Mother: A Verb and a Noun

I’m sharing what I gleaned from a very insightful discussion with the author, Sarah Knott, who visited Cincinnati early last year for an open house discussion about her book, Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History.

Sarah points out that in the modern world, the mother is the only caregiver left. However, in traditional European and Asian societies (for example, the Indian society), mothering was—in the case of India, to a large extent still is—a communal effort. Aunts were central and were called Big Momma. Now they are just aunts. This clarifies for me why we in India, while growing up, refer to every stranger on the street of a certain age as an uncle or an aunt irrespective of who they are; it is a vestige of our traditional society heavily focused on ‘other mothering.’ 

From the open house discussion I discovered, after the First World War, there was despair about the world, leading to childlessness or child-free couples. This mirrors our generation’s cultural concerns and climate change anxieties in leading to more child-free couples. In this context, the American baby boom in the 1940s and 50s was not an everyday occurrence but a striking anomaly. After the baby boom, a period of childlessness (child-free couples) came back. Although many things are recorded about mothers and women in child-free marriages, what we know about fathers and childless men is nada. This is a gap in our history we need to correct. Back to the topic of mothers, the US and France, after the world wars, reduced their childbirths first. Women stood up for individual liberty—about time—in these countries. This trend eventually led to other places in the world adopting the same values. So, a trade-off the post-Second World War societies made was that they no longer cared for big families. Instead, they looked to invest in different versions of big and caring governments with mixed results.

As we decided to move from big, interconnected families, which helped protect (in terms of social capital) the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life to smaller, detached nuclear families, we made room to maximize talents and expand individual freedom. This shift has ultimately led to a familial system that liberates people of a certain capability and ravages others. 

Altogether, Sarah Knott reminds us that our contemporary society often forgets that a ‘mother’ is just as much a verb as it is a noun.

8 thoughts on “Mother: A Verb and a Noun

  1. Vishnu: You come close to the door of a forbidden room but neve enter it . The reduction of the family to the nuclear type may well have been a necessary condition to the accumulation of capital that financed the original Industrial Revolution. (Endogenous accumulation may be less crucial today because capital is available from outside developing countries.) I have in mind a young musician I know in California who comes from a backward west African country. The man is talented, successful, imaginative and extremely hard working. In the ten years I have known him, he has not been able to buy a car, a necessity to function normally where we both live. I know him well enough to guess that he has no major vice. I think he only smokes a little ganja, a normal local practice. I am guessing that the key to my friend’s continued poverty is…. his mother. She keeps asking him for money; he keeps sending it to her as is his filial duty, as he sees it. She disburses the money he sends her according to her understanding of need among her, his relatives. I am under the impression that he has at least dozens of relatives in the village he left twenty years ago. I would expect that there are even more a little further away, and so forth. This guy is living the American dream except that he will never be even modestly prosperous and he will leave little to his children because he is supporting an extended family back home. I think that’s the way it was with my own ancestors in France except that some moved to the big city and their sense of obligation to the extended family was cut. Also, their relatives did not help them become established. Next topic seldom mentioned: Under conditions of economic underdevelopment, most people don’t work much. Absent some radical change in social structure, they tend to become the parasites of those who work – a lot – in the new economy.

    • Thanks for the reply. Very interesting. So, an economy of remittance is holding him back, at least materially. In this path of waning co-dependence, the contradiction is that a healthy dependence within the family life is experienced by the more affluent, not the lower middle class.

    • Well, as you almost point out yourself, there is no contradiction between the two imagined effects. What matters is the net economic effect, I think. My African friend may be hard working, creative, and full of initiative because of his early engagement with his family of origin; later on, in his productive years, the same engagement prevents him from becoming economically independent. Perhaps, the steepness of the economic gradient matters: There is such a big difference between his earning capacity in California where he lives and the income of everyone in Burkina Faso where he sends money that sending it is irresistible. He may tell himself that what he earns in one hour here can support a family there for a week.; so, how not to? His relatives in Burkina Faso, probably know the same which adds to the pressure.

  2. Interesting topic. A little bit colour for the period around the World Wars if I may: The birth rates had already been declining in the run-up to World War I (since late 19th century or so), when the icon of a newly liberated, independent and working woman emerged. Gender equality gained further traction by the Russian Revolution and was officially recognised in a few constitutions (not all though) in Europe.
    The spike in divorces and the further fall of birth rates in the War aftermath lead to a pushback, Left and Right. The state proclaimed that being a wife/ mother (not even distinguishing between the two!) was akin to duty service for women, the matrimonial law effectively restored the traditional gender roles against the new constitutional provisions and severe legislation banned abortions.

    • Thanks for the information. This is a fascinating topic. Where can I read more about this? Can you give me some references?

    • My pleasure Vishnu. I would recommend two books, focused mostly on Europe. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, by Mark Mazower, treats the subject fairly (this I skimmed – yet another time – to get right the info I posted…). The other is Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, by Tony Judt. It has many interesting social bits, like how refrigerators effectively gave women more free time to pursue other – professional and/ or political – activities!

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