By Leslie Lindsay
Timely and fascinating investigation and examination of what it means to be a mother–from the early 15th century through present-day.
MOTHER IS A VERB: An Unconventional History (FSG/Sarah Crichton Books) by Sarah Knott is such a sweeping piece of historical, personal, and lyrical research. It begins with the author’s decision to have children, and thus an examination of who has children and who doesn’t. This is a keenly researched book that is part-memoir, part-history lesson, and to some, it might come across as academic (Knott is, by profession, a college professor at Indiana University). That said, I found the anecdotes and archives presented fascinating and intriguing.
The structure of MOTHER IS A VERB is not linear, but rather divided into topics from pregnancy, quickening, miscarriage, labor/delivery, early days, sleeping infants (sleeping parents), including co-sleeping (or not), types of beds, feeding/breastfeeding/other types of nourishment, clothing, and even welcoming the second child. Scattered throughout the narrative are glimpses of the author’s mothering journey, which I felt helped to personalize historical context.
Knott’s writing is scholarly, but also companionable. It’s lyrical and at times, too. I had to stop reading so I could sit back and ponder her ideas and research (which is very thorough and eloquent, I might add). In fact, this book would make an excellent text for a women’s study type college/graduate class, or the like. I could reference this book time again and learn (retain) something new.
Sarah grew up in England and was educated at Oxford University. She has served as an editor of 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.
I am so honored to welcome Sarah Knott to the author interview series. Please join us!
Sarah, I always like to know the inspiration, ‘the jumping off point’ for authors. What was it for you? Was there a question you were seeking answers to? A worry or concern?
Thanks for inviting me to talk about the book, Leslie.
And a jumping off point: yes. Being a historian is my day job. I read manuscripts, I read the works of other scholars, I lecture. But I think of this book as especially a creature of the night, and of sleepless nights in particular. I was up in the night with a newborn infant, I was dizzy with fatigue, and I was astonished to realize that I didn’t know the history of these experiences.
So the book really came from the question, what is the history of these immensely ordinary, immensely visceral, experiences of maternity.
There’s so much history in these pages—and it’s all done so thoroughly and eloquently. You’re a professor and so research is part of the profession. Can you talk a little about—first the structure of MOTHER IS A VERB, and also, your research methods?
The structure was the easy part! I was following the arc of my own everyday experiences: miscarrying, carrying, birthing, caring and so forth, first for one and then another child. The inspiration came from the genre of the maternal memoir, which emerged with black womanism and the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s.
The research was more challenging. How to give a history to conceiving, or the felt experience of pregnancy? How – with a change of personnel, not all birth-givers becoming mothers, and not all mothers having given birth – to give a history to sleeplessness, to joy, to the experience of being continually interrupted?
I set myself the historical terrain of Britain and North America since the seventeenth century, and I looked for those sources which might start to offer glimpses of the answers. Lost language, for example, such as ‘firking like a flounder’ or being ‘great with child’, phrases that get at experience. Or anecdotes captured in interviews or letters or stories or government reports. Or objects, like cradles or cradleboards or cots, which shape how a person uses them.
Did you ever get overwhelmed with the vast amount of information? How did you keep yourself going when the heaps of research appeared to be ‘too much?’ And is research [writing] ever truly ‘done?’
In many ways, the dilemma was the reverse: we simply don’t know enough about those experiences. They don’t readily get written down, it taking both hands to hold a baby.
And nor did I set myself the task of writing some kind of total history, or an exhaustive guide. I was after a different sort of book, one that would breathe fresh air into our sense of the present by giving us insight into different pasts.
“By starting with the link between mother and baby, and crawling outward into the link between so many mothers, [Knott] shows that while infancy is a time when life is measured in days, in its curves are centuries.”
Can you share a few facts you uncovered during your research that you found particularly compelling? For example, I was struck by how frequently women ‘gave out’ their babies to wet-nurses.
Indeed! It is striking how often the person carrying for an infant was not its birth mother. There are so many examples of this: the privileged women, such as tradeswomen or slave mistresses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who ‘gave out’ or gave away their infants to the care of a wet nurse. Or the habits of more communal mothering that characterized some native nations, where grandmothers or aunts might play especially important roles.
I was also struck by how various have been the recommendations of how-to guides, which came into existence in the mid eighteenth century. The merits of a cold bath, the value of a swaddle or its dangers, whether a baby should be cuddled or left alone to cry… all these possibilities and many more have divided ‘experts’.
I love how much of MOTHER IS A VERB is your personal experience with motherhood, with your career, too. Can you talk about your children now? What are their ages and a few small facts? How about your teaching?
The closing pages of MOTHER IS A VERB portray my younger child, gaining in independence, walking away from me along the corridor of our home. V and M are much bigger now, books taking time to get into print and out into the world, and they are quite bemused to have been the book’s prompt and subject. One suggested the title should be Babies To The Rescue, the other, A Tale of Two Boys.
Meanwhile, I teach on the history of birth, drawing on the remarkable archives of the Kinsey Institute: early modern recipe books, for example, or midwives’ manuals. That topic of birth reaches all the way into our present, via the black ‘granny midwives’ of the early twentieth century, the ‘natural’ childbirth movement, and the fierce demands of women’s liberationists, or indeed the arrival of trans men contemplating the demands of birth and chest feeding. The latest addition to our archive of birth experiences is SEAHORSE, a remarkable British documentary about trans man Freddy McConnell that just came out.
What do you hope others take away from MOTHER IS A VERB?
I think of the book as what happens when a historian writes maternal memoir. I write in the opening pages that the past can burden us, or the past can release. Historical curiosity has the power to unleash us from what we think we already know, to make us doubt and to reimagine. I hope the book does that for the remarkable and ordinary experiences of pregnancy, and birth and the encounter with an infant.
Sarah, this has been so enlightening. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thanks for your interest, Leslie, and for these questions about maternal experiences past and present!
For more information, to connect with Sarah Knott via social media, or to purchase a copy of MOTHER IS A VERB, please visit:
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.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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- Email: email@example.com
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[Cover and author image courtesy of FSG/Sarah Critton Books and used with permission. Photo credit for author photo: Kate Raworth. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Please follow on Instagram for more like this].