A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood

A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood

by Lisa Catherine Harper

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There is no denying it: motherhood splits a woman’s life forever, into a before and an after. To this doubled life Lisa Catherine Harper brings a wealth of feeling and a wry sense of humor, a will to understand the emotional and biological transformations that motherhood entails, and a narrative gift that any reader will enjoy. Harper documents her own…  See more details below


There is no denying it: motherhood splits a woman’s life forever, into a before and an after. To this doubled life Lisa Catherine Harper brings a wealth of feeling and a wry sense of humor, a will to understand the emotional and biological transformations that motherhood entails, and a narrative gift that any reader will enjoy. Harper documents her own journey across this great divide as a seasoned explorer might, observing, researching, relating anecdotes and critical information. From late-night Lindy Hop dancing to crippling sciatica, morning sickness to indulgent meals, graduate seminars to sophisticated ultrasounds, Harper marries scientific details with intimate insights as she uncovers the fascinating strangeness of this remarkably familiar territory.

Following Harper’s first pregnancy from conception to her daughter’s first word, A Double Life looks at how the biological facts of motherhood give rise to life-altering emotional and psychological changes. It shows us how motherhood transforms the female body, hijacks a woman’s mind, and splits her life in two, creating an identity both brand new and as old as time. It charts the passage from individual to incubator, from pregnancy, labor, and nursing to language acquisition, from coupledom to the complex reality of family life. Harper’s carefully researched story reminds us that motherhood’s central joys are also its most essential transformations.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Harper's elegant, thoughtful writing makes this a must-read for expectant parents: there is both affirmation and information, such as a scientific explanation of how the fetus and placenta regulate pregnancy. The author skillfully moves between the personal and the technical as she muses on the ways becoming a parent transforms a woman's body, mind, and spirit; she chronicles what happens during pregnancy, and uses her research to explain how and why. "Motherhood meant change," she writes, and "expecting meant not expecting." With those uncertainties in mind, she recounts her own transformations: from a woman using birth control to one who wants nothing more than to conceive; from energetic swing dancer to a "lame duck" temporarily hobbled by sciatica; finally, to mother of Ella. Harper also examines the ways in which her movement toward motherhood affected her relationships with husband Kory and her own mother. The author's decision to cast her own experiences against the larger backdrops of biology, family, and transformation makes her book universal, moving, and relevant. (Mar.)
A Design So Vast - Lindsey Mead

"The terrain of Harper's memoir—pregnancy, birth, the first months of motherhood—is familiar, but the honest and funny voice in which she tells it, and the nuanced observations with which it is filled, are unique."—Lindsey Mead, A Design So Vast
5MinutesforMom.com - Jennifer Donovan

" I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to remember that first nine of months of motherhood . . . . I also think that this would make a fabulous gift for a mother-to-be, whether it's her first pregnancy or her fourth, or even to a grandmother-to-be, so that she can remember her own pregnancy as she's living her daughter's."—Jennifer Donovan, 5MinutesforMom.com
Literary Mama - Kate Hopper

"The way that Harper entwines science, history, narrative, and reflection makes reading this book like watching a carefully choreographed dance. . . . In each chapter, Harper explores one aspect of her emotional and physical reactions to pregnancy and childbirth, connecting her experiences with something larger. And whether she is meditating on movement, pain, love, faith, or mortality, she does so thoroughly, diving in and searching out what she really thinks and believes about the "double life" -- before and after motherhood -- that she's living."—Kate Hopper, Literary Mama
San Jose Mercury News - Georgia Rowe

"Anyone with a family—and those contemplating starting one—will enjoy this wry, revealing memoir of motherhood."—Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury News
Cristina Nehring

“At once astutely observed and exemplarily researched, Lisa Catherine Harper’s memoir is a graceful reminder that even the best planned pregnancy is ever a life-altering surprise.”—Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love

Kimberly Ford

“A joy to read! This book should top any baby shower gift list or any new mother’s stack of bedside books. It is not to be missed.”—Kimberly Ford, author of Hump: True Tales of Sex after Kids

Lewis Buzbee

“For the thinking parent or parent-to-be, there is nothing quite like it. It inspires, informs, and creates a space for grasping one’s own place on the amazing journey of creation.”—Lewis Buzbee, author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Melissa Clark

“I don’t even have kids and I loved this book. It is a compelling, meditative narrative on the art and science of child rearing—tender, intelligent, and informative.”—Melissa Clark, author of Swimming Upstream, Slowly

Michelle Richmond

“In A Double Life Lisa Catherine Harper delivers a complex, heartfelt exploration of pregnancy and motherhood. Smart, accessible, and emotionally compelling, it is part memoir, part manifesto—a riveting read for anyone who is a mother, or hopes to become one.”—Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog and No One You Know

Michelle Currie Smith

“A perfect account of both the physical and the emotional journey of pregnancy and birth.”—Michelle Currie Smith, RN, MSN

Jeff Gordinier

“For a lot of new fathers, there are two deep and inextricable mysteries: (1) All the confusing stuff that happens to your wife when she becomes a mother, and (2) All the boring books about stuff that happens to your wife when she becomes a mother. From this standpoint Lisa Catherine Harper’s funny, honest, literate, and eye-opening memoir is an absolute godsend.”—Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World and editor-at-large of Details magazine

Stephanie Barbagiovanni

“An insightful memoir, written from the heart. Lisa Harper is well researched in her medical knowledge and eloquent in her descriptions.”—Stephanie Barbagiovanni, MD

Caroline Grant

“As an expectant mother, I would have welcomed such a book for its candor and information, which go far beyond what’s offered in pregnancy and parenting guides; today, deep into my mothering, I find its reflections speak eloquently to me about those disorienting and wondrous early days.”—Caroline Grant, coeditor of Mama, PhD and senior editor of the online journal, Literary Mama

A Design So Vast

"The terrain of Harper’s memoir—pregnancy, birth, the first months of motherhood—is familiar, but the honest and funny voice in which she tells it, and the nuanced observations with which it is filled, are unique."—Lindsey Mead, A Design So Vast

— Lindsey Mead


" I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to remember that first nine of months of motherhood . . . . I also think that this would make a fabulous gift for a mother-to-be, whether it’s her first pregnancy or her fourth, or even to a grandmother-to-be, so that she can remember her own pregnancy as she’s living her daughter’s."—Jennifer Donovan, 5MinutesforMom.com

— Jennifer Donovan

Literary Mama

"A beautifully compelling memoir."—Caroline Grant , Literary Mama

— Caroline Grant

San Jose Mercury News

"Anyone with a family—and those contemplating starting one—will enjoy this wry, revealing memoir of motherhood."—Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury News

— Georgia Rowe

Kirkus Reviews

With a stiff measure of gallows humor, Harper (MFA Program/Univ. of San Francisco) rides the physical, mental and emotional waves churned by impending motherhood.

The author was 35 when she became pregnant for the first time, and she faced the adversities of being an older mother, especially the hormones that "played on my system like friendly demons." The second trimester replaced nausea with a hunger so deep it felt primitive—one of Harper's appealing characteristics is the elemental, primal sensibility she brought to pregnancy—a manic nesting urge and the quickening that came with the first felt movement of the baby. Then came sciatica, and her body grew ponderous, as did her mind, a dumb happiness of contentment. There was discomfort and pain throughout the pregnancy, but labor introduced her to the genuine article: "each contraction, its beginning, its swollen, mind-splitting climax, its slow release." After enduring 40 hours of labor, her smile returned as she and her husband left the hospital, feeling like a couple of miscreants who had found a bag of money that didn't belong to them: "How could we have been entrusted with such a thing? What were we to do now?" With her new daughter, Harper's borders shrunk, and her life became minimized. Though she was nearly undone by the tedium of a mother's chores, she writes, "if the crushing love that I felt for her made me newly and forever fearful of morality...there was something else, too, something with wings rising now like hope, or gratitude, or grace."

A sweet, immediate articulation of the experience of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood.

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Product Details

University of Nebraska Press
Publication date:
River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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Discovering Motherhood
By Lisa Catherine Harper


Copyright © 2011 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8032-3508-3

Chapter One


At the end of September 2001 I traveled three thousand miles to New Jersey to attend the wedding of my best college friend. Somewhere over the Great Plains it dawned on me. It was a sudden, jolting thought. Less than a thought, really, and more like a singular moment of recognition. The sensation was like seeing suddenly, with unmistakable clarity, the face of a long forgotten friend, someone who had ceased to exist but who now stood flesh and blood before me. The world dropped away, and in silence I reckoned with the unavoidable, impossible fact.

There had been clues, of course: what I had thought was a menstrual cycle had suddenly and inexplicably stopped. My breasts were tender when they shouldn't have been. The previous weekend, when my husband and I had attended a weekend-long dance festival, I had stumbled and missed my leads. I was bone-tired, my limbs as unresponsive as a broken marionette. Kory and I had met while dancing and our social life was anchored in teaching, performing, and competing in vintage swing dances. It was a vital part of our marriage, but that weekend, even though scores of friends were visiting from out of town—which meant a wealth of fresh dancing partners, new tricks to learn, and old moves to show off—I could galvanize none of the energy that usually propelled me across the dance floor for hours at a time. Instead, I sat in the corner of the studio hunched against the mirror, watching with a slightly distracted longing while my husband danced with one partner after another. I was annoyed that he was dancing. I was jealous, too. But I felt too battered by fatigue to protest. Uncharacteristically, we went home early.

It was not simply that my body craved sleep, or that I was overworked, or that I had stayed up too late. I was teaching part time and went to bed early. I had my weekends and evenings to myself. It was not yet flu season. During the week after the festival, though, simple tasks, like walking to the corner store or fixing an easy dinner, proved inexplicably difficult. In the middle of this perplexing fatigue and muddle-headedness I knew that something was askew in me but for the life of me I could not imagine what.

Then, on that plane, in a single moment—really, in less time than it took to lower my tray table—the ragtag symptoms adhered and I knew. I knew that I was pregnant, and in the suspended moments that followed, other knowledge tumbled fast. I knew that my life would never return to me simply. I knew that I was frightened and perhaps crazy, for who sanely, rationally makes such a choice?

Before that day I had been vigilant about charting and tracking and monitoring my body for any markers—obvious or otherwise—of pregnancy, and I could not fathom how any woman could not know she was pregnant. But, as I discovered firsthand, the signs and symptoms of early pregnancy, which can be downright pedestrian, are easy to overlook—especially if you aren't expecting to conceive.

My own mother had been one of those women who, for many weeks, had no inkling of her pregnancy. She was a small woman, weighing ninety-five pounds on her wedding day. (Her wedding dress, with its lovely beaded ivory bodice, fit me at age thirteen and was too small by age twenty-one.) Her menstrual cycle had always been irregular and, though pregnant, she had continued to have what appeared to be a period for two months. Years later, when this biological fact surfaced in my own life, and then in the lives of several of my friends, we wondered: Why hadn't anyone told us? I asked my mother: "Why didn't you tell me?" She shrugged. She had forgotten. It had seemed unimportant. But this is exactly the kind of information—those seemingly minor but crucial facts—that first-time mothers crave. And it is precisely the kind of pedestrian information so easily forgotten once pregnancy and motherhood gather their unstoppable momentum.

Neither my mother nor father suspected anything when she became pregnant with me, only that she was coming down with the flu. Then one night, when she was feeling particularly worn down by the demands of her job and my father's second year of law school, my father, who believed that Snuffy's Steak House was the cure for all minor fatigues and digestive ills, proclaimed, "What you need is a good steak dinner." My mother's secretarial job provided their only income, so that dinner was a luxury. They went out on a date, a young, newly married couple like any other. But my mother couldn't eat a bite.

The next day Mom's best friend, who had her second child on the way, gently queried, "Pat, do you think you're pregnant?"

My mother, possessing an unshakeable faith in the efficacy of modern contraception, replied, "Nancy! That's impossible."

But of course it wasn't.

That morning on the plane I sat still, feeling small and invisible in my seat, stirring with private knowledge. My astonishment was not lessened by the fact that my fate was one I had chosen. The choice to become pregnant for the first time proceeds from a place of deep and willful ignorance. Yes, I had wanted a baby, but I knew nothing at all about the fate I had chosen for myself except for one visceral fact: even then I knew that I was lucky as life itself.

The next morning I woke in my childhood bed in my parents' home in New Jersey, counting the minutes until the local pharmacy opened at nine a.m. I drove through the quiet suburban streets, faced the long shelf of brightly colored boxes, and chose a test at random. Back in the quiet of the attic bathroom—which had been mine as a child and whose gently sloping walls were papered with a splashy print of bold orange and yellow flowers—I peeled the foil off the white stick, peed, and waited. A second blue line appeared in an instant, a twin to the first, a parallel being. A cry Yes! Yes! rose in my throat. The incontrovertible evidence stared back at me, blue on white, unmoving and unmoved. They were the simplest lines I had ever read but their certainty took my breath away. I smiled broadly. Then I smiled again. I took my time getting back down the stairs. After all the waiting, this seemed no time to rush.

When I told her, my mother cried. Then she laughed. Then she asked, redundantly, "Are you sure?" Then she hugged me. My father (not quite convinced about the reliability of the over-the-counter tests) worried about false positives. Distracted by the drama unfolding in my belly, I ignored them both. "Yes," I said quietly, "I'm sure."

Later that morning, as soon as I thought the time difference allowed, I called my husband, but there was no answer. I found him already at work and told him the news. He was characteristically subdued. "That's so cool," he said. But I heard a thrill in his voice and the catch between what he said and what he wouldn't say because he was at work, surrounded by colleagues. Somehow the news felt secret, not yet ours to share widely. It collapsed the distance between us, and we inhabited one mind, one moment of suspended uncertainty.

My husband is an artist, so he has always trafficked in images rather than words. It is in his nature to be elliptical and reserved. Always he will tend to keep things to himself, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. On the one hand, this innate privacy makes for a profound source of discretion. I can count on him not to be hyperbolic, and he can maintain the kind of even keel that I've struggled to find all my life. He is the voice of reason and stability in our home. On the other hand, this reserve can occasion a breakdown of communication, a terseness that borders on rudeness, and a lack of sentiment that has made me call him, on rare, indignant occasions, emotionally crippled. That morning, in his quiet joy, I knew exactly why I loved him. Beyond this first fact there was everything and nothing. A wordless intimacy settled between us, then we hung up the phone and got on with the day.

Later that night we spoke again, and he confessed, "I had a grin on my face all day. And I kept tearing up and wanting to tell everyone." I lay in my parents' den, covered against the autumn chill by an old blanket, and I spoke quietly. We talked about the fact and around the fact, and said a whole lot of nothings and repeated ourselves some more. But the news of conception had shocked him outside of himself. That was how I knew. That was how I knew that the baby beginning inside of me would transform everything I knew, not just about myself but also about my husband, our marriage, our life together. In fact, everything I knew about the world and my place in it was about to be reconceived.

Chapter Two


The story of motherhood doesn't really begin, at least not always, with the fact of conception. Ask anyone who has found her life transformed by a baby and she will tell you about the time before—the moment, days, weeks, months, or even years—when she waited. Sometimes, of course, as in my mother's case, a pregnancy takes you by surprise so that one day you find yourself suddenly, unexpectedly pregnant. But for very many others, there is first the decision—the Yes! Sure! Why not? Let's have a baby!—and then the inevitable wait. Some couples make this decision easily; children are what they've always wanted. Others make the choice only after long reflection and deliberation. Our friends, for instance, came to it after nearly ten years of marriage. But once that decision is made, there's a gap. Some will tell you they got pregnant immediately. Others will tell you long stories about agonizing years of infertility treatments. Every story is different, but the waiting is not. All parents experience that interregnum, a time between two rulers, a time when the solo life seems less sovereign but the dictatorship of the child is not yet an established fact. For many women, it can be a chaotic, unsettling time: we're not pregnant, which is the one thing we long to be. It makes a lot of us irrational—crazed with the desire for the thing that seems obtainable but which remains always out of reach—until that shock of a day when it isn't. This time of waiting is a pause, a hiccup, a disjunction in your life when you're trying to get ready, and you think you are ready, but there's nothing yet to be ready for.

For me the interregnum had begun months before, on a foggy morning at the tail end of June. That day I stood alone in my flannel pajamas and slippers on the cold tiles of our bathroom floor. Facing the mirror but carefully avoiding the bleary, rumpled image of my unshowered reflection, I ritualistically punched a pill through the foil of the dial pak. Kory had gone to work hours before, and aside from the occasional pounding footsteps of our landlady above, our small San Francisco apartment was silent. I second-guessed my decision one final time then went ahead with it. I flushed the first pill of my new cycle down the toilet. Why I bothered to flush that tiny green pill rather than simply throw away the whole card is not easily explained, but it has something to do with deliberation and ceremony. I was an academic and a writer. It was my job to think things through. Of course, I was also making certain that I wouldn't change my mind later that day, fish the pack out of the trash can, and continue on with my happy, unpregnant life.

Twenty-four hours later, life was simpler. Wake, pee, drink coffee, brush teeth, don't take pill, shower, apply makeup, don't take pill, dress, dry hair. Don't remember to take pill. All day long I thought no pill. No pill, I chanted to myself. It was a simple thing, really, a small omission, one less remembering to clutter my mind. And yet, that singular forgetting freed a space as vast as the pill was small, as undefined as the pill was precise.

The following Saturday, my husband and I lay in our bed in the lazy, sexy, unencumbered way that only childless couples have. We were deciding, if such lethargy can really be likened to any active process of decision, when we might want to get up, brew coffee, make our way over to the farmers market. We had spent another late Friday night at the local club where our friends and our vintage dance troop gathered regularly to dance the Lindy Hop to a six-piece jump blues band that had resurrected, with astonishing intensity, the ecstatic, infectious sound of small-group bands like Louis Jordan, Roy Milton, and Louis Prima. They were the band of choice for serious dancers, and the musicians were good friends of ours. They'd played at our wedding, and in those days we saw them at least twice a week.

We had been at the Hi-Ball Lounge, a small, dark bar that fused San Francisco hipster cool with Vegas lounge (the décor was upholstered zebra print wallpaper running the length of one long wall and tiny tables snuggled up to the wine-colored bench). We'd grabbed a booth up front, near the band, then piled our wool Pendletons, belt-backs, and San Francisco Jitterbug jackets in the corner, set down a few drinks, and spent the rest of the night dancing with boyfriends, husbands, partners, and each other. We did group dances like the Shim Sham, outdid each other in jam circles with new tricks, faster footwork, even aerials that sometimes tossed the girl dangerously close to either the stage or the onlookers. We traded dance partners all night long. It was crowded and sometimes a little frenetic on the tiny dance floor, but Kory and I rarely sat down, except during band breaks. We had met in a dance club in Los Angeles, and our early romance had been fueled by dancing. Mostly, we behaved like addicts. Our first dates took place at dances and workshops. We shared old movie clips, learned new steps, taught ourselves tricks, and acquired a wide circle of friends. We spent long hours discovering bands and new (old) music, searched through racks of vintage clothes, and choreographed performance routines or jam circle sequences. It was a heady time, and the early thrill of physical attraction was doubled by the physical intensity of the dance. Lindy Hop is challenging to master and exhilarating to dance. But as complicated as the dance is to execute, its pleasures are simple. Kory and I could toss on vintage threads and spend several hours throwing ourselves around the dance floor like a couple of teenagers. After years of ballet and modern dance training, what I loved most about the Lindy Hop was its unscripted, spontaneous nature. Out on the dance floor you never knew what might happen. Very soon I realized that dancing with Kory made me happy. He was fit and athletic, with a strong jaw and a clean-cut style. He had dark hair, green eyes, and really straight teeth. His sense of humor equaled his sense of music. I found it hard not to smile when I was Lindy Hopping, and it was impossible not to feel my anxiety evaporate when Chick Webb was drumming. As time went on I realized that Kory made me happy, too. It was this happiness—so straightforward and simple and, frankly, old-fashioned—that was a revelation for me. Being with Kory, like dancing, was an easy, uncomplicated pleasure. Soon I was hooked on both.

That Saturday morning, like so many that had come before, we were tired and a little hungry, but perfectly content. Light streamed through the single bay window behind us. We were warm and comfortable and our mood was as bright as the day that faced us. Kory turned to me and joked, "Are you ovulating?" I found this funny, and then sexy, which I took as a sign of just how much our marriage had changed me.

When we made love we were awake and sober and the room was bright with day. We knew exactly what we were doing. The morning rose around us, and we held each other as we had so many times before. But now my husband seemed a revelation. Dancing had taught us how to do many things together; things that made us laugh and things that made us fight; things that surprised us; things fueled by music and muscle and sheer joy; things with our feet, things that spun, things on the ground; even things up in the air. But stretched alongside Kory that morning—our limbs, torso, arms entwined—I loved something new about him. I loved the risk he had agreed to take as much as I loved the long, vulnerable expanse of his skin. Making love that morning was not wholly unlike the complicated give-and-take between a lead and follow, where the dancers have a plan but everything changes in the moment, when you respond to the music but also to each other. That morning we didn't know what would happen after we made love, and this mystery ushered in a new kind of intimacy, the same kind of intense mindfulness of each other and of the moment that we had when we danced. Suddenly, sex was more than pleasure, and as this pleasure raced toward meaning, it left in its wake the knowledge that this was, in its most base, Darwinian sense, what sex was meant for. That thing I had been most afraid of for most of my life—becoming pregnant, having a child—was suddenly the thing I wanted most. Everything old seemed new again.

After, we rose slowly and showered and went to the farmers market, where we shopped and ate a late breakfast. I did not get pregnant that morning, but it was, in many ways, the day we began to wait.


Excerpted from DOUBLE LIFE by Lisa Catherine Harper Copyright © 2011 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Lisa Catherine Harper teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. She lives with her husband, an art director for feature animated films, and their two children in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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