Sarah Knott Looks at Pregnancy and Mothering Through the AgesHistorians in the News
tags: books, womens history, pregnancy, motherhood
The other day, a woman stopped me to ask if I had been eating watermelon seeds. I looked at her blankly until she pointed at my very pregnant belly. “Oh!” I said. In 1753, I might have turned to her and agreed that “I am as Fleshy and Fresh that you ever saw me!” Or a hundred years before that, I might have clarified that actually, I was bagged, bound and teeming with child. But such bodily, lusty terms went out of fashion in the Victorian era, the historian Sarah Knott explains in her new book, “Mother Is a Verb.” Privileged women of the 1800s preferred to elevate rationality and sentimentality — their minds, not their flesh. Out went all the physical descriptions. Now women with rising aprons experienced “the first pledge of matrimonial love,” and awaited their “little stranger.” Even the working classes preferred euphemisms, though theirs were decidedly better: “in the pudding club,” or “up the duff.” Given the watermelon comment, not a lot has changed.
But of course, so much has changed, especially if you look back hundreds of years, tracing the origins of contemporary mothering. Knott, a professor at Indiana University, uses her own path to motherhood, which includes a miscarriage and two successful pregnancies, as the scaffolding for her engaging and pleasingly radical “unconventional history” of this subject. She’s not interested, really, in what patriarchal culture has historically envisioned motherhood to be. Instead, she seeks out a truer, detailed set of accounts: the micro-histories. She combs through letters, diaries, anthropology field notes, doctor’s notes and memoirs to create a “trellis of tiny scenes” that illuminate what mothering truly entailed throughout the last four centuries. “Conceiving, miscarrying, quickening, carrying, birthing,” she writes. “And then, cleaning, feeding, sleeping, not sleeping, providing, being interrupted, passing back and forth. These make up the visceral ongoingness, the blood and guts of being ‘with child.’ The verbs.” So these are the subjects she covers.
Simply put, the book is a joy to read, borne of raw curiosity and intelligence, nurtured into the world to fill a gap in understanding. I tend to toss mom books into the Goodwill bag faster than my daughter’s outgrown clothes. I want to know everything about the complete physical and spiritual metamorphosis I went through when I had my first daughter, and that I am soon to undergo again, as well as everything about how best to parent, but so many books confidently opine about subjects that barely apply to real life (my real life: a NICU baby with reflux who wouldn’t nurse or sleep), or they elevate someone’s idea of mom humor, or they leave a mother wondering why so many of the books geared toward her assume childbirth came with a partial lobotomy.
Of course, there are exceptions, books that take the intelligence of mothers seriously, including Emily Oster’s overview of seminal pregnancy studies, “Expecting Better,” Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s “Parenting From the Inside Out” and Anne Enright’s sharp and witty essay collection, “Making Babies.”
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