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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mother Is a Verb

An Unconventional History

Sarah Knott

Sarah Crichton Books



Mothering by Numbers

Back to the beginning, before there is any child on hand, just as research is under way. Mothering is only an abstract prospect.1

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late-summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I’m in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I’m not sure if I’ll have one or two, I announce a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know—or at least I think we both know—that surveys suggest that men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women.

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

How did people in the past act about how many children to have, and what did they assume about family size? What might a person have seen, of mothering and numbers, in their own time and place?

The Miami and the Potawatomi people who once moved across the hilly Midwestern landscape beyond the window, traveling between large summer agricultural settlements and smaller winter villages, cared little for singletons. The women who processed furs and cultivated corn, pumpkin, and kidney beans had multiple children apiece and cared for them communally. Children were cautiously spaced three to four years apart by the use of local abortifacient herbs, sexual abstinence, and late weaning. This was a kin-based world, in which family cooperation was crucial to survival. In Pennsylvania or in Ohio, observers routinely noted that Indian families averaged four to six children.2

Farther east in these seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the settlers edging onto the vast North American continent had more children than the Native peoples they sought to displace and the Old Worlders they had left behind. The settler women who inhabited former Iroquois or Algonquian lands typically married in their late teens or early twenties and gave birth every eighteen months to two years. This more frequent birthrate was the approved rhythm of reproduction, so usual as to seem natural and God-given, as well as a sign of prosperity. Large families were especially typical among the gentry, in urban Jewish communities, and among German inhabitants, all of whom married young. In the old European societies from which the colonists had migrated, meanwhile, where economic life was often less certain, women married later, if they ever did wed, and gave birth every two to three years. Many never had the material security to marry at all.

Most societies are not interested in keeping collective numerical accounts. I learn about these birthrates mainly thanks to modern demographers working backward.

* * *

For a childless person, the numbers can seem terribly cold and out of reach, even off-putting. Modern demographers who count and graph show that the numbers have shifted further over time, from an average of eight or seven children in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, or five or four in Britain, to 2.2 or lower in both places by the later twentieth century. They culled and amassed the numbers mainly from Western sources: local censuses, family histories, wills, church records, and then, since the nineteenth century, from national surveys. I pause, take in a breath over the first North American number: an average, nearly, of broad-hipped, thick-shaped 8.3

Can the numbers be brought forward into the warm hubbub of daily routine, I wonder? The fertility transition, as the demographers crisply term it, is surely the major shift that has shaped maternity since the seventeenth century. If there is an overarching narrative about mothering, the change in likelihood from larger to smaller families is as close as we might get.

The average numbers—from eight or five to 2.2—suggest three broad changes in lived expectations, a trilogy of shifts in what a person might anticipate in their future:

From childbearing … to childrearing. Or, less succinctly put, a “before” of bearing many babies and inhabiting a body marked by multiple pregnancies and births, and an “after” of bearing just a few. A “before” of mothering an assemblage of children, maternal attention distracted and divided, and an “after” of the intensive mothering of one child, or half a handful … not that I can quite imagine either.

From accepting the fertility mainly handed out by fate … to an emphasis on family planning. That shift was driven less by new forms of contraception and more by knowledge and by the arrival of a strong orientation to the future—indeed, of counting more precisely. Plan your children, ran the later logic, consider their spacing, assess what you can afford, act accordingly.

And from the prospect of continual maternity, layered over with grandmothering, to just a handful of years caring for infants. Once, the numbers suggest, mothering lent a permanent and defining adult status. Later, and today, mothering babies became more like a short moment in a life cycle.

“Do not you, my friend,” Susanna Hopkins wrote in a letter, “think the person very contracted in his notions”—small-minded—“who would have us [women] to be nothing more than domesticated animals?” The young Marylander was writing at the beginning of these changes, in the late-eighteenth-century United States. She recoiled from older ways that she thought treated women like breeding livestock. The fertility transition began in exactly her generation, around the American Revolution, when some women had the opportunity to apply the radical message of liberty and independence to their personal lives. Sarah Logan Fisher, a Quaker merchant’s wife, remarked on a contemporary’s “6th child before she is 29”: too many, too early, and too fast. The rejection of older ways, the sense of enacting new possibilities, seems as radical and profound as throwing off monarchy.4

Frenchwomen’s demographic history followed a similarly revolutionary path. Britain followed suit in reducing family size by the later nineteenth century, a change most often associated with industrialization.

Whenever and wherever the transition in family size, women gained in health and in control over their bodies and their time. They came to peg ideal family size to precise and particular numbers. Esther Atlee, an elite Pennsylvanian, might have assessed the shift as an improved lot. In the 1780s she noted her poor mood on being pregnant yet again: “I cannot account for a glooming which too frequently comes over me,” she wrote, immediately adding, “if I had some relief in my family affairs … I should be much easier.” (This pregnancy would nudge the number of her children into two figures.) Looking back from 1855 at the rural life of her grandmother, who had a dozen children, Martha Bowen of Williamsport noted that “having the care of a large family … her sphere of operation was limited.” The intervening generation had four children. Martha, a minister’s wife, had only one.5

The altered prospects were typically experienced piecemeal and in local circumstances. Visitors to the small American city of Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s noted that the obligatory fruitfulness inherited from the 1890s had been “relaxed.” Families of six to fourteen children were no longer seen “as ‘nice’ as families of two, three or four.” In 1930s London, a young woman like the sewing machinist Doris Hanslow could associate having fewer children with such other recent domestic improvements as hot running water or electric lighting or municipal housing. Her mother had eight children in turn-of-the-century Bermondsey. Like other working-class London women of her generation, Doris would have fewer, just two. My London grandmother, who scrubbed steps for extra cash, was behind the curve; she had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood. Asked about ideal family size, a woman on the city’s streets, just after the Second World War, might answer “one’s enough,” or maybe two or three. One, because “You’ve got to bring them up decent, haven’t you.” Three, because “I’d like to give them all I possibly could and I don’t think I could afford more.”6

In particular communities, the numbers sometimes went the other way. Nineteenth-century Cree women, living on the North American prairies, usually had four children. But the numbers rose in the 1860s, perhaps because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles as the buffalo-hunt years came to an end. Numbers found their way into Cree stories: “‘Long ago’ we never had more children than we could grab and run with if there was a battle.” Ojibwe people living on reservations in 1930s Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota might have agreed that it was better to have fewer children as in the old days. An informant told the Catholic nun and anthropologist Inez Hilger that it was “a disgrace to have children like steps and stairs.”7

The demands of fruitfulness, the threat of “glooming,” the limits placed on a woman’s “sphere of operation,” emerge rugged and intimidating from times of large families.

The possible pleasures taken in what has been lost are more intangible. Quiet pride in a stout, teeming body, perhaps. Or the pleasing generosity of gathering up a parcel of children. Or the reappearance in a newborn of the looks of a now-grown child. Or the carved documentation on a gravestone of dozens of living descendants. Somewhere between the fecund past and the parsimonious present, mothering as dilemma replaced mothering as destiny.

Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Knott