MOTHER IS A VERB by Sarah Knott


An Unconventional History
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An exploration of mothering, a capacious, complex, and creative experience.

Historian and mother of two, Knott (History/Indiana Univ.; Sensibility and the American Revolution, 2009) grounds her illuminating investigation in her own experience of pregnancy, delivery, and infant care. Drawing on a prodigious number of histories and archival sources, she teases out anecdotes and testimony from “slim shards of evidence,” sometimes “a single remark in a published diary, a stray sentence or two in government-sponsored interviews with formerly enslaved men and women, a handful of letters in manuscript, a seventeenth-century church court record.” Evidence is especially slim for enslaved or working-class mothers who were illiterate or those, such as Native Americans, who conveyed their experiences orally, but Knott has managed to include their voices—along with gay and trans parents—as much as possible as she examines assumptions about conception, how and when pregnancy was determined, and responses to miscarriage, such as hers, which left her fearful of infertility. Pregnant again, perceiving her baby’s “inner touch” inspired her search for historical mentions of quickening among 17th-century noblewomen and contemporaneous field slaves on Southern plantations. As her pregnancy progressed, she thought about terms for heavily pregnant women, ranging from “great-bellied” in the 16th and 17th centuries to “sticky-sweet euphemisms” of 19th-century working-class slang: “in the pudding club” or having “a bun in the oven.” After her son was born, Knott faced the “humiliation and excess” of nursing. From the mid-18th century and throughout the 19th, she discovered, “whose breast? remained the central concern about holding and feeding” until “sentimentalism” ushered in “a new way of venerating motherhood in popular culture” and made wet nurses obsolete. Interrupted sleep, caring for a colicky infant, and weighing advice from friends, grandmothers, and child raising manuals all propelled Knott into libraries. She wonders about who wrote and actually read how-to books. “Mothering,” she realizes, “is tangible, sensory, and material”; “it unfolds at first hand. Babies are never pure thought experiments.”

A fresh, lively narrative of personal and historical memory.

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-374-21358-9
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2019


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