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.