Sarah Knott's book, Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History demonstrates the labor of motheringHistorians in the News
tags: book review
The easy correlation contemporary American and British cultures build from sex to pregnancy, pregnancy to birth, and birth to childrearing within a nuclear family is far from uniform throughout history. Mother is not an identity. Not all women will mother during the course of their lives. In Sarah Knott’s words, “mother is a verb,” and it is a deeply ambiguous and sometimes ambivalent one at that.
More than any historian I have read, Knott writes for herself. Her book is driven by self-reflection and personal memory. She does not create her questions simply out of academic interest or a curious piece of archival evidence, but out of a need to make sense of her own experience. Knott eschews the conventions of historical writing. Gone is any pretense to objectivity. And she sees no need to discuss the historical development of mothering chronologically or genealogically. Rather, she writes within a genre of self-help and maternal memoir. Her history reflects experiences like the realization of “the glimmer of novelty… the sheer peculiarity of adding reproduction to sex.” And the “privilege of relative stillness” that allows her to sit reflexively with her hand on her stomach, waiting for the baby to move. Her book is complex and expansive, covering twenty-two stages of mothering. Each addresses a particular discomfort, anxiety, or hope.
Knott draws her questions from personal experience, but her archival explorations are diversified outside of her race, class, and gender identities. As she notes early on, certain developments over the past half century or so – capitalism’s low valuing of caregiving, the emergence of queer families, and more egalitarian parenting amongst some working partners, to name but a few – demand a history that pushes beyond the idea that there is a single labor of mothering in any historical period. Biologically producing a baby and mothering were not always synonymous historically. Black enslaved women and children often did the labor of mothering on plantations in the early nineteenth century. Such attention frequently meant that other women (usually with the title Aunt or Aunty) mothered these women’s children for significant parts of the day, month, or year. Lower- class women in seventeenth-century England frequently brought other women’s babies into their own homes, acting as wet nurses to maintain a stable income for their family while they cared for their own infants. And Ojibwe women nursed the infants of women who died in labor, making them their own. Mothering is necessary labor that varies dramatically depending on the society and its structures.
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