Monday, May 6, 2019

Sarah Knott's "Mother Is A Verb"

Sarah Knott is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University and a Research Fellow of the Kinsey Institute. Her writings have appeared in a variety of venues, from the American Historical Review and William and Mary Quarterly to the Guardian and LitHub.

Knott applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History, and reported the following:
A paragraph-long anecdote sits in the middle of page 99:
8th March 1980. Londoner Jean Radford becomes an adoptive mother on this day, at the end of a decade of women’s liberation. She brings home a baby girl through transracial adoption: “Not much hair, toothless, a fat bald child in a scratchy pink dress. It is love at first sight. The cliché resounds in my head and I can hardly see straight.” Radford imagines that for a birth mother, the arrival of a child is a scene of separation, the end of a process not just a beginning. But for adoptive mothers, “the arrival of the child is a scene of different significance. The desire for the child is ‘inside’, but the adoptive child comes from ‘outside’. Bringing the two together is more of a union than a separation and for me is accompanied by an almost manic joy.”
This anecdote is one among many - some forty, I just counted - that comprise a chapter about past experiences of the arrival of a child. Other similar scenes, fragments from the past really, that appear just before and just after page 99 raise a series of themes: the shifted rhythm of time with an infant on hand, the quality of feeling interrupted, the use of maternal tools like flannel binders of plastic bottles, the sleeping… or the not sleeping.

In writing Mother Is A Verb, I had come to find that anecdote - not narrative - was the best means by which to explore the many pasts of mothering in Britain and North America. (For mothering, read pregnancy, birth and the encounter with an infant.) As contemporary theorist Lisa Baraitser puts it: “Motherhood lends itself to anecdote” because of “the constant attack on narrative that the child performs.” A small child is always breaking a line of thought, continually interrupts any narrative flow. What is left for the historian to find in the archives is piecemeal and fragmentary. So, too, was what I felt able to write with one child and then another on hand. The chapter closes: “Even to write a paragraph requires long preparation.”

And this particular anecdote from forty years ago serves, also, to make a different point: that mother is best approached as a verb, as a set of activities undertaken among other activities, more than as an identity or a noun. Mothering does not belong only to birth-givers. Jean Radford reminds us that the “who” of mothering is capacious: not just birth-mothers, but adoptive mothers, in her case a white women’s liberationist newly arrived home with an adopted black baby.
Learn more about Mother Is a Verb.

See Sarah Knott's five best books about motherhood.

--Marshal Zeringue