Mother Is a Verb
An Unconventional History
by Sarah Knott
Pub Date 02 Apr 2019
Welcome to a work of history unlike any other.
Mothering is as old as human existence. But how has this most essential experience changed over time and cultures? What is the history of maternity—the history of pregnancy, birth, the encounter with an infant? Can one capture the historical trail of mothers? How?
In Mother Is a Verb, the historian Sarah Knott creates a genre all her own in order to craft a new kind of historical interpretation. Blending memoir and history and building from anecdote, her book brings the past and the present viscerally alive. It is at once intimate and expansive, lyrical and precise.
As a history, Mother Is a Verb draws on the terrain of Britain and North America from the seventeenth century to the close of the twentieth. Knott searches among a range of past societies, from those of Cree and Ojibwe women to tenant farmers in Appalachia; from enslaved people on South Carolina rice plantations to tenement dwellers in New York City and London’s East End. She pores over diaries, letters, court records, medical manuals, items of clothing. And she explores and documents her own experiences.
As a memoir, Mother Is a Verb becomes a method of asking new questions and probing lost pasts in order to historicize the smallest, even the most mundane of human experiences. Is there a history to interruption, to the sound of an infant’s cry, to sleeplessness? Knott finds answers not through the telling of grand narratives, but through the painstaking accumulation of a trellis of anecdotes. And all the while, we can feel the child on her hip.