Wednesday, April 25th, 2007
Rebecca Walker is a widely respected writer, speaker, teacher, feminist, and activist. But she’s also known as a daughter, to Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple author Alice Walker. This month, the younger Walker’s memoir Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence, which chronicles her own somewhat delayed pregnancy, will make her known as a mother too. Read on for the intro and first chapter, then get the book to learn the rest of what this courageously honest writer wishes she’d known. And click here to read an in-depth interview about feminism, parenthood, expectations, and the nuances of family and truth-telling.
I just got off the phone with the nurse from Dr. Lowen’s office. I picked up the old brown Trimline phone that’s been in this retreat cabin of my mother’s forever, and a woman’s voice asked for me and I said, This is she, and the voice said, It’s Becky from Dr. Lowen’s office. And I said, Uh-huh. Then Becky said, The result from the latest test was positive, and I said, Positive? And she said, Yes, you are no longer borderline pregnant.
No longer borderline pregnant? I thought I might fall over. I looked out the window at the leaves of the poplar trees shimmering in the breeze. My eyes settled on a vulture falling from the sky in a perfect spiral. He was flapping then gliding, flapping then gliding as he descended, and I thought to myself: I will remember this moment and that vulture for the rest of my life. I thought to myself: That vulture is a sign. A part of me is dying.
And then the nurse said, Hello? And I said, Yes, I am here. Are you sure I am pregnant? And she said, Yes. And I said, Really? Areyou sure? You’re not going call me back in two hours and say you made a mistake? She said, No. And I said, Well, how do you know? She sighed. It was a ridiculous question, but since she had been telling me for a week that after three blood draws they still couldn’t tell if I was really pregnant, I felt justified. So I pushed. Well, what do you know today that you didn’t yesterday? And she said, The HCG levels are definitely going up. HCG levels? Yes, in the last twenty-four hours the pregnancy hormone count has risen from 700 to over 2,300, and that usually means a healthy, robust beginning.
And then I had what could only be the first twinges of the maternal instinct. Healthy and robust? A huge smile spread across my face. That’s my baby! And then it was as if the synapses in my brain sending exploratory signals to my uterus finally made contact. Aye, mate, is it a go down there? Yes, yes, Captain, we’re full steam ahead!
I was convinced that getting off the phone would exponentially increase my chances of reverting to not-pregnant, but I released Becky anyway and stumbled over to the bathroom, where Glen, my life partner and father of our soon-to-be-born baby, was shaving. I looked into his eyes and tried to keep myself from screaming and jumping up and down. We did it, I said. He grinned. Well, I guess that puts the whole motility question to rest. And I said, I guess it does. Then I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest, and he wrapped his arms around me and rested his chin on the top of my head.
I was in ecstatic bliss for about ninety seconds, and then it hit me: an avalanche of dread that took my breath away. Pregnant? A baby? What have I done? I looked at Glen. He was going through his own reality check, which brought me even closer to the brink of total hysteria. But then, before I could burst into tears and run screaming out of the room, he pulled me into his arms. You are going to be a fantastic mother, he said to me, to my fear. His love overwhelmed me, and I started to cry big, wet tears onto his favorite black shirt.
We’re going to have a baby.
For the last fifteen years I have told everyone—friends, family, hairdressers, editors, cabdrivers, doctors, and anyone else who would listen—that I wanted a baby. I want to have a baby, I would say with urgency or a wistful longing, or both. And I meant what I said, I really did, I just had no idea what I was talking about. I had almost no actual experience of babies, so the object of my wanting was abstract, the display of it ritualized. I want to have a baby was something I said, a statement that evoked a trajectory, a general direction for my life.
The truth is, I was wracked with ambivalence. I had the usual questions: When, with whom, and how the hell was I going to afford it? But there was something else, too, a question common—if not always conscious—to women of my generation, women raised to view motherhood with more than a little suspicion. Can I survive having a baby? Will I lose myself—my body, my mind, my options—and be left trapped, resentful, and irretrievably overwhelmed? If I have a baby, we wonder silently to ourselves, will I die?
To compound matters, I had a tempestuous relationship with my mother, and feared the inevitable kickback sure to follow such a final and dramatic departure from daughterhood. What if, instead of joy and excitement, my mother felt threatened by the baby, and pushed even further into the margins of my life? What if, then, out of jealousy and her own discontent, she launched covert or not-so-covert strikes against my irrefutable separateness, now symbolized so completely by becoming a mother myself?
Because mothers make us, because they map our emotional terrain before we even know we are capable of having an emotional terrain, they know just where to stick the dynamite. With a few small power plays—a skeptical comment, the withholding of approval or praise—a mother can devastate a daughter. Decades of subtle undermining can stunt a daughter, or so monopolize her energy that she in effect stunts herself. Muted, fearful, riddled with self-doubt, she can remain trapped in daughterhood forever, the one place she feels confident she knows the rules.
I was not the only daughter in a dyad of this kind. When I looked around, I saw them everywhere: in my extended family, at my lectures on college campuses, on line at Target, on their own show on TV. Childless and codependent, the daughter did some macabre human version of dying on the vine. The mother kept the reality of her own mortality at bay by thwarting her daughter’s every attempt to psychologically leave the nest.
It seemed that these mothers did not realize that they had to give adulthood to their daughters by stepping down, stepping back, stepping away, and letting the daughter take center stage. These mothers did not seem to know, with all their potions and philosophies, their desires to rehabilitate ancient scripts of gender and identity, that there is a natural order, and that natural order involves passing the scepter to offspring with unconditional love and pride.
Or pay the price.
Because as a writer I do my best research on the lives of others, at least once a week I sat conversing—over tea, on subway platforms, at the farmers’ market, in ornate, fancy hotel lobbies—about motherhood with women who either had done the deed and lived to tell, or who were surveying the same terrain of possibility.
I spoke to single moms and partnered moms, and moms who lost their children to disease. I spoke to stay-at-home moms, working moms, CEO moms, moms on welfare. One mom I met conceived through in vitro fertilization at age forty-five. Another orchestrated different sperm donors over several pregnancies. One “got pregnant” at eighteen and spent the rest of her life trying to recover. I spent an afternoon talking with a poor mom who relied on faith to provide for her sixth child on the way. I spent several years talking to middle-class moms who couldn’t figure out how to support the two kids they had been raising for years.
I talked to men, too, about the joys and risks of parenthood, but my time with them was different. It wasn’t punctuated with anecdotes, or even held together by narrative. Men explored the topic of my pregnancy with meaningful glances and gentle touches of assurance to the small of my back. They encouraged me with knowing nods and unwavering attention, sometimes silently offering themselves, other times letting me know they wished it could be them.
Women gave me narrative and men gave me alchemy, their approbation running like a current into my womb.
My life was full of these elucidating encounters, but strangely, none of them seemed to bring me any closer to what I said I wanted. Unconsciously, I longed to give birth to a child. Consciously,I managed the risk of actually having one by viewing it as one option among many, a wonderful possibility to peruse at will. Like choosing which coast to live on or what apartment to take, I would consider potential outcomes and make my best, informed decision.
Because I am a woman of privilege, a product of the women’s movement, and a student of cultural relativism, I believed that neither choice would be inherently better than the other. Each had pluses and minuses, and so it would not be the choice itself, but howI interpreted the choice that would make the difference. Los Angeles or New York? High floor or great location? To baby or not to baby?
Ultimately, it was like trying to steer a boat with a banana. I had no idea what was going on, no clue whatsoever. I didn’t know that I was already in the water, that the tide was coming in fast, and that I had no option other than to be taken out to sea. I didn’t know that the longing, fear, and ambivalence were part of the pregnancy, the birth, and everything that came after. I didn’t know that the showdown between the ideas of my mother’s generation and my own was inescapable, and slated to play out personally in our relationship. I didn’t know that those fifteen years constituted my real first trimester, and all that time my baby was coming toward me, and I was moving toward my baby.
What I did know is that I had mothered or tried to mother every single human being who had crossed my path—including the son of my former partner of six years—to the point of absurdity, exhaustion, and everything in between. What I did know is that one year in a stunning turquoise lagoon in Mexico, I had a vision of two babies, my babies, and at the very moment their copper faces smiled at me in my mind’s eye, two tiny silver fish leapt out of the ocean, inches from my lips. What I did know is that even though I doubted my ability to mother, partner, work, evolve, and serve, all in one lifetime, some part of this flesh body I call me was being pulled toward birth: my baby’s and my own.
You may not look pregnant at this point but your embryo’s heart, no bigger than a poppyseed, has already begun to beat and pump blood….The embryo itself is about a quarter of an inch long and looks more like a tadpole than a human.
I called my mother last night to tell her the news, because I promised she would be the first to know. When I told her I have never been happier, she was quiet. She said she was shocked, which was shocking to me since I’ve been telling her for a year that all I want is to write books and have babies. When we were about to hang up, she asked me to check her garden. I said okay and told her that I had ordered some outdoor lights for this tiny house she lets me use, and that the new tile in the shower is almost finished. Then I hung up and started to cry.
I don’t know if I wanted her to be like all the other mothers I’ve seen get the news, whooping for joy and crying and jumping up and down, but when she didn’t, I was overcome with doubt.
Flopping down on the bed, I regressed all the way back to high school, when I got my acceptance letter from Yale. I was ecstatic, and proudly presented the letter to my mother as she cooked dinner. She calmly husked a few ears of corn, and then asked why I would want to go to a conservative bastion of male privilege. It didn’t take ten seconds for me to question my own dreams. Why did I want to go to one of the most well-respected colleges in the world?
Why am I having a baby?
Glen found me lying on the floor, practically catatonic, staring out into space with tears streaming down my face. We talked for a long time about rites of passage, and how everyone is bound to have a reaction that has nothing to do with me. Mothers and fathers have to reckon with their own mortality, with becoming grandparents, and what that means about where they are in the life cycle. He told me to get ready, people say the strangest things when you tell them you are pregnant because it brings up so much for them.
Like when I met with my literary agent about this book. She told me she was pregnant with her third baby, and I said something awful like, How can you possibly take care of three children? Or even worse, Was it an accident? Then I grilled her on whether she would be able to take care of her baby, my book, and me. I was seized with anxiety in the moment, but really, her pregnancy rang my bell. Happy, vibrant, strong, direct. I thought, If she can be a VP of her company, gaze adoringly at a photo of her husband whipped out of her purse, and talk about how her kids are the greatest gifts of her life, this baby thing must be possible.
I went to sleep pondering whether I got more positive messaging about having a baby from my agent in thirty-five minutes than I did from my mother in thirty-five years.
I’m back in Berkeley, in my apartment that suddenly looks like a broom closet. Where am I going to put a crib?
Dr. Lowen ordered an ultrasound this morning to make sure that there really is a baby growing inside me. Isn’t that why I’d asked Becky ten times if she was sure? Dr. Lowen says we need to know that the fetus is inside my uterus and not ectopic. Ectopic! Glen had to calm me down. All I could think was that a problem must have showed up on the last blood test and Dr. Lowen didn’t want to tell me on the phone and give me heart failure.
Glen drove me to the hospital, and then tried to distract me in the waiting room with bad jokes and blueberries. I kept asking him what we’d do if the baby were ectopic, if I lost the baby before I even had her. How is it possible to feel so attached so soon? By the time the technician called my name, I was sure it was all going to end in tragedy. She poked and rubbed and scanned and prodded my uterus for about twenty minutes, looking for the tiny cluster of cells and shaking her head until I was convinced the whole thing was a fluke. At that exact moment, when I squeezed Glen’s hand and said, Well, maybe we don’t have a baby after all, the technician pushed the button on her mouse ball and drew a line from one point to the other. Got it.
So now it’s super-duper official. I’ve got a baby growing in my uterus. It’s really the most surreal, ridiculous, amazing thing.
Rushed around, getting ready to fly to Minneapolis to speak on the importance of mentorship in young women’s lives at the Minnesota Conference on Adolescent Females. Usually I like going to Minneapolis, but today I am just so tired. I can’t imagine getting on a plane and then turning around the next day to come back. It’s only three and a half hours each way, but at the moment, Minnesota may as well be the North Pole.
I was up all night consumed with anxiety about money—mine and every other mother’s. By most standards I am well off, but now that all I do is think about the stuff I am going to have to pay for, like the college education that’s going to cost two million dollars in eighteen years, I don’t know. I remember my mother making endless calculations on brown paper bags and blank pages in her journal when I was a child, and my father sitting at the dining-room table writing checks out every month, his brow furrowed and intense. They must have felt the same way, going over the numbers again and again, wondering how it was all going to work out.
I woke up feeling guilty for even thinking about all this. Most people in the world raise their children with far less than I have. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Even when you have enough money to pay for nonessentials like organic produce and designer toothpaste, there is still the yawning fear of not having, losing everything, living in deprivation.
I definitely thought about money long before this baby moved into my womb. I worried about how we were going to send my ex-girlfriend’s son, Solomon, to boarding school. I worried about how much health insurance costs, and how little money I put into my IRA. But now my thinking has a frightening urgency. I find myself wondering how all the other pregnant women and mothers and fathers manage what basically boils down to sheer terror in the face of so much responsibility. Religion suddenly makes a lot more sense. So does workaholism. And Xanax. And back-to-the-land movements that emphasize doing more with less.
I bolted out of bed this morning to research the Voluntary Simplicity movement. I read dozens of entries by people named Sinnan and Marigold who grow their own food, wear only three pairs of pants, and make their own soap. I learned that an American baby consumes two hundred times more of the earth’s resources than a baby from Eritrea.
By the time Glen woke up, I was deep in my closet, figuring out how many pairs of shoes and sweaters I could transform into fossil fuel in order to justify having an American baby. When he asked what I was doing, I snapped that I was freaking out about money, wasn’t that obvious? He sat in the big chair in our bedroom and put his feet up, watching me. I mean really, I said, how are we going to put this baby through college?
He paused. There are always student loans. Student loans? I said, lifting my head out of a storage bin at the back of the closet. I had forgotten about those. Weren’t several of my friends still paying off their student loans, and didn’t they seem as neurotic and happy as anybody else? I gently extracted a purple sweater from the giveaway pile.
Having a partner who thinks rationally and optimistically even when I cannot does not eliminate my anxiety about supporting another human being for the next twenty years, but it certainly helps.
I made it back from Minneapolis last night in one piece, but this morning I almost killed myself with a spritz of perfume. I’ve been trying to ignore the growing intensity of my reaction to smells, but today I just couldn’t. I took off all my clothes, got back in the shower, and scrubbed off the barest hint of perfume I had put on my neck. Then I drove to my homeopath’s office grumbling about what a bummer it is that I can’t wear scent without feeling like I am on a capsizing catamaran.
Marie’s excitement cheered me up. I feel it’s her victory, too, because from the moment I said I wanted to have a baby, she’s been right there with me, giving me flower tinctures and vitamin D, progesterone tablets and visualizations of myself big and pregnant with a happy, healthy baby.
After the hugs and whoops, I confessed that I almost gave up onour noninvasive plan because I thought that after six months, I wasn’t getting any younger and should try the medical model. I told her that I had already scheduled the HSG (hysterosalpingogram), where they inject dye into your fallopian tubes to see if they work, and I had a prescription for the ovulation-inducing Clomid in my bag. It was the preliminary, precautionary pregnancy test Dr. Lowen ordered that revealed the fruit of our homeopathic work.
Marie didn’t bat an eye or get judgmental, and that’s why I love her, my kindhearted M.D. homeopath. She just said, Well, good thing you didn’t have to go through all of that! and started making a list of all the foods I should start eating: farm-raised lamb, eggs, Norwegian fish oil.
Then we talked about whether I should stop taking the low-dose antidepressant I’ve been taking to counteract God-knows-how-many generations of depression in my family tree. The thought of quitting cold turkey is terrifying. I have gone from being skeptical of my little purple pill, to angry that I need it, to hugely grateful to all of the good people in big pharma involved in creating it. I’m not exaggerating when I say it has allowed me to have some semblance of a normal life.
As I looked on expectantly, Marie checked her big pharmaceutical handbook to see if trials have been done on pregnant women. Limited trials, she said, but the drug is rated B for pregnancy, which means it’s not stellar, but it is doable. I looked at her across the desk covered with mugs, supplements, and files. Unless we know for sure that it will hurt the baby, I said, I just don’t think it’s a good idea for me to stop. The first thing depression takes from me is hope, and I am pretty sure I can’t have a baby without that. She agreed.
I left her office feeling good about the decision, but still full of concern. In addition to all of the other ways I can lose or harm this baby, I can now add the possibility of damaging his nervous system with what to some is an optional drug.
I also wonder about straddling the medical ob/gyn and homeopathic worlds. In theory they are compatible, but in reality I am not so sure. Dr. Lowen is all business and efficiency, Formica and fluorescents, and Marie is soft lighting and colorful art, hugs and flower remedies. Of course, Marie says they are compatible—after all, she is an M.D.—and Dr. Lowen tries to sound sympathetic when I mention the natural methods. But in real life, there seems to be an eerie disconnect between the two that leaves me slightly uncertain about both.
Which brings me back to where I started, at the perfume that triggered today’s initial bout of uncertainty about what just might be the biggest decision I’ve ever made. Is this the beginning of the end? Is this the first of many things I love that I will have to give up for the baby? First perfume and then sanity, sleep, and travel to interesting places? Is this what everybody means when they say your life will never be the same? Say goodbye to emotional stability? Say goodbye to amber, lavender, rose, and sandalwood? Say goodbye to Brooklyn, Paris, and Dakar?
Is there any peace in this process? I struggled for years to decide whether to even become a parent. Now that it’s happening, I’m plagued by apocalyptic visions of how it’s going to turn out. Has it always been this way? Is this elixir of ambivalence and anxiety the universal experience of motherhood, or is it just America, circa right now?