Mother is a Verb

By Martha Joy Rose

Exploring the history of motherhood, Sarah Knott brilliantly weaves a memoir that is both educational and poetic. Mother is a Verb is the work of academic historian Sarah Knott.

Who among us contemporary mothers have not sought the solace and wisdom of our predecessors as we attempt to navigate the uncharted territory of motherhood?

She writes, “Leaning, squatting, straining, calling out to lovers or mothers or gods, panting, pulling, pushing –birth givers do not document birth as they labor.” Unless perhaps you are feminist author Phyllis Chesler writing as you labor, which she did in 1979 in her book With Child. In fact, the writing of Chesler’s feminist history is both gory and dangerous. Embracing similar love of the written word, Sarah Knott dramatically includes her marvelous observations as she pulls us by the hand for a trip back in time.

Using research from a broad scope of cultural histories, spanning several centuries, Knott parlays between the past and present, sprinkling facts like breadcrumbs before quickly snapping us back into the present as she cradles her swollen breasts, and pauses to nurse her hungry baby.

We are in her classroom privy to her extensive research. Turning the pages we hear from Asian scholars, English villagers, and of course Ms. Knott’s personal accounts and observations.

Not unlike the scholar Barbara Katz Rothman who wields the tools of sociology like a seamstress (Weaving a Family), a gourmet cook (Bun in the Oven), and incorporates the expertise of a scientist (The Tentative Pregnancy), Knott similarly employs the tools of her trade.

Early into the book, she writes “Perhaps the best way to explore the pasts of having a baby is to put grand narratives aside, and pay attention to the fragments and the anecdotes.” She then examines the multitude of actions, the visceral nature of birth and caregiving itself, and discerns most cleverly, that “Mother is a verb.”

As someone who has been an avid student, champion, and advocate of mother studies for twenty plus years, these kinds of books, as well as the kinds of presentations,  supported each year at the annual academic MOM Conference, and in the pages of this journal, are the most impactful when they are well researched and very personal.

This book is both of those things. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Knott briefly when she attended the conference in New York at Manhattan College in the spring of 2019. She put this book in my hand and I am most grateful she did. It is well worth the read and belongs in every mother studies scholar’s bookshelf. Mine is prominently displayed at the MOM Art Annex as part of the Museum of Motherhood in St. Petersburg, Florida.

About Sarah Knott: Sarah is a British-born historian of early America and the Atlantic World living and teaching in the U.S., according to her publisher’s website. Sarah is currently an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, where she teaches courses in early American and Atlantic history, on the history of gender and maternity, and on the methods of history. She is the author of Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009) and numerous articles.

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