What do we read to find out about other mothers’ lives? Sarah Moss blends history and fiction stylishly in Night Waking, which I picked up a little feverishly with an infant close at hand, looking for something clever and non-prescriptive. In the 1870s, a nurse travels to a remote Scottish island where infant mortality is desperately high. She brings her modern medicine, but not much understanding of island life, to hardscrabble homes. In the novel’s present day, a new mother in Scotland, an academic on a working holiday, digs up one of those infant skeletons. Her attempts to cope with small children, and with a husband whose parenting plays second fiddle to his work, unfold next to her struggle to understand what happened to the buried baby.
“Safe delivered of a very fine Daughter”. We go back even further, to 18th-century Maine, in the hands of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. A Midwife’s Tale draws on a terse diary kept for 27 years by the New England midwife Martha Ballard. She slipped the folded half-sheets of her diary into her bag when she headed out, and numbered deliveries down the diary’s left-hand margins. The women gave birth in the arms and laps of the midwife and neighbours: perhaps three women around the bed, perhaps five. Rum, sugar and tea were the usual labouring comforts. The midwife added an “XX” to the diary’s margin each time the charge was paid, in shillings, textiles or food. In almost 1,000 births, she never lost a mother during delivery.
Buchi Emecheta came to England from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1962. Her autobiographical novel Second-Class Citizen describes the “cold welcome” meted out to the young and clever Adah. In the days of a well-funded NHS, she experiences a big, open maternity ward in London, with new mothers comparing nightdresses and cards. The novel shows the young immigrant hiding in a corridor, imagining the other women laughing at her poverty and her blackness. To leave the ward, Adah asks her husband to bring clothes with “Nigerian Independence, 1960” printed on them.
The poet Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts has been variously described as memoir, essay, auto-theory and queer studies. Certainly the book stands in a tradition of maternal memoir begun in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, when having children became more optional and the topic appeared worthy of personal and political exposure.
Nelson’s brilliant book may be best characterised by its mode of writing – anecdote – and the concerns she brings to it: desire, identity, queer family-making. She dedicates the book to “Harry”, a gender-fluid artist with whom she raises one child and gives birth to another.
Old and new readers of Toni Morrison’s Beloved may appreciate the history behind the tragic case on which the celebrated novel is based. Driven Toward Madness by Nikki M Taylor draws on recent research to investigate why Margaret Garner slit her toddler daughter’s throat rather than have her return to a life in slavery. Taylor chairs the history department at the historically black Howard University. She asks whether Garner was a heroine, as American abolitionists believed, or a murderous Medea.
• Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History by is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.