Wednesday, April 25th, 2007
Writer Rebecca Walker knew at the age of 20 that she wanted to have a baby. While traveling in Africa, she had a vision of herself mothering a child with a man she encountered there, but she pushed it aside. She continued to push her maternal longings aside for fifteen years until meeting her current partner Glen, who encouraged her to follow her heart. She recounts this journey in Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence (Riverhead). Read an excerpt here. Now the 37-year-old mother of two-year-old son Tenzin wants to let young women know that being ambivalent about having kids can be costly. Exploring everything from her abortion at age 14 to her conflicted feelings towards the child she adopted with her female partner, Walker takes readers intimately inside every stage of her pregnancy and painful birth. Along the way, she also details her relationship with her mother, feminist writer Alice Walker, which that grows increasingly fraught as her pregnancy progresses. Pinning her personal journey to a broader cultural paradigm of women putting off parenting until “the time is right,” Walker, also the author of Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead, 2001) and editor of What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine The Future (Riverhead, 2004), sees her book as providing advice she wished she knew while making this most important decision.
The book is written in diary form, taking you through the very earliest stages of your pregnancy through birth. Is it culled from actual diary entries? When was the book actually written?
It is in journal form but then there are the chapters, so I was doing some journalism but I was doing a lot of diagramming. I had huge sheets of paper taped to the wall and I was going to call it The Book of Lists. When I was pregnant I found myself making lists constantly: things I should eat, things I shouldn’t eat, all the stroller options, what things induced labor, what things to take to the hospital. It was constant listmaking on huge pieces of paper. Then I started diagramming different experiences that I was having and making notes on them all.
Was that just for you or was it with the intention of turning it into a book?
My process for writing is generally that I diagram on the wall, so I was already thinking about writing a book. But it wasn’t until maybe my third or fourth month when I found myself saying, “Nobody ever told me it was going to be like that” that I wanted to document it in a way I could share it with other people who weren’t informed about what it was going to be like.
Was the actual book written while you were pregnant?
The journal was written all while I was pregnant. Some of the chapters, which are meditations on the theme, were written while I was pregnant. The last one was written when Tenzin was about six or seven months old. I would say for the most part, 85% of the book was written while I was pregnant; then there’s the labor and that last chapter.
How do you feel about the statements you make in the book when you reread them now? Did some of them change after you weren’t pregnant?
It’s hard to say; there is something called baby love and it is describing a temporal experience. It has to do with the rush of hormones and the intense experience of being pregnant which is a finite experience that I think affects one’s view. I stand behind everything in the book, but I don’t know that I feel the same things as intensely.
I was really in the throes of all that stuff. I was being confronted with a lot of feelings and experiences in the pregnancy that I don’t think I could recreate. They were really motivated by that super immediate experience of having this baby inside of me, not knowing what was going to happen and feeling a lot of urges that I had never felt before. I think it would be very hard to recreate that.
There’s a sense in the book that something had been holding you back from even admitting that you truly wanted a baby, and that once you realized that truth and went with it, your life changed. What were the main things holding you back, and how did you overcome that? What enabled you to make that change after 15 years?
Being supported in the longing, having somebody who said, “Of course you should do it,” someone who didn’t question the urge. I think that was key because so many other people had questioned it or fed into my ambivalence about it. Meeting someone who was so decisive and so supportive was helpful. Deciding to follow my own inner callings, deciding to just not be cowed by all the different sociopolitical scripts that I’d been raised with and not to succumb to the fear that had a lot to do with meeting the right person and my maturation process. Recognizing that I had had a history of depression and being active in addressing that and resolving for myself that I didn’t have to repeat some of those things that I had grown up with, all of those things paved the way for my choice to proceed with fate. I could and I would be a great mom and my life wouldn’t be over; I could still be a creative and a thinking person.
Your relationship with your mother is equally prominent in the text as your relationships with your son and partner, and the picture you paint is one of a very rocky, tumultuous relationship. How did the process of writing about it, both in Baby Love and in Black, White, and Jewish, help you deal with that relationship?
I think that would be a gross misstatement. People’s desire to focus on that aspect has in some ways made it bigger than it is. I tried to do what I could to make sure the book is primarily about my evolution. Of course our relationship is a part of that, it was a considerable part, but it wasn’t as big a part as my relationship with my partner or my son.
So, that said, to me Black, White, and Jewish was a love letter to my parents. For some reason it didn’t hit them that way. I was trying to share my world with them in a way that could help them understand what the experience of growing up as their child was like and I thought that would bring us closer together. I had a lot of hope and optimism when I wrote that book and the response, especially from my mom, not so much from my dad, affected my approach to this book. I had really tried to protect my mother in a certain kind of way. In this book, I decided there was not much I could do because it didn’t really end up helping. She had her reaction and she’s entitled to it but it didn’t bring any healing for me, and I’m always looking for healing, and if I can’t try to heal everybody in my family, I decided at least I could heal myself.
Coming out and telling my truth as I lived it and not being afraid of the consequences has been very liberating for me and I would say I’m healthier for it. I think it’s helped the relationship in that I’m a much healthier human being as a result of being able to tell the truth and not have unrealistic expectations of a book healing a family dynamic that’s been in place for many years.
I want to talk about the word “ambivalence” because it’s in your title and comes up several times, and yet it seems like you were less ambivalent about wanting children as not in the right space to have them yet.
To me all the different situations that were not quite right were manifestations of my ambivalence. I kept making choices that would not yield the kind of family that I was trying to make and that I longed for. One’s choices reflect one’s state of mind and I made choices that reflected a deep ambivalence about stability, about having a baby, about autonomy vs. independence, about my relationships with my own family. I was stunted in this soup about not being sure of what I wanted and how to get there so I made a lot of different choices along the way. And I think that the term ambivalence is universal, especially during the period of pregnancy. You’re gestating, there’s this sense of not knowing and not being sure.
[There's also] my own connection to the generational experience of ambivalence. So many of my peers are on the fence about having a baby. I meet so many women who wanted to have a baby but didn’t prioritize having a baby and now it’s too late. You could call it a lack of clarity or a lack of prioritization; they were so organized and clear about their professional goals but their family and procreative goals were not so fleshed out. There is ambivalence and when you talk to people you hear a lot of it. I wanted to document my own experience of ambivalence, something that I think is a generational trope.
What is your advice to women who are ambivalent?
I wish that someone had said to me when I was twenty years old that having a baby is an incredibly powerful experience, that if you have the slightest inkling that you might want to do it, you should pay attention to that inkling and factor in wanting to have a child and have a family as ardently as you’re factoring in your professional trajectory, and no one said that to me. What happened was I spent most of my life trying not to have a baby and thinking that the time would be right and that having a baby was as easy as riding a bicycle, nothing I had to think too hard about, because I could just get pregnant at any point. I really wish someone had told me that. Instead I was told a lot of, “Develop yourself, cultivate yourself, travel, excel at your academic pursuits.” Somehow the idea of developing yourself was separate from having a child. I’ve grown much more from having a child than going to Yale, for instance.
I do a lot of speaking at colleges and I’ve been telling young people that they should think about it. Your fertility is finite; you can’t just pop ‘em out when you want to; developing a meaningful relationship with someone with whom you can have a baby is not easy. When you’re in college, when you’re young, you don’t recognize that these things are important. You need to plan, and be mindful that this could be an important part of your life and you might want to think about it a little.
If someone had told you these things, do you think you would have had a child sooner?
Yes, definitely. If I’d had a more supportive, pro-procreative environment, let’s say, or somebody that I really respected, someone who was a mentor, tell me, “What about having a baby? This is important to you.” Because I had mentors talk to me about the books I was going to write and ideas I was going to be putting out into the world and fellowships I should try to get and people I should meet, but there was never a conversation about having a child. I definitely think if that had been integrated into those relationships that I would have been more thoughtful about the kinds of relationships I was getting into and when I would start having kids, because I had wanted one for so long.
What do you think the culture is saying to men when it comes to women desperately wanting babies, and do you think they feel some of these same urges?
I can’t necessarily speak for men, even though I wrote a book about masculinity [What Makes a Man]. I’ve been speaking a lot in Europe and I’ve been inspired by the men’s movement in Sweden and England and the Netherlands and places where men are demanding to have enough time to stay home and be super-present fathers. These are not all upper middle class men; these are men from every background, and they’re challenging their governments and cultures in a confrontational way and reclaiming fatherhood.
When I was in Sweden a couple months ago, I burst into tears. I swear to God if I saw one more man pushing a pram with three little babies and looking totally happy I was just gonna freak out because it’s just so rare to see en masse that kind of celebration of fatherhood and engagement of fatherhood. The women have a year off paid maternity leave, so they’re walking around looking blissed out. I just wept for what we don’t have in our country. I think men, given the proper support, do want to be more involved, because it’s for them, too. It’s a maturation process, it’s a human evolutionary process, when you turn away from your narcissistic thinking and give yourself to this other being. It’s a profound thing and I think that unfortunately in our culture those aspects are not emphasized. We’re more keyed into men being providers and protectors rather than participants in the growth of another being in a psycho-emotional way
The messages to men are changing in our culture. [Now they're] limited and I think that comes from women who just want the dads to be the disciplinarian or be the sperm. There’s some kind of reductionism model which I think is really not the right direction.
It’s devaluing, the idea that a man is gonna come around any time. “If I wait too long I can always go to the sperm bank.” I think that’s a crappy message to send. The idea that women’s empowerment has to come at the expense of men feeling needed and wanted. It’s not productive. It’s not a particularly smart approach.
You write about the abortion you had at 14 and how tough a topic it is to bring up because it’s so charged, and write, “I was more invested in fighting for the right of women to have abortions than I was in fighting for my right to wade through the aftermath of my own.” What do you think is missing from the public discussion of the topic?
I think that sentence sums it up. I felt that there was no room for my feelings; that was much more important than trying to process out my emotions and that’s a mistake. There’s no either/or; my life is as important as theirs. My emotional stunting is as important as their physical access. It’s important that all activists really try to heal themselves before they heal other people, because often the healing they do of other people takes the place of the healing they need to do. They’ve gone out and healed all these other people and they’re still wounded. I don’t see the health in that.
Because it was so dangerous, it was hard for pro-choice people to acknowledge that some people had grieving—the Right could pounce on that grief as evidence that abortion could be outlawed. The result has been that the Right has been able to capitalize on the women who have expressed grief. The pro-choice has been viewed as being cold and heartless. I think that’s changing. I wrote an essay in Abortion Under Attack—there were a lot of essays in that book about how the discourse from the pro-choice movement needs to expand to be able to address some of the deep problems of abortion without sacrificing the urgent need to make them available. I think that the human stories need to be added more, the stories of the people who had to make the decision and what a hard decision it was to make, and why they made their decisions, how they got pregnant in the first place.
It’s so polarized that we’ve lost connection with the women who are making these choices and how can we serve them so they either don’t have to make the choice at all, or they can live with the choices they’ve made in a way that’s not debilitating. How do we serve the people involved, the whole person, not just the procedure? And that gets into mental health counseling, birth control providing, discussions of sexuality and poverty that people are afraid to have. So many women have babies cause they feel alone and they want someone to love them. It’s a big discussion that needs to be had. To keep it on this very narrow view of procedure or no procedure is not serving the people who need to be served.
One of the most provocative statements you make is about how pregnancy and motherhood have changed you is about your relationship with pop culture. You say that you no longer find books and movies absolutely necessary in the way that you did before you became pregnant. Can you elaborate on that?
I think I lived a lot of my life trying to figure out how to live and how to make sense of my background and myself and, like many people, I turned to art to see how others did it. I did that a lot. From the most obscure African and European films to pop American films and thousands of books, novels and autobiographies, I was just trying to find some answers and some commonalities. I think that there’s something about the experience for me of having my son and settling into a domestic stability that was an answer. I feel that I’ve been able to resolve a lot of my fragmented, nomadic [sense of] feeling like an outsider, like I didn’t have a tribe. A lot of those feelings were resolved, or are in the process of resolution as a result of these decisions. I don’t really look to the media for the same kinds of answers. They just seem like people exploring their lack of resolution now and I don’t really identify with that so much anymore.
Where do you see feminism fitting in with what you write about in the book?
Feminism at its best is a wrestling to the ground of ideas that are negative and that stand in the way of people’s happiness and realization of their potential as human beings—ideas about what women should be that are limiting, ideas about what men should be that are limiting. Feminism is about deconstructing those ideas and trying to replace them with ideas that can support all different kinds of people, women and men, in their journey to be whole and happy and free. I think that my message, if you want to call it a message, is that we need ideas and beliefs and philosophies that nurture the whole human being and nurture the whole family.
The idea of the autonomous individual is a very new concept and I don’t necessarily think human beings can be healthy psychologically in that format. Maybe some, but for the great majority, I don’t really see it. Our ideas about what it means to be empowered need to be varied and dynamic and holistic. Motherhood can be very politicizing in a lot of ways. I’m more concerned about maternity leave and health care and all the women around the world who can’t afford to have a baby and who die giving birth, who have babies when they don’t want babies. It’s not separate from a larger political agenda, it just broadens the view.
Do you feel that the feminist movement has not valued motherhood?
They [second wave feminists] were in a position where they had to understand the ways that motherhood had been used to keep women within a limited paradigm of femininity.
It was natural for them to break away from the idea of woman as primarily a child rearing machine and that domesticity was the woman’s realm. It was natural and important to break away from that and I’m really glad they did. Still, going to the other extreme wasn’t necessarily the right move either. They became very ambivalent about their relationship with children.
A lot of women in that generation have kids and it’s not an issue, and for some it’s a big issue. It’s appropriate now for us to be trying to find a balance between the two and then what would be appropriate would be for the foremothers to be supportive and not critical or undermining of our attempt to find a balance. I very much support and laud and show appropriate gratitude and appreciation for all the work that’s been done so I could have the privilege of working and supporting my family and having a baby. I don’t take that for granted for one moment.
Are there certain political issues that you think the feminist movement should be valuing more?
The stock answers of appropriate support for family planning, including abortion, birth control, health care of mothers and unborn children, family leave in which mothers actually have enough support, financial and cultural, to have children, to be home with their kids. The idea of a mom going back to work after six weeks or nine weeks or twelve weeks home with the baby…you hear those stories, and it’s unbelievable.
In other countries, they can’t believe it. We really need to take a look at what we require of our corporate realm in terms of family support. I’m really concerned about war. The water where I live is poisoned by agribusiness. The public school system in Hawaii is terrible and that’s true all around the country. America used to have one of the best public school systems in the world and now we’ve got one of the worst of developed nations. What as a culture are we saying about how we feel about the next generation? All those things.
I’m concerned about what I feel we’ve lost in our generation. The basics of how we relate to one another have become difficult. Among men, their models of masculinity are not as evolved as they need to be in order to be in healthy relationships with women. At the same time, women are often unprepared to negotiate the demands of intimacy. We kind of all feel like we’re better off alone. I think that has a lot to do with the culture of hypercapitalism and people thinking that if as an individual you make enough money to survive, that that’s the goal. Our values as a culture are just off and that’s not helping people get what they need in order to create the kinds of families and communities that they want to create.
What’s next for you? Do you plan to have more children?
I hope so; it’s getting kind of late. I’d love to have another baby. I enjoy it when I’m not pulling my hair out. I’m shocked by how constantly my ideas and my sense of what I thought it was going to be like are challenged. Having a baby and trying to raise a human being is really hard work. You don’t skip off into the sunset. You have this idea you’re gonna do everything right and not subject him to everything you went through. I had a lot of noble ideas but I have to work very hard every day to manifest those ideas and some days I fail and some days I succeed. It’s a study in humility, basically. I still have no regrets but I’m continually amazed by the amount of effort and stamina it takes to show up every day for another human being at the level that the relationship demands.
What’s your daily routine like? Do you have a nanny?
No nanny. I wrote about this in Searching for Mary Poppins, about deciding not to have a nanny. I didn’t want to have a person that intimate in my life, in our family life, and there’s some part of me that wanted to really do it myself and to know that I could, so I could look back and know that I went through it. It’s not easy. I work at home, my partner works at home, but I travel a lot. I’m on the road at least once a month, usually twice a month, speaking and doing workshops. I’ve had to leave Tenzin for days at a time and that’s not easy, but we’re managing and it’s possible. I don’t know with two what it would be like, if it would still be possible. We have to make compromises but I think in the long run his wellbeing is worth it.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing another collection called Walk This Way, introducing the new American family, people writing about all different types of families living with a kid with MS, living on different continents, or polyamory, stepparenting, transracial adoption, and I’m also working on another memoir about my time in Africa in my early twenties.
What appeals to you about memoir as a genre?
I haven’t chosen it; it sounds like a cliché, but it really does choose me. There are things in my life that I’ve experienced and they just churn or they call me until I write them down. I love the “I” format, the emotional immediacy, the ability to connect with the material in such a personal, profound way. I put a lot of time into craft, and people are resistant to the idea that craft and catharsis and healing can go together. I don’t think that’s true. There’s something for me about the process of writing memoir that cleans me or clears me. All that stuff in Black, White, and Jewish, it’s kind of gone from my tissues and my mind and my memory. I’m no longer haunted by those experiences.
Because you wrote them down?
Definitely. There’s resolution for me in that. In writing about having Tenzin and stuff I went through with my mom, I put a lot of it down as a result of putting it out. Now it has a place to live, it doesn’t have to live inside of me, and that’s really fantastic because then I’m open to move forward and I’m not stuck. So this book about Africa, there’s a part of me that’s still stuck there and I don’t know that I could get unstuck without writing about it.
Who do you see as your main audience for Baby Love?
I actually wrote it with other women in mind. I think I wrote it more for other women, because the whole time I was saying, “I can’t believe no one ever told me this and this isn’t talked about more, other women really need to know this.” I think the audience is women who have kids and have gone through this process and didn’t really process it out fully, women who are thinking about having kids and feeling ambivalence or hesitation, and women who are not ambivalent at all but may not be looking at their pregnancy as the potentially cathartic transformative experience it can be.
I think it could be very instructive for older women who’ve had kids but who didn’t really have the cultural support to ask questions about their choice. I think men could learn a lot. I got an email from one of my male friends who said it’s the closest he would ever come to knowing what it was like to give birth and gestate another human being. It’s great for women who couldn’t have children. At the literary fest I was at a few weeks ago, a woman came up to me in tears. She was 49, and had waited too long and was devastated. She was so happy I was talking about it.
Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence (Riverhead) is available now. Visit www.rebeccawalker.com for more information. Walker will be speaking at Women’s Way 30th Anniversary Benefit in Philadelphia on May 3rd and at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York on May 4th.