Mother: An Unconventional History

By Sarah Knott

Penguin/Viking, £14.99

Reviewed by Susan Flockhart

THE 6000 nappies used by the average baby constitute a huge environmental problem but lest we forget what life was like in the pre-disposable era, Sarah Knott offers a pungent reminder. In Depression era America, urine-soaked diapers were often hung up, unwashed, to dry by kitchen fires. In early 20th-century England, the old shirt tails used to wrap infant bottoms proved so inefficient that babies were constantly sodden. The reek of ammonia must have been all-pervasive so it's nice to know that Native American infants of the same era, who were swathed in dried swamp moss rather than cloth, smelled much sweeter.

These fascinating details were gleaned from history books, letters, diaries and other archival sources, though finding them can't have been easy since as Knott points out, the nitty-gritty of bearing and caring for children was long considered too commonplace to bother recording.

Knott describes her new book as “an unconventional history” of mothering but its unorthodox nature appears to relate to its method rather than its sources. As an Oxford University-trained historian who teaches in an American university, Knott is used to the regimented and time-consuming discipline of academic study. Mother, which is part-memoir, was substantially researched and written during the snatched, sleep-deprived breaks between breastfeeding and attending to her two young children.

Knott's focus is on recording the experience of “mothering” – conceiving, carrying, producing and caring for babies – and in these gender-fluid times, she's conscious that this is no longer a purely female domain.

For most of human history, however, it was, so how did women feel about fertility and conception, over which, before the advent of contraception, they would have had little control? How, in the days before ultrasound and over-the-counter pregnancy tests, did they even know what was happening to them?

Erratic emotions and “sour belchings” were among the 14 tell-tale signs identified by one 17th-century midwife, and pouring a woman's urine over barley seed was an early precursor to today's shop-bought tests. “If it sprouted after 10 days, she had conceived,” advised an early midwifery manual. But for centuries, the moment of “quickening” – when the baby is first felt moving in the womb – was considered the first reliable indicator.

Knott does not neglect the experience of women once termed “barren” or those who suffered the pain of miscarriage (a “wasted, empty and useless” conception, as one 18th-century physician termed it). Her own first pregnancy ended at eight weeks after an ultrasound scan revealed an embryo without a heartbeat. And if history records some of the physicality of the bloody “expulsions” endured in rudimentary, unplumbed homes, those women's emotions can only be guessed at.

Yet the fear associated with fertility was at least partially offset by the communitarian nature of birth and early maternal care. In 17th-century East Anglia, “going house to house to summon the midwife or other experienced women to the birth was known as nidgeting” and at one time it was customary for new mothers to remain abed for several weeks while friends and relatives rallied round to cook, clean and tend to older children. In these heavily medicalised days, when new mothers are often discharged from hospital a few hours after giving birth, perhaps we can learn from those customs and Knott – who lives an ocean away from her own family – is one of a growing number of people to engage a professional birth companion or “doula”, who also helps with early infant care.

Changing attitudes to breastfeeding are examined in depth and there's a fascinating section on wet-nursing in the days before formula became readily available. “A woman of good Character and a fine Breast of Milk, would be willing to take a Child to Nurse,” ran one 18th-century small-ad though inevitably, the relationships between employer, wet nurse and baby were sometimes fraught with jealousy, resentment and anxiety.

Knott's focus is less on the practicalities than on the emotions and lived experience of mothering and the “unconventional” nature of her history extends to the deliberately anecdotal narrative style, which meanders around various time periods and locations from a 19th century Alabama plantation to a pre-First World War Sutherland fishing village and back to her own Midwestern sitting room where she frets over lost sleep and worries about juggling work and childcare.

Interruption, she writes, is central to the experience of mothering. The baby's cry, the toddler's tantrum, the need to express milk, change a nappy or respond joyfully to an infant's first smile, all conspire to make early parenting a disjointed process and her book's structure reflects that.

Personally, I didn't always find this slightly fractured style conducive to concentration and one or two oddly constructed sentences left me scratching my head.

On the whole, however, this is an original and important account of a universal but neglected experience. Mother powerfully conveys the thrilling, bewildering, and fuzzy-headed atmosphere that surrounds pregnancy and childbirth, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of our mothering predecessors.