On Reading: For Expectant Mothers, and Beyond

We all know that pregnancy changes our bodies, our emotions, and how we understand the world. It’s no surprise that pregnancy and motherhood can also change what and how we read.

Like a lot of women, I read voraciously when I became pregnant. A writer and professor, I was used to reading a book a week—at least for classes. But when I was pregnant all I wanted to read were topical books: books that were written for and about women like me. I read novels about pregnancy and motherhood, and first person accounts of pregnancy and motherhood, and dozens of how-to books. I read at home, in bed, at meals, in coffee shops and standing in bookstores. I read online articles in places like Salon and Literary Mama. I scoured the library, the magazine rack, and bookstore shelves for anything I could find. I was hungry for information about what was happening, what was going to happen, and how I might cope with the transformations that were taking over my mind, body, and spirit. I was a just a little bit obsessive.

In other ways, my reading was different from what an expectant parent generally reads. Because I was writing a book which told my personal story set against the backdrop of science, I read a lot of research: medical textbooks, medical journals, ob/gyn and anatomy texts. I poured over photos of embryos in utero and read papers about pain theory—not your standard bedtime reading. But it all contributed to a larger picture of what we talk about when we talk about motherhood.

Pregnancy and early motherhood changed my reading in other ways, too. I had less ability to concentrate, less ability to read long works, less ability to read really rigorous or challenging books, and a complete inability to read anything violent. These changes in habit were due partly to sleeplessness, partly to hormones, and partly to the fact that not much else seemed all that interesting in those very early months of mothering. Some of these things changed over time. I’ve gotten back some of my focus, and I read more widely now, but I still find some very great books too unbearably painful to read.

Below is a short list of the books that I loved most while I was pregnant, nursing, raising my infant and writing my book, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood (linked to Jennifer’s review and giveaway)—the ones that for me have stood the test of time. There are personal, literary narratives (Rachel Cusk), a terrific nonfiction narrative (Wolf), a fun novel (Finnamore), a timeless novel about the dangers of motherlove (Chopin), provocative essays for those times when you need something short (Flanagan, Moses/Peri), a “guide” that will make you laugh and weep with its insight (Lamott), and a few books about raising and understanding children (and especially girls) that have been indispensible to me. Taken together, this list speaks to the complicated, evolving, and incredibly rich endeavor of mothering. I’m honored and humbled that my book found a place in this rich tradition of writing.

After you have a look, I’d love to know what your favorites are, so please share your own must-read titles in the Comments.

Books I Loved While Pregnant, Raising my daughter and writing A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood

The most important how-to book:

A Great Anthology:

Great research:

Never Gets Old:

A 19th Century Novel about Motherhood that Might Give You Nightmares But is Still Pretty Important:

If I Knew I Was Having a Girl, I’d Read These Right Away

Lisa Catherine Harper is the author of A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood (linked to Jennifer’s review and giveaway) which won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and has been called “universal, moving, and relevant.” Her writing has appeared in places including Poetry Foundation, Huffington Post, Babble, Literary Mama, and Mama, PhD. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, and their two children. You can find her online at http://www.LisaCatherineHarper.com.


  1. says

    LOVED this post, and I think that I may buy Mothers Who Think which is available at a “bargain price” at amazon via that link above (I can rarely resist a book bargain).

    When I was pregnant with my first, I just happened to be reading Two From Galilee: The Story Of Mary And Joseph, which is a novelization of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. It meant more to me because I was a first-time mother-to-be as well, so I’ve recommended it to others since then.

    I also am a fan of “healthy sleep habits” types of books — saved my life for sure! Made for a happier baby and mommy.

    I’ve never read Operating Instructions, but it’s one that’s been on my always-growing “to read someday” list.

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