Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History

Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History

by Sarah Knott


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Welcome to a work of history unlike any other.

Mothering is as old as human existence. But how has this most essential experience changed over time and cultures? What is the history of maternity—the history of pregnancy, birth, the encounter with an infant? Can one capture the historical trail of mothers? How?

In Mother Is a Verb, the historian Sarah Knott creates a genre all her own in order to craft a new kind of historical interpretation. Blending memoir and history and building from anecdote, her book brings the past and the present viscerally alive. It is at once intimate and expansive, lyrical and precise.

As a history, Mother Is a Verb draws on the terrain of Britain and North America from the seventeenth century to the close of the twentieth. Knott searches among a range of past societies, from those of Cree and Ojibwe women to tenant farmers in Appalachia; from enslaved people on South Carolina rice plantations to tenement dwellers in New York City and London’s East End. She pores over diaries, letters, court records, medical manuals, items of clothing. And she explores and documents her own experiences.

As a memoir, Mother Is a Verb becomes a method of asking new questions and probing lost pasts in order to historicize the smallest, even the most mundane of human experiences. Is there a history to interruption, to the sound of an infant’s cry, to sleeplessness? Knott finds answers not through the telling of grand narratives, but through the painstaking accumulation of a trellis of anecdotes. And all the while, we can feel the child on her hip.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374213589
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 79,430
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sarah Knott grew up in England. Educated at Oxford University, she is now a professor of history at Indiana University. She is the author of Sensibility and the American Revolution and numerous articles on the histories of women, gender, and emotion. Knott has served as an editor of the American Historical Review, the American Historical Association’s flagship journal, and sits on the editorial board of Past and Present. She is a fellow of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

Read an Excerpt


Mothering by Numbers

Back to the beginning, before there is any child on hand, just as research is under way. Mothering is only an abstract prospect.

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late-summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I'm in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I'm not sure if I'll have one or two, I announce a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know — or at least I think we both know — that surveys suggest that men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women.

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

How did people in the past act about how many children to have, and what did they assume about family size? What might a person have seen, of mothering and numbers, in their own time and place?

The Miami and the Potawatomi people who once moved across the hilly Midwestern landscape beyond the window, traveling between large summer agricultural settlements and smaller winter villages, cared little for singletons. The women who processed furs and cultivated corn, pumpkin, and kidney beans had multiple children apiece and cared for them communally. Children were cautiously spaced three to four years apart by the use of local abortifacient herbs, sexual abstinence, and late weaning. This was a kin-based world, in which family cooperation was crucial to survival. In Pennsylvania or in Ohio, observers routinely noted that Indian families averaged four to six children.

Farther east in these seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the settlers edging onto the vast North American continent had more children than the Native peoples they sought to displace and the Old Worlders they had left behind. The settler women who inhabited former Iroquois or Algonquian lands typically married in their late teens or early twenties and gave birth every eighteen months to two years. This more frequent birthrate was the approved rhythm of reproduction, so usual as to seem natural and God-given, as well as a sign of prosperity. Large families were especially typical among the gentry, in urban Jewish communities, and among German inhabitants, all of whom married young. In the old European societies from which the colonists had migrated, meanwhile, where economic life was often less certain, women married later, if they ever did wed, and gave birth every two to three years. Many never had the material security to marry at all.

Most societies are not interested in keeping collective numerical accounts. I learn about these birthrates mainly thanks to modern demographers working backward.

* * *

For a childless person, the numbers can seem terribly cold and out of reach, even off-putting. Modern demographers who count and graph show that the numbers have shifted further over time, from an average of eight or seven children in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, or five or four in Britain, to 2.2 or lower in both places by the later twentieth century. They culled and amassed the numbers mainly from Western sources: local censuses, family histories, wills, church records, and then, since the nineteenth century, from national surveys. I pause, take in a breath over the first North American number: an average, nearly, of broad-hipped, thick-shaped 8.

Can the numbers be brought forward into the warm hubbub of daily routine, I wonder? The fertility transition, as the demographers crisply term it, is surely the major shift that has shaped maternity since the seventeenth century. If there is an overarching narrative about mothering, the change in likelihood from larger to smaller families is as close as we might get.

The average numbers — from eight or five to 2.2 — suggest three broad changes in lived expectations, a trilogy of shifts in what a person might anticipate in their future:

From childbearing ... to childrearing. Or, less succinctly put, a "before" of bearing many babies and inhabiting a body marked by multiple pregnancies and births, and an "after" of bearing just a few. A "before" of mothering an assemblage of children, maternal attention distracted and divided, and an "after" of the intensive mothering of one child, or half a handful ... not that I can quite imagine either.

From accepting the fertility mainly handed out by fate ... to an emphasis on family planning. That shift was driven less by new forms of contraception and more by knowledge and by the arrival of a strong orientation to the future — indeed, of counting more precisely. Plan your children, ran the later logic, consider their spacing, assess what you can afford, act accordingly.

And from the prospect of continual maternity, layered over with grandmothering, to just a handful of years caring for infants. Once, the numbers suggest, mothering lent a permanent and defining adult status. Later, and today, mothering babies became more like a short moment in a life cycle.

"Do not you, my friend," Susanna Hopkins wrote in a letter, "think the person very contracted in his notions" — small-minded — "who would have us [women] to be nothing more than domesticated animals?" The young Marylander was writing at the beginning of these changes, in the late-eighteenth-century United States. She recoiled from older ways that she thought treated women like breeding livestock. The fertility transition began in exactly her generation, around the American Revolution, when some women had the opportunity to apply the radical message of liberty and independence to their personal lives. Sarah Logan Fisher, a Quaker merchant's wife, remarked on a contemporary's "6th child before she is 29": too many, too early, and too fast. The rejection of older ways, the sense of enacting new possibilities, seems as radical and profound as throwing off monarchy.

Frenchwomen's demographic history followed a similarly revolutionary path. Britain followed suit in reducing family size by the later nineteenth century, a change most often associated with industrialization.

Whenever and wherever the transition in family size, women gained in health and in control over their bodies and their time. They came to peg ideal family size to precise and particular numbers. Esther Atlee, an elite Pennsylvanian, might have assessed the shift as an improved lot. In the 1780s she noted her poor mood on being pregnant yet again: "I cannot account for a glooming which too frequently comes over me," she wrote, immediately adding, "if I had some relief in my family affairs ... I should be much easier." (This pregnancy would nudge the number of her children into two figures.) Looking back from 1855 at the rural life of her grandmother, who had a dozen children, Martha Bowen of Williamsport noted that "having the care of a large family ... her sphere of operation was limited." The intervening generation had four children. Martha, a minister's wife, had only one.

The altered prospects were typically experienced piecemeal and in local circumstances. Visitors to the small American city of Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s noted that the obligatory fruitfulness inherited from the 1890s had been "relaxed." Families of six to fourteen children were no longer seen "as 'nice' as families of two, three or four." In 1930s London, a young woman like the sewing machinist Doris Hanslow could associate having fewer children with such other recent domestic improvements as hot running water or electric lighting or municipal housing. Her mother had eight children in turn-of-the-century Bermondsey. Like other working-class London women of her generation, Doris would have fewer, just two. My London grandmother, who scrubbed steps for extra cash, was behind the curve; she had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood. Asked about ideal family size, a woman on the city's streets, just after the Second World War, might answer "one's enough," or maybe two or three. One, because "You've got to bring them up decent, haven't you." Three, because "I'd like to give them all I possibly could and I don't think I could afford more."

In particular communities, the numbers sometimes went the other way. Nineteenth-century Cree women, living on the North American prairies, usually had four children. But the numbers rose in the 1860s, perhaps because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles as the buffalo-hunt years came to an end. Numbers found their way into Cree stories: "'Long ago' we never had more children than we could grab and run with if there was a battle." Ojibwe people living on reservations in 1930s Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota might have agreed that it was better to have fewer children as in the old days. An informant told the Catholic nun and anthropologist Inez Hilger that it was "a disgrace to have children like steps and stairs."

The demands of fruitfulness, the threat of "glooming," the limits placed on a woman's "sphere of operation," emerge rugged and intimidating from times of large families.

The possible pleasures taken in what has been lost are more intangible. Quiet pride in a stout, teeming body, perhaps. Or the pleasing generosity of gathering up a parcel of children. Or the reappearance in a newborn of the looks of a now[grown child. Or the carved documentation on a gravestone of dozens of living descendants. Somewhere between the fecund past and the parsimonious present, mothering as dilemma replaced mothering as destiny.

* * *

When I was growing up, it seemed unlikely that I would have children. I wanted an interesting life. I wanted to be independent and to have an equal relationship — aspirations that befitted an English grammar schoolgirl and a beneficiary of second-wave feminism. Motherhood looked boring, constrained, domestic, and drained of adult conversation. I loved my mum with all the complacency of the well-loved child, but I disliked her deference to my dad, with whom I also closely identified. He did not like small children; nor did I; only in my twenties did I realize that some people were not simply being polite when they cooed over a baby.

When I was in my early thirties, an older friend I greatly admire observed that her life's regret was not having children. I met some independent-minded types who unabashedly adored and enjoyed their kids. Suddenly the matter seemed entirely different. This kind of revelation is not uncommon in the twenty-first century, when, it seems, a person is not having a child, until they are. Deciding for or against is the latest version of mothering by numbers, a very contemporary twist: not just how many children to have, but rather, whether to have a child at all.

Many considerations and many different heritages can shape such a revelation. "Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence" reads the subtitle of a memoir by Rebecca Walker, daughter of the black feminist icon Alice Walker. To the Edinburgh writer Chitra Ramaswamy, pregnancy appears as a sudden temptation and a complex riddle: how to cast aside the sentimentality, sanitization, and science; the prescription, self-help, and emotionally manipulative doggerel; the lies, misconceptions, and unwanted advice; the politicking; the never-ending slew of new stories?

The issue of children is already settled for my colleague. His partner radiates competence. When K and I go hiking with them in the local woods, she sends their two small children ahead looking for an oversize mushroom here, or a letter-shaped stick there, spurring them past fatigue. The same competence clings to my colleague and, I notice, to K, who lifts the smaller one onto his shoulders. You choose to have one first.

* * *

The demographic graph stays with me, peoples my imagination about former, lost worlds. In most societies before the twentieth century, there must have been crowds and crowds of little children. Infants were visible to all: quite the contrast with our present day, where those who are not mothering are typically sequestered from those who are. My ignorance about babies, the sharp sense of a divide, is a modern invention.

Those little children of former times ran in crowds, despite higher infant mortality. By the middle of the twentieth century, few parents lost a baby, but in all previous centuries infant death was an experience that parents would have been lucky to avoid. Demographers cannot entirely explain the declining mortality rates, though they point to improved standards of living.

My less haunting subject, I determine, will be among those who stayed alive and together: the living mothering of a living child, rather than maternal mortality, infant loss, or forced relinquishment. In the raw unknown of whether a child is in my future, only that mothering is fully bearable to contemplate.

The more ghostly histories I leave to others. The living mothering of a living child, those twinned becomings, takes imagination and research enough.

* * *

"How I shall get along when I have got 1/2 dozen or 10 Children I can't devise," fretted the New Jersey colonist Esther Edwards Burr after her child's birth in 1755. Narcissa Whitman, a pioneer in Oregon a century later, might have recognized these concerns, knowing firsthand the immediate consequences of mothering a large brood. "My Dear Parents," she wrote in a rare but warmly affectionate missive back to New York in 1845, "I have now a family of eleven children. This makes me feel as if I could not write a letter."

I come upon more and more letters or firsthand accounts that contain such chance references, such unintended and on-the-ground dispatches from different points along the fertility transition. The vast majority were penned by the most literate and the more leisured. Here, in these beginnings of research, it proves easiest to turn mothering by numbers into people, to imagine how the changing fertility numbers felt real, for the literate classes of Britain and North America.

It is much harder to bring mothering alive for, say, enslaved women, or for Native peoples, or for the working classes of my own past. Literacy was harshly prohibited among enslaved people, meaning that we have few documents left behind in their own handwriting. North American Native groups of all kinds conveyed their cultures orally rather than in written words that were deposited in archives. The working classes of every race and ethnicity spent most of their waking hours simply getting by. But I can persist. Without them, the view is misleading, truncated, wrong.

* * *

My colleague's small children keep growing, and he is sticking with a pair.

Nought, one, or two? None or some?



Conceiving takes moments. Repeating moments, perhaps, but moments nonetheless. After so many years of safe sex, a whole adult life of carefully unreproductive and alternate intimacies, there was a certain glimmer of novelty about the whole business. There is surely a history to such moments of coital sex, to the acts associated with what one late-eighteenth-century diarist termed "jumbling up" a child.

Recent generations are heirs to the sexual revolution and to the story of sex it tells about the past. Famously, as the poet Philip Larkin quipped, sex did not begin until 1963. For the first time, or so it seemed, the Pill separated sex from reproduction, and a racy new world of sexuality was born. Earlier generations were pitied as repressed, unfulfilled, and weighed down with shame and moral anxiety. Women of former times were imagined to have silently lain back and thought about something else. Now the Pill was commonly seen as a blessing. Modern sensuality meant sexual openness, sex as pleasure, sex for its own sake. Anything else, or anything earlier, was bad or indifferent.

The glimmering novelty I feel, the sheer peculiarity of adding reproduction to sex, procreative hopes to sexual desire, surely makes me an inheritor of this modern story, its fortunate beneficiary. I am the beneficiary, too, of an even newer world, in which sex appears loosed from heterosexuality. Coming of age can routinely mean coming out. "Choice" now concerns both whom you sleep with and whether or not you want to conceive a child, even as such forces as poverty, male rapacity, or die-hard conservatism work to deny that. I may be hoping to conceive, with a man, the old-fashioned way, but I am getting to be choosy, doing so of my own volition.

What of the Dark Ages of sex implied by these recent stories of sexual revolution and of comings out? Was there really only an unrelenting, unchanging, silent world of coital sex before 1963? That seems like a caricature, or perhaps a myth, sex rarely being simply pleasure or simply procreation.

Of course, the history of past sexual activities is almost uniquely hard to know. But we can ask the question. If "mother" is a verb, then procreating is a usual, original activity, babies of any kind — adoptive, surrogate, your "own" — not coming from storks.


Excerpted from "Mother Is a Verb"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Knott.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 3

1 Mothering by Numbers 11

2 Generation 19

3 Finding Out 31

4 Week Ten, or Eight Weeks Gone 37

5 Quickening 44

6 The Rising of the Apron 55

7 This Giving Birth 64

8 Hello, You 75

9 Tears and Anecdotes 81

10 Staying the Month 87

11 Damp Cloth 103

12 Time, Interrupted 115

13 The Middle of the Night 125

14 Pent Milk 141

15 Uncertainty, or a Thought Experiment 161

16 Queer Ideas at the Clinic 175

17 Back and Forth 195

18 Paper Flowers 214

19 An Oak Dolly Tub 231

20 Yard Baby, Lap Baby 242

21 Navigating the Times 252

22 The End of the Night 258

Acknowledgments 261

A Note on Method 263

Notes 267

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