a black and white drawing of a mother hen sitting in a field with three chicks around her, one under her wing

Journey Into Mothering with Historian Sarah Knott

In Mother Is a Verb, Sarah Knott takes her reader on a historian’s journey into motherhood. It is a sort of train travelogue, riding along parallel rails: personal memoir and wide-ranging social history.

Book jacket cover for Mother is a Verb). (©Amazon)

The path of the narrative is dictated by the chronology of the memoir, starting with choosing to try for a pregnancy, and progressing through her first child’s toddlerhood and the birth of her second child. In each chapter, a discrete moment of Knott’s childbearing journey — intercourse, early pregnancy, an early miscarriage, quickening, birth, breastfeeding, comforting a crying infant, and so on — triggers the historian’s question, “what was this like for women in the past?” and Knott weaves the answers in among reflections on her personal experience.

For each of these topics, Knott draws upon whichever stories from the past she finds most compelling and enlightening, without regard for chronology or locale beyond the broadly defined territories of North America and Great Britain from the early modern period to the present. As a history, the book does not attempt to be systematic or synthetic, but rather demonstrates the myriad ways in which the physical, practical, and intimate practices of childbearing and caring for an infant are historically and culturally situated. This allows Knott to pick and choose the most evocative and telling stories, and indeed she chooses many of my favorites from the historical literature on childbearing.

Sarah Knott, Associate Professor of History at Indiana University.

Knott writes beautifully. The passages about her personal experience are direct, unsentimental, and highly perceptive of the nuances of the practical activities of pregnancy and infant care. The historical passages are based on a thorough and wide-ranging reading of secondary and primary sources in the history of childbearing, and I appreciate and admire her sensitive distillations of some of the major findings from the last half-century of historians’ investigations of women’s daily lives in America and Great Britain during the past three centuries.

I highly recommend the book as a pleasurable and informative introduction to the work that women’s historians have done since the 1970s to document and analyze women’s experiences of childbearing and parenting, especially for readers who are more immediately drawn to memoir than to history. Knott shares many of the important conclusions of this scholarship without getting bogged down and keeps her reader focused on the fascinating details of individual women’s lives. (Readers who care about traditional historical chronology, however, may find the approach frustratingly dizzying and disorienting.)

I would like the book even better if Knott had explicitly recognized her indebtedness to the scholarship and methodologies that provided the foundation and most of the material for the book. Knott describes her approach as an “anecdotal method,” out of her apparent surprise that much of the history of women’s everyday lives is based on gathered fragments and offhand comments in letters, diaries, court records, and other sources. In fact, women’s historians have been sifting through massive volumes of sources for slivers of evidence for a number of decades. Along with feminist scholars in other fields, they have explicitly developed sophisticated methods such as examining sources not produced by women themselves and reading them “against the grain” so as to, for example, discern some sense of women patients’ experiences from the records left by their male physicians. Knott’s continual references to a methodology of “anecdote” run the risk of implicitly suggesting that this history is “mere” anecdote, which would grossly understate the well-developed and robust methods for handling these sources that women’s historians have developed over the past half-century.

black and white photo probably early 1900s of a woman kneeling with three under-10 children arranged around her
“Mother and children.” (Bain News Service /Library of Congress)

Similarly, what Knott describes as focusing on the “verbs” of mothering (rather than ideals or sentiments about mothers and motherhood) looks an awful lot like the “history of everyday life” most prominently advocated by Fernand Braudel in the 1960s, and the history of women’s daily lives pioneered by such groundbreaking historians as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (1982) and A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990)) and Judith Walzer Leavitt (Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950 (1986)). This generation of historians not only pioneered a now-flourishing scholarly history of women’s daily lives but also they initiated some of the key archives in women’s intimate history. Perhaps Knott has specific theoretical objections to such concepts as “experience,” “practice,” and “women’s lives.” If so, I would have preferred to see her critique them directly, rather than sidestep them in a way that (I suspect unintentionally) gives a reader without a background in the field the impression that previous historians have not thought to prioritize the mundane activities of childbearing and mothering.

I suspect that what creates some of this methodological awkwardness is the lack of parallelism between memoir and history. It takes some fudging to make the train tracks sit properly side by side. Memoir is, in an important sense, “mere anecdote,” in that it records a single person’s experiences. Knott’s memoir is thoughtful and insightful to be sure, but it is not a robust counterpoint to her historical sources in the way that a sociological study, a series of oral history interviews of the recent past, or a thorough consideration of the mothering memoirs she cites in her footnotes would be. Knott notes that many historians of childbearing mention some personal inspiration from their own lives in their prefaces and acknowledgments, but do not use them as a foil in the main text, and she supposes this is out of concern for appearing objective. I am sure this is part of the story. In my own research on menstruation and miscarriage, however, I found that my personal experiences provided a useful scaffolding of suggesting what questions needed to be asked but then fell away as my historical and sociological investigation deepened and suggested questions of its own.

In researching and writing Mother is a Verb, Knott gained remarkable mastery of a subfield of history — the history of experiences of childbearing — that I care about deeply and that I have found profoundly engaging for decades. I am hoping that Knott finds herself equally compelled to return to the archives (including those already built and those still to be constructed), to let the sources carry her beyond the questions and dilemmas that press a new mother so urgently, and suggest further questions that she can explore with her elegant authorial voice.

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2 Comments

Reader

Well done Lara. Thank you for the critique of “anecdote” which is so often used to dismiss history and expertise—by journalists, MDs, conservatives etc.

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Joanna parry

I enjoyed your review and it made me want to look out for the book. Thank you.

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