Reviewed: Sarah Knott, Mother: An Unconventional History, Penguin
Motherhood is a role everyone experiences in some way, and yet mothers are never seen. Instead, media and society dissect mothers into a range of body parts without agency: the uterus, which is governed by laws, or hands that do the majority of unpaid physical labour in the home. Legs pounding the backyard, carrying a baby fussing itself to sleep. An invisible set of helicopter blades swirls over mothers’ heads, loudly creating terrible children.
In popular culture, motherhood is fully dissociated from real people and becomes merely performance rendered for others. The June Cleaver who literally exists to serve her family, the feisty or pious martyr who endures all to save them, the evil stepmother whose dominance shows she can never be a true figure of maternal benevolence, or the sassy single mum whose devoted cause is her sole redemption. Then there’s YA’s favourite, the dead mother who can’t find rest even in death because she must give motivation.
Once someone becomes a mother, they are no longer an autonomous individual: they’re defined by their connection to their children and the labour expected of them. Yet there is much more to this gendered work than what is hidden. As mothers are a constant presence throughout human history, surely by now we should be able to see the whole mother—not as a sudden discordant beat, but as a song or even, in our more ambitious moments, a whole complex symphony.
Perhaps these thoughts were at play when historian Sarah Knott considered becoming pregnant and wondered what mothering had been like in the past. Her book, Mother: An Unconventional History, is an attempt to reveal that mystery, drawing on memoir and historical research.
What becomes immediately clear is that Knott’s researches are thwarted because there are so few primary sources about motherhood: history makes little space for mothers. ‘About mothering an infant, I am on smaller, grittier ground. The drama is piecemeal, and the record is fragmentary,’ she writes.
What’s left behind from Britain and North America before the 1970s is mainly a hundredweight of fragments. A seventeenth-century court record happens to reveal a baby being noisy in church. An eighteenth-century traveller describes a native woman tanning a leather hide and tending to the occupant of a cradleboard. A nineteenth-century social reformer notes an infant suspended in an egg box from a factory ceiling, hinting at how working mothers managed. A farmer’s wife in the 1930s dashes off an account of colic to a government department, requesting the latest medical advice … there are such small shards of evidence. Knott is clear about the impact—the ‘historical forgetting [of mothering] leaves holes in the fabric that binds us’.
‘In fact, we know more about experiences of mothering in the 1970s than any earlier generation, thanks to the women’s liberation movement of that decade,’ she says. This is when Adrienne Rich’s iconic Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution was published, as were countless academic papers and feminist memoirs that grapple with motherhood as an experience that embodies both patriarchal institutions and what Rich describes as ‘the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children’.
In comparison, the contemporary state of publicly accessible mothering or matricentric writing is often varied in quality, generally restricting itself to memoir or child-rearing advice (which erases the mother while casting a non-analytical eye on her labour). Important feminist analyses are still available, most notably through feminist Andrea O’Reilly’s Demeter Press, but they have not achieved the same cut-through in mainstream feminist or feminine discourse.
While it is true there are few historical records about motherhood, much of what Knott presents in her book relies on her expertise as an American and English historian. She makes good use of this, contrasting mothering experiences and techniques from the 1600s to the present through Native American, Inuit, African-American slaves, and white American and English cultures.
While these paint a rich picture for mothers in those cultures, they exclude large areas of history. Europe, Asia, South America and Australia all have primary, secondary or archaeological sources of non-immigrant mothering work that in some cases reach back further than the 1600s. But perhaps Knott keeps to the sources, regions and time periods she feels most comfortable with. While this gives us insight into those regions and people, this incomplete survey reinforces the patchiness of the record.
Where Knott truly shines is in her ability to evocatively re-create from her research the emotional and tactile experiences of mothers. Much of this is built on the seemingly radical exercise of imagining what life was like for mothers based on the tools, techniques and tensions at the time, which Knott contrasts with her own experiences as a new mother.
She strikes an easy balance across American and English cultures, applying her contemporary eye to historical oppressions and colonial impacts. Again, this would be revolutionary in any text, but it’s particularly radical when it comes to motherhood, an area with scarce primary resources. Knott’s work collating and contrasting these records should be the new standard for every writer, and makes for thrilling, nuanced reading.
For example, she details how the Office of Indian Affairs targeted Native American mothers, using motherhood classes to ‘civilise’ them away from traditional practices such as shared childcare and cradleboards into colonially favoured Western homes with cloth nappies and cribs. These are records every person needs to see, and they demonstrate how the twin prongs of colonialism and sexism can wreak profound havoc.
The depth of record-keeping emerges from racist policies that saw the mothering of non-white people as more exotic and worthy of research than their white counterparts, but even so, these are important records worthy of deeper analysis. Some of the best moments of Mother are in Knott’s retelling of how Native American mothering work rebuffed intrusion and coercion from colonists, such as the Ute women who ignored every patronising lesson from the Office of Indian Affairs.
Knott’s research suggests that the immediate post-birth experience focused on community care. Across cultures, different forms of lying in saw the mother confined to bed immediately after delivery as she and her child were cared for in various ways. Although not captured in historical depth, there is enough material to suggest this sense of maternal community was the norm across many cultures.
Knott’s writing is charming. Hers is a warm and accessible voice that shares endlessly fascinating information and stories, woven through her own experiences of motherhood. She takes care to describe evocatively maternal experiences: readers can feel a deep kinship with the women described whether they’re pulling power moves among royalty or stuffing a nappy with moss.
Her style subtly mimics the concept of maternal interruption—where a mother is constantly distracted from non-maternal work with child-rearing demands. Whether they’re personal or historical, Knott delivers her stories in a deliberately staccato manner that mirrors the breakages in time and information. It makes for a dippable read, particularly for new mothers who can only read in snatches.
This maternal interruption mirrors something else that plagues our collective and individual understanding of mothering work: despite its weight of experiences, we don’t possess one large story or overview of mother-hood. This is a recognised issue among writers and researchers who specialise in motherhood. In a world where mothering has rarely been given academic, political, social or literary focus, many first-time or early mothers perhaps believe they are among the first to tackle the topic of mothering. How-ever, precisely because of that lack of attention, a writer new to the topic might focus more on their immediate personal experience than on the previous work covering motherhood, or forget to view it as something that extends beyond birth and babies.
Knott and others focus on fertility as the physical and biological labour of pregnancy and early childhood, which undoes their ambitions to present mothering work in a more gender-neutral light. True gender inclusion comes from the recognition that motherhood is much more than biology. The concept of motherhood extending into a social, embodied role must be taken on if there is to be any truly meaningful or intellectual conversation about the topic.
While this focus is no doubt well intentioned, it reduces mothering work again to a series of fragmented body parts marked for external judgement that in turn resists any attempt to form a coherent theory. How is a uterus or milk duct considered a ground-breaking and defining feature for gender-inclusive parenting, when we have ample evidence that the title of ‘mother’ is not reliant upon the ability to become pregnant, or birth vaginally, or breastfeed?
By focusing on mothers as a series of parts or sequestered experiences, books such as Mother risk missing the depths in mothering: how culture builds the roles of mothers; how they work, organise or are isolated; how they exist within relationships, whether fractured or strong; and, importantly, how the work of mothering children extends well beyond five years of age. Perhaps this hemmed-in frame of reference is due to Knott’s use of memoir, which centres her own children and experiences, but it reinforces a rudimentary and essentialist definition of motherhood, in which it’s assumed one mother can speak for all.
Mothering work extends before babies and beyond toddlerhood. Knott is not the first to focus on this narrow band of experience and will definitely not be the last—it is almost a cliché for writing mothers to simultaneously gestate a baby and a book pitch—but the frequency of this truncated view thwarts the very thing Knott appears to desire: a greater depth of motherhood in the written record.
Perhaps this focus occurs because of the publishing industry’s insistence on making motherhood work ‘relatable’ by relying on memoir. Does motherhood need to be relatable to be considered worthy of coverage? Or are we perhaps trivialising women’s experiences again, making them fight for attention by jumping through hoops to be considered the literary equivalent of likeable?
The number of children born each day, the number of children and teens tended by mothers daily, and the non-stop cultural conditioning of women demonstrate that this is an issue that affects all of us throughout our whole lives. But here’s another book that suggests mothering only lasts for around five or six years.
Perhaps it’s graceless to expect so much from one writer, but it shows how desperate we are for a larger view of motherhood, a role for which women are primed in their infancy and whose labour is relied upon through to old age. We legislate body parts, we promote or punish mothers depending on the extent to which they meet society’s standards, and we hold them accountable for entire ecosystems that we don’t grant them full agency to control. Even though the world relies on the labour of motherhood, it refuses to take the labour seriously.
Despite Knott’s brilliant research into diverse US and British historical sources, she doesn’t carry her thinking across to feminist theory. This is an important omission, reflecting how much mainstream feminist writing about motherhood is either unreferenced or remains unpublished. This work has existed since the 1970s, but again it has been either erased or marginalised. Working mothers, though covered in Knott’s book, really only appear 200 or so pages in. Entire swathes of feminist theories are disconnected, interrupted and removed from the whole.
The defiant feminism I inherit from my former life is only of limited help. That particular version of feminism—that gender and sex are socially made, that declarations about femininity are only declarations, that gender and sexuality intersect with race and class—helps me perform ideology critique on the manuals. But critique holds neither the fatigue nor the uncertainty at bay. In the blur of the here and now, and to my dismay, I mostly want to know what to do next.
Somewhat bizarrely, Knott finishes off this paragraph with ‘even if motherhood was an oppressive institution, mothering could be recuperated … but feminists didn’t tend to tell others what to do. Mentoring, yes; modelling, yes; prescription about motherhood, not so much.’
This one paragraph displays the cognitive whiplash at play when it comes to motherhood and modern feminism. There is a reliance on performance and choice instead of structural awareness, personal experience at the expense of reading or research (if it’s done at all) and a focus on acceptance over analysis. This isn’t progress, it’s a case of throwing the baby and the mother out with the bathwater. To be fair, maybe Knott shouldn’t be saddled with this responsibility: as she says, ‘perhaps I am not the manifesto-writing type’.
While Mother is a sustaining and at times revolutionary read for the space it gives to individual women and their experiences, it stumbles tragically when it attempts to unify its assorted research into a theory or statement. This does not make the book a failure or, indeed, one to avoid. It remains a part, not a whole. But read it, please. •
Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer whose work focuses on feminism, politics, culture and parenting.