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The changing face of motherhood: how women balanced work and parenting throughout history

From miscarriage to the birth of her children, historian Sarah Knott draws on her personal experiences alongside a collection of fascinating material to explore the evolution of motherhood across the ages. Here, she tells the lost stories of ordinary women.


The dilemma of mothering and the contemporary workplace, I read, is the tension between being treated equally as gender­ neutral and being recognized as having particular skills

I don’t know whether Edith Knott would have counted what I do for a living as ‘work’, though I like to think my chances are in part her legacy: that Times crossword, my dad’s love of words and arguing, his approval of strong-­willed daughters. Perhaps she would have shared his sneer at middle­-class ways, or at teaching and writing rather than doing.

Most of the time, unromantically, unsentimentally, there’s getting on with it. Of mothering and working – in some fashion – together.

THUS COMES THE MOMENT when my rhythm stutter­ steps away from that of the baby. Suddenly, from one September day to the next, I am back ‘at work’. On this first morning, I nurse him in the half­light on awakening, the early hour partly illumi­nated by the red numerical glow of a bedside clock. He sinks against my body sighing, drifting into a doze. At my shoulder, his head rolls into the nape of my neck. At 6.20, he crab­crawls to the door frame, looking for corners and steps.

Nine months of age. For some weeks now, the two­-and­-a-­half­ hour gap between naps has started to give us a rhythm that more closely resembles a regular adult life. That is: long enough for a spontaneous decision about what might happen next, in place of the nurse­and­go readiness to get something done. Leisurely enough to head out for an errand and a picnic, both, at the week­ end. Now I will be teaching and K will not; I will be hurrying home and he will already be there. The everyday shape of his leave from our workplace will contrast to my rhythms and habits with a younger, smaller baby.

This day I choose shoes whose laces I tie, both hands being free. My step on the pavement lands 18lbs more lightly, as if the road is sprung and I am a prepubescent gymnast. M usually sits against my left hip, on the heart side, so the novel symmetry initially feels lopsided. My wave hesitates, persists. His wave is plump, naive. He and K converse, one pointing the other to a different room: I turn away.

The manila folder waiting on my office desk has a set of lecture notes to be used again. It’s a survey course, a grand sweep of human history. There’s a distinct economic thread running through, as I recall. First there was a household economy in which ‘home’ and ‘work’ were the same place. Then mass markets devel­ oped, and ‘homework’ – making goods at home for the mass marketplace – got added to the household economy. Then indus­tries developed, factories were built, and the household split into ‘home’ and ‘work’: the separate workplace and all its legislation was born. Household economy. Then, homework. Then, the sep­ arate workplace. Overlapping pasts, each with a distinctive context for working – and, surely, mothering.

At main issue in giving a history to mothering and working is their location in the same spot, or their separation into ‘home’ and ‘workplace’. The where of the baby and the where of the rest of the work. ‘Mothers’ work in relation to childbearing’, as one group of reformers wrote in appalled awe at the lives of early­twentieth­ century Montana farmwomen. ‘Military operations’ my mate Myfanwy calls it: tin soldier on the line, making shelter, rationing out, planning offensives, trudging hillocks, noticing what worked before, getting up and doing it all over again.

IN THE SMALL RURAL communities of seventeenth­ century England, such as Odiham or Chishill or Nazeing in the southeast, feeding, cleaning and swaddling an infant combined with preparing food, or tending the hearth, or spinning, or boil­ ing water, or brewing and distilling, or straining and sifting a remedy. Spinning could be done just outside, the wheel pulled into doorway or lane, to take advantage of the light. Streets were mainly female spaces in the morning, with menfolk returning from the fields at lunchtime. Sometimes itinerant traders vended cloth and tobacco, or a neighbouring farmer stopped to sell meat. Coins and barter changed hands.

This is one example of the household economy at the life­point of mothering. The main work happened in and around the household. Much of that work was designated as usually female or usually male. Mothering and working were collocated, a coolly abstract and unfleshy verb for such close­-at- ­hand improvisation. They happened in the same place.

Working inside an Odiham house or at a Chishill threshold did not accomplish all the necessary providing. Other tactics entailed bringing a baby along, taking a baby with: when making hay, or herding cattle, or fetching a husband from a drinking party, wash­ing rags in a water ditch, visiting the bailiff, tending to cattle in a barn or to a swarm of honeybees, picking turnips, checking cab­ bage or assisting a neighbour about to give birth. A baby had to be carried, and feet trod unpaved roads in handmade leather boots. A healthy big baby like mine now, who can totter, surely struggled to be put down, to explore mud or leaf or verge.

Leaving a baby unattended for a short while was also a habit in these seventeenth­-century English villages, most usually among small or poor households – those without older children or a servant to keep an eye out. Perhaps a mother was going to the woods to fetch swine, or heading to the mill to grind a little flour, or fetching water to rinse yarn, or taking a husband his food. It was easier to leave an infant briefly unwatched when it was still small and easily immobilized.

On a cold day in these villages, it was better to work a herb garden with the baby inside. Smaller babies were usually fed first, and then swaddled and put to bed. On the coldest days, such a baby would be put near the hearth and the fire left as safe as possible – covering the burning matter with ash, sometimes, or placing wet logs between the fire and the baby. Improvising could extend to turning a chair upside down, tying the baby to the chair legs with its swaddling bands to form a kind of cloth frame, and placing both near the hearth. Sometimes there was a feeding horn that could be fastened on to something steady, so that a bigger baby could eat by itself.

During harvest warmth, a baby could be placed in the shade of a tree. On finer days in Nazeing, the wives of local farmers and craftsmen did their knitting on the village common. Suffolk women walked and spun, walked and spun, with a rock and a dis­ taff in their hands. Once a week, the local market offered other provisions and foodstuffs. Agricultural labourers, male and female, who needed to work for wages or payment in kind, bought their bread and beer from local victualling houses. Arriving at both subsistence and infant nurture was hard for them: wages were too low even to support a single child, and many ended up on poor relief.

The homesteaders of early­ twentieth­-century Nebraska or Montana might have recognized some dimensions of this house­ hold enterprise. But life in homesteading Nebraska was more isolated than on seventeenth­-century Nazeing Common. A Nebraskan farmwife juggled a baby with milking and churning to make butter, the care of poultry and the kitchen garden, and the gathering of whortleberries and cranberries. There was plenty of outside labour, too: planting, weeding, cultivating, haying and harvesting. Some also took care of large numbers of livestock. Travel by wagon into town brought fewer options than walking to an early modern English common or market. There was nowhere for a woman and her baby to be. Pool hall, saloon, post office, blacksmith’s shops, these were male spaces.


The increasing female participation in the formal waged economy has come alongside an overall improvement in living standards, yet also a rise in inequality.

What dominated the logistics of providing for her similarly isolated contemporaries in Montana or Colorado was the distance from house to spring, and whether or not a husband usually hauled water in barrels by team. Sometimes it was a woman’s job to feed and water the livestock, sometimes that was the role of a hired hand or a husband. The summer heat challenged. A baby might be left a brief daytime while in a root cellar, as the coolest place. The trick in managing all the work, first­hand accounts suggest, was always to be the first up in the morning – a new wrinkle on the particularities of maternal sleep.

The sea tuned certain household economies to tides and to wind more than chill and sun. In pre-­First World War Golspie, Scotland, a fishwife like Betty Sutherland used one foot to rock the cradle on the living room’s dark flagstone floor. Flagstone was terribly cold, unlike the wood flooring underfoot in her other rooms, but this room was where cooking happened in the fire­ place and where boots and oilskins trailed salt wet. The front door was usually left unlocked. The road outside tracked the shape of the shoreline, but Betty usually just walked across to her kitchen garden and the North Sea just below. Caring for the baby hap­pened, with the help of older Fishertown relatives, alongside carrying her husband above the water to his boat in the morning’s very early hours, to keep him dry; tucking rotting seaweed around potato roots as fertilizer; gathering cockles and mussels and baiting the husband’s fishing line; preparing fish for smoking; and gathering fir cones for the fire.

Betty sold the fish to local Golspie golfing hotels and to crofters each morning. The weight of a full creel, hoisted on the back, bent the body forwards. The creel’s rope cut into the upper arm, leav­ing distinctive marks. Fish were exchanged for eggs or oatmeal, perhaps kept in a wooden butter cask, or for money, the load of the creel slowly lightening. In summer, Betty trod the Golspie road in canvas shoes with rubber soles, like gym shoes. Heavier shoes were worn beneath her long skirts in the winter.

All this household labour was generally too much for a husband and wife without older children, so a widow or a young boy or girl from another family could be paid to help gather the bait and prepare the lines each day but Sunday.

Betty Sutherland bought tea, butter, sugar and wheat flour in Golspie. A pram could be left outside a shop with the baby inside. Most of the rest of what was needed was provided by the house­hold’s labour: line fish like haddock, flounder and turbot; netted fish like cod; catfish that was ugly and unsaleable but tasty to eat; salt herring; potatoes, turnip and cabbage from the garden and eggs from the hens. Betty cooked oatcakes on a griddle suspended over the fire by a hook­end attached to a chimney chain. They kept fresh in a tin for several days even in sea­damp weather, at least according to the memories her son and daughter­in­law shared with a visiting anthropologist.

AT MY WORKPLACE, old competencies snap back into place. Grown­up greetings repeat along the corridor. Shortcuts to get things done spring familiar. Feeling qualified and able juxtaposes with squeezed time and lowered energy. I press the fatigue away from my head and into my gut, to the extent that this is possible. The dilemma of mothering and the contemporary workplace, I read, is the tension between being treated equally as gender­ neutral and being recognized as having particular skills. Or needs. Hurrying home from the university in the late afternoon means missing out on the good stuff – the public talks, the reading and writing groups.

With the emergence of mass markets and industrialization in the nineteenth century, ‘workplace’ came to mean not simply the different environs where a person worked but, much less casually, a new kind of location, the premises of a company or business like a factory or office in which its employees drew a salary. But for someone at the point of mothering, the more consequential nineteenth-­century effect of the mass market was initially ‘home­ work’. Not homework as in school exercises, but homework as in making goods for the mass market within your own four house­ hold walls. Homework contrasted to factory or office work and to housewifery. Homework added wages to a household income, the influx of cash letting a person buy manufactured goods made elsewhere.

Folding paper flowers was among the most common forms of homework in the Italian tenements of early-­twentieth-­century New York City. Artificial flowers were known locally as ‘the Ital­ian trade’. One young Italian woman with a big baby, surveyed around 1913, earned the exceptional wages of $8 to $12 a week, income equal to that of her husband, who was a porter in a saloon. Before marrying, she had learned the paper­flower trade in a fac­tory shop, so she was fast and skilled. Her mother­-in­-law was on hand to do the housework and some of the baby care, leaving her free to work without interruption. The flowers that she got from her contractor were made abroad and then branched or bunched in her home. ‘Sometimes I can make $1.50 and sometimes $3.00 a day,’ she calculated. Work stretched the day’s length. ‘You can’t count home work by the day, for a day is really two days some­ times, because people often work half the night.’

In a more typical scene among these Italian tenements, a home­ worker with a single small child earned about a quarter of her household’s earnings. The white box from the factory tipped its contents on to the table. She could sit at the table and work even while nursing. A larger baby could hold itself up, leaving both hands free. Or the homeworker could stand once the baby was back in the wooden slatted cradle. For one particular gross of 144 flowers, the least skilled detail involved picking apart the petals, then separating the stems and dipping an end of each into paste spread on a piece of board on the kitchen table. The most skilled detail was then slipping the petals up the stems. A violet of three petals, one velvet and two silk, might earn six cents a gross. Rent got paid first, then food, clothing and insurance. The white box was carried back to the factory, usually within walking distance, by its string. Getting more reliable or better­paid work might entail befriending a foreman, or avoiding the place where he did not speak your language, or swapping one contractor for another. You had to be savvy.

Neighbours conversed in Italian. Their older children fetched new boxes from the contractor. Among these New York tene­ments, other kinds of homework were common. Cracking open nuts. Eyeletting boots. Rolling cigars. Wrapping sweets. Sewing doll’s clothes. Embroidering stems of flowers on to dress waists. Beading shirts. Crocheting bedroom slippers. Tufting bedspreads. Stitching neckties. Carding safety pins. Assembling garters. Fin­ishing men’s coats. Lace pulling. Tag stringing. Making artificial jewellery, baby bonnets, feathers and spaghetti. Yet more kinds of homework were concentrated in different cities or regions. In the nineteenth century, palm-­leaf hat making and lacemaking in New England, chair caning and coverlet weaving in the South­ eastern United States, button making in Iowa, handkerchief making in the Chinatowns of California, cigar and sack making in London’s East End, woollen tailoring in Leeds. In the twentieth century, homeworkers undertook home knitting in Vermont, assembled electronic subcomponents in central New York, and tailored raincoats in Manchester.

Homework rang changes to older family economies. An Italian immigrant mother in New York City may have grown up among the household economies of the Sicilian peasantry: raised to the labour of fetching water or washing at a lake, river or public fountain, and of cooking, sewing, weaving and spinning in the summer heat. The fingers on her left hand may have been pro­ tected with cannedda when she first learned to scythe just outside. In her New York City – or for homeworkers in Vermont, or in Manchester – waged and unwaged labour now intermingled in the same place, the working day stretching or contracting accord­ ing to economic rhythms imposed from outside as well as from within the household.

One kind of heir to the homeworking women of the Italian tenements might be Mrs Lee, a Chinese homeworker in the New York garment industry of the 1970s. Speaking in Cantonese, she recalled in 1989 that the restaurant earnings of the baby’s father paid for only half their rent. Mrs Lee worked at home because there was no one else on hand to take care of their child. In the 1970s, as in 1913, homework was more poorly paid than other kinds of waged income. Homework was jyu tauh gwat – pork neck bones, nutritious but with hardly any meat, and thus slim pickings compared to ‘soy sauce chicken’, the Chinese garment slang for easy work.6

Mrs Lee reported her logistics to a Southeast Asian­born scholar and activist: a babysitter was costly; she’d have only $10 a day left if she had to pay for one. At home, if the baby was awake, she remarked, ‘I could only do auxiliary work not involving the use of the sewing machine, such as turning corners and trimming. But when she slept, it was my turn. I would drive myself at full speed. All at once, I would finish my household chores and the part of sewing that would do harm to my baby.’ The machine stayed on for lunch (pizza, or a bowl of Chinese instant noodles, whatever she could grab). The most frustrating moments were when work had to be rushed back to the garment shop: the baby might cry in her bed but there was no time to go to her.

The ‘part of the sewing that would do harm’? I am rushing to finish reading the interview even as the clock ticks to 4.50, 4.52. That Mrs Lee’s baby cried in her bed makes my breasts hurt, press with overdue milk. Empathy makes me wince, too, with a sense of better fortune. The dilemmas of working and providing are surely where the interests of those mothering can be at greatest variance, can be most materially pitted against one another.

Mrs Lee. Perhaps she was thinking of a near­-accident, when her daughter was crawling on the floor. She nearly put her fingers in the sewing­-machine wheel. Logistics, providing, improvising: ‘From that time on, whenever I had to sew when she was awake, I circle my machine and myself with an iron screen wrapped with bumper pads,’ to stop her getting dangerously close. Military operations, tin soldier on the line.


The dilemmas of working and providing are surely where the interests of those mothering can be at greatest variance, can be most materially pitted against one another.

THE GRAND HISTORICAL narrative about the rise of mass markets and factories appears in week ten of my current lecture series. That will be November, when the baby turns eleven months.

The lecture is titled the ‘Rise of the Market Economy’ and illu­minates that change through the story of shoe manufacturing in New England. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, my notes explain, a village shoemaker made rough custom­made shoes in his kitchen or shed. Then changes in transportation – the extension of roads, the building of canals, the laying of railway tracks – made a mass market possible for the first time. Merchants got involved, and contractors commissioned homeworkers to sew pre­cut uppers, which were then ‘bottomed’ with thick sole leather and pegs in an artisan’s shop. These shoes could be sold further afield than those of the village shoemaker: unlined work shoes, called brogans, were made for enslaved men and women in the South or West Indies, for example. Finally, shoemaking was mechanized in factories, their top floors dominated by cutting and stitching and their basements crammed with heavy steam­ powered machinery. Factory chimneys stretched higher than New England church spires. An old world of households in self­ sufficient communities gave way to a new world of river­strung factories; barter and local markets gave way to wages and to man­ ufactured goods.

What if I view New England shoe manufacturing from the his­ tory of working at the life­point of mothering, from my novel vantage? I reopen historian Mary Blewett’s 1988 Men, Women, and Work, the standard account of the production of shoes on the east­ ern seaboard. At the beginning, shoemaking was a male artisanal craft, and other householders gained their shoes through local barter – for butter, cheeses, beeswax, tallow or cider, say, or for the promise of labour such as combing flax or wool, husking corn or harvesting onions. The bartering and labouring often entailed female work within the household, the kind of work routinely done by those mothering infants.

Next, ‘homework’ for the mass market was undertaken, in par­ticular by women with children. Robert Gilman, a traveller through Lynn in 1797, remarked that the New England small town ‘supplies even the Southern States with women[’s] shoes for exportation. The women work also.’ By the early nineteenth cen­tury, New Englanders had coined the term ‘shoebinding’ for the specifically female labour of making holes in the leather upper with an awl, sewing up the back, front or side seams, putting in the lining, binding the top edges and sometimes adding hand­ worked eyelets or designs. Shoebinding took two hands plus a new tool called the shoe clamp. The homeworker in her kitchen did not straddle a bench, like the old village shoemaker, but held the clamped shoe between her knees to free both hands for an awl and a needle. In 1836, Sophronia Guilford was given a new pair of shoe clamps by her soon­to­be­husband Charles Fisher. For homeworkers also undertaking childcare, the work could be slow. Sophronia’s contemporary Hannah McIntire, who had two small children on hand, took eleven months to finish binding four lots of shoes, or about 240 pairs.

Then in the middle of the nineteenth century, full­-scale indus­trialization spurred a separation of male workplace from female home. Respectable female work was reconstrued not as wage earning but as domesticity and mothering. The steam­powered shoe factory made homework far less available, and largely excluded those who were mothering from manufacturing. Shoes could now be completed within a single building, mostly finished by unmarried and childless young women who left their homes to work for ten­hour days stitching shoes by machine. Some of them organized the first national union for women in the United States, the Daughters of St Crispin. The factories churned out new styles of shoe: a high­buttoned shoe for women, for example, made of imported serge cloth which was less costly than leather, or later novelties such as a croquet shoe of black glove kid with a rosette and buckler, or a buttoned walking shoe with pink kid trim. A New England woman at the point of mothering like Mary Young, a cordwainer’s wife who had one small child in 1860, was left tak­ ing in factory workers as boarders or accepting the decreasing and then disappearing wages of homework.

Thus the story of New England shoe manufacturing until the 1880s. Exactly what happened to those new mothers of infants in the last part of the story is hard to discern. They do not appear in Mary Blewett’s account of fights and strikes over factory condi­ tions, nor as a particular object of concern for visiting reformers. The small numbers of wives who did work in the shoe factories – during the economic depression of the 1870s, for example – tended not to board with children, suggesting that any children they had were older and being cared for elsewhere.

THE TIMES I FORGET my child are most strongly marked by the moments that follow, in which I suddenly think of him again. Now he is napping, hopefully, his arms flung over his head and his face turned towards the swirling blue, red and green paisley pat­ terns of a cotton blanket. Now he is staggering through the fallen leaves in the park, confronting the hillside, his father stooping over to grasp each hand and the pair appearing as a mess of limbs and triangles.

Holding a job in the separate workplace, for a person at the life­ point of mothering? Providing, strategizing, allocating and improvising in scenes of dislocation rather than collocation? Dis­located scenes require considerable forward or formal planning, and the navigating of particular workplace cultures. Being in the workforce has come labelled as economic necessity or as a way to earn pin money or – only very recently – as a career or vocation. I am here, so I describe it to myself, so that I can still be here in two years, in five years.

Formalized childcare came in the workplace’s wake: day nur­series, crèches, play schools, after care. Such institutions were initially for the ‘benefit of working women compelled to leave their homes and go out’ to work, as one concerned philanthropist and founder put it. Among the earliest was an infant day nursery established in Kensal New Town, London, in 1873, and known locally as ‘the Screech’. Factory reformers were appalled by the sight of malnourished babies, fretted over high infant mortality, and saw such institutions as the solution. Later, local municipal­ities and private companies got in on the act.

An 1880s study of London mothers working in commercial power laundries found that half left their infants in the care of relatives, a third used neighbours as babysitters and about 14 per cent used a day nursery, these being few in number. Middle-­class reformers, and working mothers, did not invariably see the relative merits of neighbours and nurseries in the same way. Child­ minding neighbours knew they needed to preserve a good reputation. ‘Getting a bad name’ as a childminder was terrible in a working­class neighbourhood. ‘Maybe somebody would look after two or three,’ recollected a working mother of the early twentieth century: ‘It had to be a reliable person. You often came to the point where it would be, “Oh, not her” kind of thing, and this was bush telegraph in the mill, you know. The deaf­and­ dumb language was fantastic.’

1946, Hollywood, Los Angeles. Juanita Loveless had worked in an aircraft factory in the early and patriotic years of the Second World War. She was a single mother, the father being one of those flighty types who bragged about avoiding work in the war effort, and skipped town. After her baby was born, Juanita waitressed in one restaurant and then another, a Greek steak and chop house: ‘I used to take her in a basket and put her in an office while I worked.’ That was hard, so for a while she lived ‘in homes where they took care of the baby while I worked... It was very, very common for two or three mothers and babies to share a home.’ Or, as she explained to an interviewer in the 1980s, ‘some widowed lady had a home and would rent rooms to mothers with children, and then they’d hire a colored maid. There were so many babies then that it was like a business or a profession. People got together, rented a house and rented a housekeeper. I did that for a few years. That’s how we made it.’ She joined the Waiter and Waitresses Union.

As Juanita looked back on 1946 from the 1980s, she also observed Los Angeles in her current decade. She missed stronger unions and was not so sure that her Spock generation had made the right choices for their babies. She supported ‘women’s lib’, with qualifi­ cations, and remarked that you ‘almost have to have a two­family income to survive – if you’re going to buy a house, have furniture and clothes, and bring up children’.

1956, Brixton, London. Thelma L – the researcher does not reveal her full name – was a middle-­class Methodist immigrant from Jamaica, one of a wave of Caribbean migrants encouraged to come to Britain as workers. Thelma found a job as a power­-machinist for a central London garment firm and made extra money dressmaking at home on the side. Her baby Gloria was cared for during the day – ‘given out’ in another migrant’s parlance – at the local London County Council day nursery. As many other Caribbean migrants found, the English weather was trying. Some found English people ignorant and insensitive. ‘You don’t know where you are with them,’ another Brixton immigrant remarked, ‘unlike the States where there is a colour bar and that’s that.’ Most hoped for a better chance at education and economic improvement, but arranging childcare was a novel challenge. Jamaican habits of othermothering contrasted to life in London: the extended ‘family unit’ of the Car­ibbean versus ‘no grandmother or aunties, [being] completely alone’, as one Brixton inhabitant put it.

1960s North Lancashire in a decade of rising living standards. For the previous generation of working­class families, grandmoth­ers had typically helped out as paid childminders, releasing mothers for paid work and gaining a little extra cash for themselves. Now there was a rising social expectation that babies were a mother’s sole responsibility. Peter Craig’s, a mail-­order firm in Preston, arranged a special short evening shift for mothers of small chil­dren. Other mothers found occasional cleaning work in a pub. Mrs Burrell worked as a part­-time secretary in a school. She took her first infant to the school in a pram ‘and it worked very well. If she was a bit grizzly they used to let me come home with her. My hours were very flexible. I could work it just the way I wanted, so I used to do most of my work when she was having her sleep.’ The impro­vising continued as the baby grew: ‘then she got to the crawling stage and to the toddling stage, and the headmaster then he made a big play­-pen in the middle of his office; so we put her in that.’

Mrs Burrell’s story shoots forward into her baby’s ‘running about stage’, into what I count out as my next summer. ‘One day she ran out and rang the bell before it was time for end of lessons. So I thought, right, this is the time she should be going to play­-school. So I used to take her to play-­school and then go back and do my hours while she was there.’ The paradox, for part­-time working women like Mrs Burrell, was that the relative prosperity of that decade had lowered cultural acceptance of this kind of managing to make ends meet.

THE CONVENTIONAL STORY of recent economic change suggests a world loosened from earlier times. The globalization of big companies has propelled deindustrialization. Increasing levels of female employment, including for mothers with babies, have become a distinctive feature of contemporary economies. A recent US assessment calculates that more than half of women who have children under one are in the workforce. (Such assessments do not count trans men caregivers or stay­at­home fathers. Nor do such statistics offer any information about othermothering or delegated mothering.) The increasing female participation in the formal waged economy has come alongside an overall improvement in living standards, yet also a rise in inequality.

To this story of recent decades might be added the enduring presence of past ways, as well as a fuller definition of ‘working’. For any one person reckoning with work at the point of mothering, the long reach of the past comes from the individual circumstances they inherit from family background and race or class, and the privileges or disadvantages (mainly, for women, dis­advantages) that have accrued to gender and other identities, as well as deep­rooted and recurring dilemmas of the dislocation or collocation of working and mothering. Maybe economists might figure out how to count mothering as work as well as love? Maybe the many labours of mothering can be made visible and valuable, here under late capitalism?

I overhear bits and pieces of conversation about working that recall, and rework details from seventeenth­-century Nazeing or late-­nineteenth-­century tenement New York. On her two-­person farm, Arwen adjusts the patterns of an agricultural household economy, the roles divvied out now less by expectations about what men or women usually do than by preference and by skill. The schoolteacher who returned to work at the same time as me wonders about jacking in her job and maybe her nursery place to start a business at home. No overheads and I can sell everything online, she surmises, a novel kind of ‘homework’.

Nine months old, ten months, eleven. I phone again about nursery waiting lists, looking for the match of a place to how old the baby will be and which month K’s leave will end. The work­ place crèche – the term debuted in the 1970s, alongside feminist activism – is full. Within ten minutes’ drive there are family day cares, in which a woman takes children into her own home; not­ for-profit day cares run by churches or temples; and commercial nurseries. Their acronyms had circulated in the community centre from which I have now disappeared: BDLC, PDO, CCC. More on my mind, though, are the immediate logistics: the yel­low Post-­it note on my office door that announces the occupant is busy for ten minutes, as the breast pump grinds within. Whether or not our still­-refluxy baby will relent to take a bottle. How long to continue K’s habit of bringing the baby to me to nurse between classes. Where to find the evening energy to prepare for the next class and to start applying for research funding again.

My steps on the seventh­-floor corridor each workplace morn­ing are quiet and even. I get absorbed. Three hours later, the baby pads in on soft scuffed leather, his giggle turning impatient. The latch on to me is so quick it is almost ferocious.


This is an extract from Mother by Sarah Knott,  which is available now. 

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