I admit that I have trouble slowing down. I rush from one thing to the next, ticking off tasks from my neverending to-do list. And when life intervenes and I must put my list to the side for a day or two (or more depending on the intensity of life’s intervention), I feel the familiar tug of impatience. The unfinished tasks take on a nebulous, threatening shape and hang low around my shoulders. All of this to say, I have trouble living in the moment.
I need reminders to slow down, to be patient, to accept the hours and minutes with my two daughters as the gifts that they are, and to stop long enough to take in the details of each day.
Lisa Catherine Harper’s A Double Life provided exactly the kind of reminder I needed. Harper’s debut memoir takes the reader through her first pregnancy and early motherhood, but the book is really a reflection on the complexities of life and celebration of fully living in the moment.
For Harper, pregnancy catapulted her into the here and now. Harper and her husband, Kory, conceived their daughter on the morning that the Twin Towers collapsed in clouds of black smoke. Her pregnancy is set against the backdrop of cultural devastation left in the wake of 9-11, but instead of succumbing to fear, Harper and Kory renew their faith in life, and, for the first time in her life, Harper finds herself “rooted in the present” and fully mindful of the life she is living:
There was a great change taking hold of my body and somehow it had taken hold of my mind, too, and it cautioned me: Slow down! […]
In small increments I began to live on the edge of hope, to hover there in something akin to delight, fully conscious of danger and failure but equally determined not to gaze too long into that darkness.
As I immersed myself in Harper’s narrative, I, too, felt myself slow down and linger in the details and small joys of my day. Harper’s voice is quiet and thoughtful, her prose lyrical. When she and Kory have their first ultrasound, Harper writes:
There, on the small screen, was our baby. A little bean of light with a heartbeat, a tiny pulse throbbing away, the faintest trail of the umbilical cord floating up through the darkness of my womb like a glowing skein. The room hushed and brimmed with respectful silence that might fill a church or attend the arrival of royalty. As we four watched, becalmed, the very room seemed to me enchanted.
Harper’s fascination with the physical and emotional changes wrought in a woman’s body and mind when she becomes pregnant and gives birth are the driving force of this book. As I read A Double Life, I found myself taking notes and nodding my head, thinking, Yes, yes, exactly. This is what happened in my body when I was pregnant. I consider myself a researcher, but I was amazed by all the details of pregnancy and childbirth that I didn’t know. For instance, I had no idea that nausea in early pregnancy may have served an evolutionary purpose. Prior to pasteurization, refrigeration, and sanitation, food-borne illnesses clearly posed a threat to pregnant women, but it wasn’t until I read A Double Life that I understood how morning sickness could have developed as a protection against these dangers: “Women who were too sick to eat or were revolted by especially dangerous food would have had a greater chance of carrying a healthy baby to term.”
The way that Harper entwines science, history, narrative, and reflection makes reading this book like watching a carefully choreographed dance. This is no coincidence: Harper was trained as a classical ballet dancer, and later, with her husband, became a competitive member of the vintage dance troop, the San Francisco Jitterbugs.
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.
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate writes that an essayist “attempts to surround a something — a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation — by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving to the heart of the matter.” This is exactly what Harper does in A Double Life. Harper’s debilitating sciatic pain mid-way through her pregnancy leads her to ruminate on pain and the sense of her body’s wholeness. Feeling her daughter’s first movements in utero — quickening, “from the Old English cwic: living, live, alive” — leads to an examination of movement, beginning with Harper’s early ballet training:
What I remember: inhabiting my body. Understanding how space unfolds from within. How power begins there, coiled in darkness, which then is loosed, translated to torso, to limbs, and beyond to the world. I learned the expanse of my body, I learned my body’s limits.
Harper describes how her daughter’s incessant movements, “like the susurrus of a flock of settling gulls,” were what made her seem real.
And like a true essayist, Harper always uses the details of her life to look outward, to push into universals. About movement she writes:
Our first movements are buried in darkness. The womb is the center of our first world, a globe curving to meet our shape. Unconscious we test the waters. We roll against our horizon and kick to the very limits of our universe. Shadow boxers, we imprint our own geography, an embryonic Braille on our mother’s body. Long before we cry or think or love, before we breathe or know or speak, we move.
I felt pulled into Harper’s specific story — her life and her love of dancing and cooking, her love for her husband — but I could also see my own life and the lives of other women and mothers I know reflected in her narrative. Harper understands the universal nature of becoming of a mother: “What had seemed unique, unparalleled, even miraculous to my newly forming mother’s mind was, in fact, replicated daily in women all over the world, I was just another pregnant woman. Which is probably the most remarkable thing of all.”
After a 40-hour labor, Harper gives birth to her daughter, Ella. As Harper and her husband settle into parenthood, Harper begins to ask questions about the role of mothers in our society, questions to which all of us can relate: “Why were mothers and children still so isolated from those things that really matter to the childless, to the world outside the home? Why did we talk endlessly about stupid things like Cheerios and diapers? Why did I feel so fractured?” Again, Harper feels her life split between before and after motherhood, another double life: the domestic and the world beyond the home.
With the help of Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe and their mid-nineteenth century volume, The American Woman’s Home, Harper understands that she needs to inhabit a place where her home life is valued as much as her outside life. She writes, “I continued to move between my worlds of teaching, writing, and mothering, and I tried hard to see how each inflected the other. I tried not to value one over the other.” In this way, Harper comes to a place (both physically and emotionally) where she can nurture herself as an individual — a woman, writer, dancer, academic — at the same time she nurtures herself as a mother to her daughter.
A Double Life will appeal to readers at any stage of parenting, because at its heart it is an age-old story of pregnancy and childbirth, and Harper’s prose will help any harried mother to slow down, reflect on the fascinating transformations inherent in becoming a parent, and appreciate the here and now.