Soothe and Scold

Helen McCarthy

  • Mother: An Unconventional History by Sarah Knott
    Viking, 336 pp, £14.99, March, ISBN 978 0 241 19860 5

My first child was born in a hospital room in East London on a February morning after 12 hours of labour. Our doula, who had arrived the previous evening, bringing cushions in a supermarket carrier bag, fetched me a hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. It was the best breakfast of my life.

This is a maternal anecdote. It is fairly boring, and definitely trivial. Yet place such moments alongside one another, pounce on every surviving description of what it is like to conceive, carry, give birth to, feed, wash, soothe and scold an infant, and something like a history of mothering comes into view. Sarah Knott privileges anecdote in her account of mothering in Britain and North America over the past four centuries, partly because she wants to think about subjectivity and experience, but also because anecdote implies interruption, distraction and inconsequence. The history of mothering has to be told through small, unfinished stories because hardly anyone before the mid-20th century believed the subject deserved lengthy description. Mothers appeared to stand outside historical time: empires rose and fell while babies napped.

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. We learn that Cherokee women used to give birth in osi, wattle-and-daub cabins that were located some distance from the settlement; afterwards, they rested, talking with other women and nursing. Even the relatively recent history of Western childbirth seems startlingly remote. Otis Burger was shaved and given an enema when she went into labour in New York in 1949; eventually she was strapped down and anaesthetised. She saw her baby very briefly, before she was sent to a private room and left undisturbed to read novels. ‘I had seen so little of her and imagined her so rarely, that I quite forgot my reason for being here,’ she wrote.

Yet for all that’s unfamiliar, there are many recognisable moments in Knott’s book. Here are the mood swings of an expectant mother as described by a midwife in 17th-century England: ‘For some time she will be merry, or sad suddenly upon no manifest cause.’ Here is the washerwoman-poet Mary Collier in the 1730s complaining about her sleep being broken by ‘froward Children’ who ‘cry and rave’. Here is Hester Thrale in 1777, trying to write at home in London but finding that ‘the Crying of a young Child … will soon drive out of a female Parent’s head a Conversation concerning Wit, Science or Sentiment.’ And here is a 1970s British housewife whose tea stands undrunk while she tends to her baby. (‘How many cups have cooled that way?’ Knott asks.)

This mix of dissociation and identification dashes any hope for a simple history of shared maternal experience. No great chain of nurturing links mothers across the centuries. But Knott’s book is premised on the possibility of exactly that connection. The sensation of a mouth latching onto a breast; the perfect repose of the sleeping infant; a baby’s delight at discovering fingers, toes or her reflection in a mirror; the unblinking stares; the snuffles, snores and burps, seem like experiences all mothers will recognise. But nevertheless motherhood can feel like joining a club of one. Another anecdote. At a National Childbirth Trust coffee morning early in my maternity leave, I met a woman like me, a thirtysomething academic with a newborn. Here, I hoped, was a friend, someone else who didn’t want to talk only about babies, someone with whom to exchange comradely glances. I fell on her, but she held me at a distance, sticking to the usual subjects of cracked nipples and botched stitches. How I disliked her. And the rest of them.

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If mothering has any grand narratives, they are usually folded inside other stories. The fertility transition. The eclipse of the household economy by the breadwinner family. The rise and fall of the welfare state. The sexual revolution. Knott deftly weaves these big stories – what she calls ‘History with a capital H’ – into her small ones. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, family size shrank from an average of seven or eight children in North America and four or five in Britain to 2.2 in both, transforming the physical demands of mothering. Childbearing became a planned event. The fatalism which stood as a mother’s emotional defence against repeated miscarriage and infant death – which Knott doesn’t discuss – gave way to the modern fantasy of choice and control. When the Royal Commission on Population explored the reasons for Britain’s falling birthrate in the 1940s, it found that most married couples were limiting their families. With one or two children all things were possible: a mortgage, a garden, a better joint of meat on a Sunday, perhaps a job for the mother once the kids were safely at school. The commissioners noted that many younger women shuddered at the memory of their own childhoods, in which ‘the life of the mother was one of unremitting toil and drudgery, without leisure, and frequently burdened with ill-health.’ Pro-natalist policies like family allowances did little to encourage the postwar generation to have more children. ‘You see there’s considerable mental regression involved in having children,’ one woman told researchers. ‘You feel as if your brain is being separated from your body.’

As medical care improved, pregnancy moved further from the province of female knowledge and community into a masculine world of institutionalised medicine. Knott itemises the attenuated vocabulary of maternity bequeathed to us by the Victorians, who replaced a rich lexicon (lusty, big-bellied, great with child) with euphemism and prissy understatement. Pregnant women were in a ‘delicate condition’ or the ‘family way’; after nine months, they retreated into their period of ‘confinement’. Harold Nicolson pushed verbal restraint to its limit in a note to Vita Sackville-West shortly after the birth of their son in 1914: ‘Give a hug from me to that odd little funny which happened the other day.’

Revulsion for the maternal body persisted. The journalist Drusilla Beyfus, who had three pregnancies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, recalled that male colleagues ‘treated you as if you were on fire’. The chatrooms of parenting websites are full of expectant and new mothers describing the discomfort or hostility triggered by their swelling bellies and leaky breasts. A city worker posting on Mumsnet in 2001 described crossing the office to express milk three times a day for eight months ‘accompanied by loud mooing noises’ from her colleagues. In 17th-century Maryland, a nursing mother called Rose Ashbrooke was casually complimented on her ‘good Store’ by a male visitor to her home. As Knott writes, breastfeeding was considered then ‘ordinary and unsequestered, the kind of activity witnessed across a room’.

The history of mothering does not run in a straight line from dark age to golden. Few women, it’s true, now die from childbearing in developed countries, and Western democratic states support maternity with paid leave, healthcare, tax credits, childcare vouchers and nursery education. Yet the politics which made mothers the responsibility of the state should give us pause. The ‘endowment’ of motherhood emerged as a demand at the end of the 19th century amid eugenicist anxieties about the quality of the ‘race’. In Britain, organisations like the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Women’s Labour League advocated for the needs of the working-class mother, but such maternalism was susceptible to ideological drift. When welfare bureaucracies weld the categories ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ together, it takes some work to prise them apart again.

As Eleanor Rathbone, the MP and champion of family allowances, pointed out in the early 20th century, most working-class women did become full-time housewives and mothers and so it was reasonable to require that the state help them. But what is the distance from that position to an idea of motherhood as a service to the state? Not very far, according to Winifred Holtby, who watched with alarm as the Nazis privileged ‘the docility of the good breeder and the fecundity of the good milch cow’ over ‘the capacity and companionship of a free human being’.

Knott shares Holtby’s unease. ‘I am wary,’ she writes, ‘of a politics grounded in the authority and experience of mothers, maternalism looking like feminism for conservative times.’ Her response is to ‘switch the noun to a verb’: wet nurses, servants and nannies abound in her book, as do fathers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and daughters who were given the task of looking after younger siblings in working-class families. These networks of care, reciprocity and market exchange uncouple the mother-child dyad which mid-20th-century psychoanalysis saw as the heartbeat of the ‘normal’ family. From the black feminist Patricia Hill Collins, Knott borrows the idea of ‘othermothering’, a term inspired by the communal childcare methods of enslaved African-American women. Here, she suggests, lies the key to a new maternalist politics, shorn of gender essentialism: ‘A defence of caring under late capitalism, uttered by caregivers of every persuasion – adoptive, biological and employed; female, male, lesbian, gay, trans and the rest – could be a wide coalition indeed.’

Yet the birth mother always finds her way back in. Much of Knott’s book addresses the bodily labour of conceiving, carrying, giving birth to and breastfeeding a baby – and this is still the way most women mother in the 21st century. Consider the celebratory account of maternity presented in the decade-long TV series One Born Every Minute, which follows women from their arrival in the labour ward to the birth of their child. Birth partners include lesbian lovers and gay best friends; the mothers themselves are every age between fifteen and fifty; rich, poor, glamorous, obese, foreign, disabled; in for their first or back for their sixth. They are all there to give birth, which they do against a surging soundtrack aided by unfailingly empathetic midwives. It’s addictive viewing, which also happens to make childbirth into a narrative of personal transformation, sometimes even of redemption. Missing is anything that might locate it in history, politics or culture (or any hint of the funding crisis in the NHS). I experienced a version of this when our doula wrote up my ‘birth story’ and presented it to me, printed in a soothing lilac. Events I could convey only in fractured anecdotes now had a beginning, middle and end. Yet the details I remembered most clearly – the carrier bag, the hot chocolate, the blueberry muffin – weren’t there. Whose story was it really?

A final anecdote. In the weeks after the birth of my daughter, I kept noticing the way doctors and midwives addressed me. I was ‘mum’ at all times: ‘Mum, are you here for baby’s hearing test?’, ‘Mum, have you booked your six-week check?’, ‘How is mum feeling today?’ It wasn’t simply administrative convenience: nine times out of ten my name was on the file they were holding. I interpreted it as a disciplinary act, a way of making sure that shocked, hormonal, bleeding women came to understand the surrender required of them. The doctors and midwives had no need for my name because they had no business with the person I had been, only with the mother I had become. This thought troubled me, though I forgot about it when the baby started to cry or allowed me to sleep.