Among the many things I had planned to do before the birth of my first child, one was post a review of Lisa Catherine Harper’s first book, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood. Now over the initial shock of transitioning into motherhood, I realize all the more how valuable this book was and still is to me, as Harper precisely chronicles a life divided by “before” and “after”— in this case, having a child.
Harper presents the idea that the deep divisions that women experience — specifically around pregnancy, gestation, childbirth, and then the encounter of a child —sunder women physically and emotionally in ways they are left to existentially and practically reconcile. Her book is categorized into three states of being: “Inside,” which begins with the conception of her daughter and follows her pregnancy; “Inside/Out” which chronicles her labor and birth; and “Outside” which tracks her entry into motherhood as closely as it does her daughter’s new experiences in the world.
Harper holds a PhD in English with an emphasis in feminist theory and research and her book includes meticulous research as she alternates exploring the science behind what is happening to her (with information about how pregnancy alters virtually every system in a woman’s body) and the emotional resonances she feels on a deeply internal level. She also chronicles her reactions to others’ responses to her physically changing state. At times the tacking back and forth between the more didactic writing to the lyrical can seem abrupt, but the model reflects her commitment to knit understanding of the logical and mysterious, of fact and emotion, the science and the poetry of her experiences. Although I enjoyed Harper’s sensitivity to the physical processes of pregnancy and childbirth so much I gave a copy of her book to my Ob/Gyn, what I later appreciated more was Harper’s willingness to connoiter her new role as part-time professor with fulltime mother. In this current moment of Lean In rhetoric and new iterations of the perennial “have it all” debates, Harper is disarmingly clear about her own situation, asking, after her daughter is born: “Why didn’t motherhood matter? Why was the home still a separate, unequal sphere? Why were mothers and children still so isolated from those things that really mattered to the childless, to the world outside the home? Why did we talk endlessly about stupid things like Cheerios and diapers?” And to the crux of her book: “Why did I feel so fractured?”
Searching to locate meaning in the time she spends caring for her daughter, beyond a circle of other mothers, is the axis on which identity, cultural value, and priority all spin for Harper. Scholar that she is, she turns to the volume The American Woman’s Home, written by Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet) who called for “a revolution in domestic arrangements” and Harper says is the “precursor to all the contemporary lifestyle magazines, TV talk shows, blogs and Websites that have reinvented the domestic arts for the post-millennial home…” Harper recognizes that for Beecher “the created home is a political act” and she wants it to be for her as well, not by redecorating it, literally or otherwise, but by having it hold broad, and real, cultural value, something I think is happening.
Harper writes, “the life of the home had to be remade… it had to matter in real and consequential ways.” She is critical of the “modern feminist movement,” as she broadly labels it, as one that has decided to “map power where it already existed” i.e. outside the domestic sphere, while neglecting to elevate the work women (largely) do inside the home and keeping this devalued. In order to support women’s work outside the home, Harper argues, the domestic and childrearing work so many women do needs to be legitimized and legalized, in part to help support women working outside the home.
It’s an argument whose point I see, but I think oversimplifies. While it’s clear Harper’s goal isn’t to go into detail or depth, the idea that the feminist movement, broadly painted, has roundly devalued domestic work to the elevation of work outside the home seems too one-note to me. While not necessarily her point, Harper doesn’t raise the issue of shifting the expectations of gender roles or equal parenting.
Her daughter teaches her how much “to work inside the home is a worthwhile occupation,” Harper writes, although this realization leaves her at odds with her education and expectations of the professional working world. She writes, “I belonged in neither world: much of my energy was invested in raising Ella so I couldn’t fully claim my professional identity, but neither could I identify what seemed to me the petty concerns of motherhood. I loved my daughter and I loved my home. I did not love the stay-at-home culture of mothering.” Harper concludes that there has to be a future shift where the bifurcation into being a “work outside the home” mother doesn’t square off with “work inside the home” woman either — a “mommy war” reduction that I question as still legitimate.
Fundamentally, Harper wants the halves of her life to join, primarily by feeling each sphere is validated — the life-changing experience of motherhood co-existing with the intellectual and professional ambition she realizes, for her, has been more valorized. She concludes that insisting on motherhood and the home as generative space is an almost radical throwback to Beecher’s nineteenth-century insistence on the importance of these activities and demand for their recognition. It’s an interesting argument, in some ways provocative for its potential to twine conservative strands of thought with progressive ideals. Figuring out how child-rearing and the domestic life matters to her personally, and how to reinvent its meanings within a larger context, politically, is another parsing that Harper negotiates well in the last chapter of her book.
While driving through Los Angeles a few months ago (what else does one do here?) I listened to a new release of a song by a band called The Head and the Heart. The tune was catchy, but what lingered in my mind was the band’s name — calling out the division of the body and the symbolic resonances each part holds. The central tenet of Harper’s explorations remains joining what has been sundered into separate spheres: mother/scholar, domestic/public, former self/present self and the million ways identity is fractured, constantly, daily, even moment-to-moment, and the intentional work it takes to keep rearranging these pieces to make a whole.