Rather than attempt an exhaustive survey of child-rearing customs over the centuries, Knott structures her book around the shifting months of a baby’s life, in and out of utero. This frees her up to mingle her own experiences with those of women in other (predominantly British and American) cultures and other centuries...This method is successful because it allows the reading experience to enact one of the book’s major themes: interruption. When Knott sought descriptions of motherhood in letters, she encountered broken-off, short and unfinished letters that gave an insight into motherhood and the way that time is cut up into segments we have no control over.
Knott addresses her reader directly, leading us through her first pregnancy and miscarriage, a second pregnancy, the blur of childbirth and then the early months of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, navigating the advice given by manuals, midwives, relatives, strangers and friends. At each step, her approach is to ‘pluralise and specify’. The historian must take nothing for granted and assume no easy solidarity between mothers of the past and the present. Her book is full of examples that distance and disorient, like the 17th-century belief that worms would appear in a pregnant woman’s urine if it was left to stand for three days or that disturbing sights could result in ‘monstrous’ births, infants with missing limbs or extra fingers. Knott imagines the way pregnancy would have been experienced on a South Carolina plantation: an enslaved woman might feel her baby quicken while she crouched over a washtub or stooped to drop rice seed into trenches; her milk might be expected to nourish the offspring of her white mistress rather than her own child.
To work and care for small children involves, in the words of one of Knott’s interlocutors, living “life on life’s terms, not my own”. To do so is disorientating, hard and exhilarating. This is history at its best: writing that unfolds the past and sheds light on the present. The story Knott uncovers is every bit as consequential as the narratives embedded in public archives or parliamentary records. To see it told with such a moving blend of professionalism and passion is a revelation.
The fragmentary nature of these anecdotes becomes an essential element of the book’s fabric; Knott wants in part to capture the distracted, interrupted nature of new motherhood and often describes going about her research while trying to get her son to sleep or feed. This memoir aspect is less engaging than the historical stories, perhaps – paradoxically – because we are so spoilt for contemporary first-person accounts of motherhood. But it provides a useful framework, as Knott bases her chapters around the chronological stages of her baby’s growth, drawing in other women’s accounts to document broader changes in social history.
As the historian and mother Sarah Knott points out in her intensely written personal and public history of mothering, the world used to be full of infants; now, for many women, the first baby they encounter as an adult is their own. Motherhood has gone from being a continuum to a discrete experience.
This historical change from a general part of life to a specialised pocket coincides with the growth of mothering manuals.
The future of mothering is perhaps not the delightful panoply of identities and cooperation that Knott suggests. Falling birth rates are being met in many nations with a backlash: in China, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere, natalism is making a comeback, and the line between policies that are ‘pro-family’ (benefits and incentives) and those that are ‘anti-woman’ (abortion bans and the rescinding of workplace rights) is skin-thin. The ideology of mothering shifts with time. For all the previously hidden and deeply fascinating detail this book contains, meeting that ideology as it exists in our own times demands an approach with more fire and more rigour.