actually born or on their way. If not quantity, we can at all events have quality.
I also read an account of the things to be done to keep "baby" alive, which filled me with wonder how any of us old babies managed to survive, and I am afraid that unless we grow up healthy we are not worth the trouble. The fact is: The whole business of babies is an activity to be engaged in with some regard to the baby, or we commit a monstrous injustice, and drag the hands of the world's clock backwards.
How do things stand? Each year in this country about 100,000 babies die before they have come into the world; and out of the 800,000 born, about 90,000 die. Many mothers become permanently damaged in health by evil birth conditions. Many children grow up mentally or physically defective. One in four of the children in our elementary schools are not in a condition to benefit properly by their schooling. What sublime waste! Ten in a hundred of them suffer from malnutrition; thirty in the hundred have defective eyes; eighty in the hundred need dental treatment; twenty odd in the hundred have enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Many, perhaps most, of these deaths and defects are due to the avoidable ignorance, ill-health, mitigable poverty, and other handicaps which dog poor mothers before and after a baby's birth. One doesn't know which to pity most—the mothers or the babies. Fortunately, to help the one is to help the other. In passing I would like to record two sentiments: my strong impression that we ought to follow the example of America and establish Mothers' Pensions; and my strong hope that those who visit the sins of the fathers upon illegitimate children will receive increasingly the contempt they deserve from every decent-minded citizen.
On the general question of improving the health of mothers and babies I would remind readers that there is no great country where effort is half so much needed as here; we are nearly twice as town and slum ridden as any other people; have grown to be further from nature and more feckless about food; we have damper air to breathe, and less sun to disinfect us. In New Zealand, with a climate somewhat similar to ours, the infant mortality rate has, as a result of a widespread educational campaign, been reduced within the last few years to 50 per 1,000 from 110 per 1,000 a few years ago. It is perhaps too sanguine to expect that we, so much more town-ridden, can do as well here, but we ought to be able to make a vast improvement. We have begun to. Since 1904, when this matter was first seriously taken in hand, our infant mortality rate has declined from 145 per 1,000 to 91 per 1,000 in 1916. This reduction has been mainly due to the institution of infant welfare centres and whole-time health visitors. Of centres there are now nearly 1,200. We want 5,000 more. Of visitors there are now hardly 1,500. We want, I am told, 2,000 more. It is estimated that the yearly crop of babies, 700,000, if those of the well-to-do be excepted, can be provided with infant welfare centres and whole-time health visitors by expenditure at the rate of £1 a head per year. The Government, which is benevolently disposed towards the movement, gives half of the annual expenditure; the other half falls on the municipalities. But these 5,000 new infant welfare centres and these extra 2,000 health visitors must be started by voluntary effort and subscription. Once started, the Government and the municipalities will have to keep them up; but unless we start them, the babies will go on dying or growing up diseased. The object of the Jewel Fund, therefore, is to secure the necessary money to get the work into train.
What are these Infant Welfare Centres, and have they really all this magic? They are places where mothers to be, or in being, can come for instruction and help in all that concerns birth and the care of their babies and children up to school age. "Prevention is better than cure," is the motto of these Centres. I went to one of the largest in London. It has about 600 entries in the year. There were perhaps 40 babies and children and perhaps 30 mothers there. About 20 of these mothers were learning sewing or knitting. Five of them were sitting round a nurse who was bathing a three-weeks-old baby. The young mother who can wash a baby to the taste and benefit of the baby by the light of nature must clearly be something of a phenomenon. In a room downstairs were certain little stoics whose health was poor; they were brought there daily to be watched. One was an air-raid baby, the thinnest little critter ever seen; an ashen bit of a thing through which the wind could blow; very silent, and asking "Why?" with its eyes. They showed me a mother who had just lost her first baby. The Centre was rescuing it from a pauper's funeral. I can see her now, coming in and sitting on the edge of a chair; the sudden puckering of her dried-up little face, the tears rolling down. I shall always remember the tone of her voice—"It's my baby." Her husband is "doing time"; and want of food and knowledge while she was "carrying it" caused the baby's death. Several mothers from her street come to the Centre; but, "keeping herself to herself," she never heard of it till too late. In a hundred little ways these Centres give help and instruction. They, and the Health Visitors who go along with them, are doing a great work; but there are many districts all over the country where there are no Centres to come to; no help and instruction to be got, however desperately wanted. Verily this land of ours still goes like Rachel mourning for her children. Disease, hunger, deformity, and death still hound our babes, and most of that hounding is avoidable. We must and shall revolt against the evil lot, which preventible ignorance, ill health, and poverty bring on hundreds of thousands of children.
It is time we had more pride. What right have we to the word "civilised" till we give mothers and children a proper chance? This is but the Alpha of decency, the first step of progress. We are beginning to realise that; but, even now, to make a full effort and make it at once—we have to beg for jewels.
What's a jewel beside a baby's life? What's a toy to the health and happy future of these helpless little folk?
You who wear jewels, with few exceptions, are or will be mothers—you ought to know. To help your own children you would strip yourselves. But the test is the giving for children not one's own. Beneath all flaws, fatuities, and failings, this, I solemnly believe, is the country of the great-hearted. I believe that the women of our race, before all women, have a sense of others. They will not fail the test.
Into the twilight of the world are launched each year these myriads of tiny ships. Under a sky of cloud and stars they grope out to the great waters and the great winds—little sloops of life, on whose voyaging the future hangs. They go forth blind, feeling their way. Mothers, and you who will be mothers, and you who have missed motherhood, give them their chance, bless them with a gem—light their lanterns with your jewels!