Standing near the bathroom door, I am shouting down the hallway. Ron’s on the couch paying bills. “Are you sure?” I yell over my shoulder. I am holding my round pink container of birth control pills over the trashcan. He’s sure. He’s always wanted children. “This means I might get pregnant,” I say. My stomach tightens, half-excited, half-scared. “True,” he says. The container of pills lands on the bottom of the wood trashcan with a thud.
On our wedding day, I was 30 and Ron was 42. Neither of us had been married before and neither of us had kids. It wasn’t long until people began asking us when we’d have a baby. “It depends,” Ron would say. “One of these days we’ll pull out the instruction manual and figure it out.” Whoever we were talking to would laugh at Ron’s joke, and then the conversation would turn to more pressing topics. But the baby question prodded my mind. It was true we presumed we’d eventually start a family. To be honest, I was waiting for a maternal instinct to kick in. Years went by and I was still waiting.
Friends and family all seemed certain that if Ron and I had kids, it would be a great thing, but before traveling the path of motherhood I wanted guarantees. I wanted to be sure I’d have enough energy to be a mom and a writer. And that I wouldn’t die in childbirth. And that my kid wouldn’t wind up a criminal. Also, I wanted to know we could afford to have a family, that we’d develop good parenting skills, and that Ron wasn’t going to bail on me every Saturday morning so he could golf. And maybe most of all, even if my worst fears were realized, I wanted to know that motherhood was worth it. That’s why the subtitle of Rebecca Walker’s latest memoir caught my attention immediately: Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence.
Around the time Ron and I began trying-but-not-trying (as we liked to say), Walker was standing in a hospital shower, swollen with child. Her partner, Glen, a Buddhist teacher whom she’d met at a meditation retreat, stood next to her and helped her through the contractions. But I’m getting ahead of myself – the birth of Walker’s son Tenzin comes at the end of her book. In the beginning, Walker is on the phone with a nurse who’s confirming the pregnancy. Walker looks out the window and watches a vulture fall from the sky. And she says she knew a part of her was dying. Like me, and like many other women in our generation, Walker was torn for years about raising a child: “Will I lose myself – my body, my mind, my options – and be left trapped, resentful and irretrievably overwhelmed?”
But despite Walker’s uncertainty about motherhood, there’s barely another glimpse of it after the third chapter. Instead, the book focuses on her journey after she makes her choice (Glen was the one who finally helped her realize “that underneath my ambivalence was a longing for a very important kind of maturation”). Divided into nine chapters, the book chronicles each month of her pregnancy and is written partially in journal format, partially in essay style.
In addition to preparing for a child, Walker evaluates her strained relationship with her own mother, the famous writer Alice Walker (The Color Purple). Before Baby Love, Walker wrote the memoir Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, her personal account of growing up biracial with divorced parents living on opposite coasts. While Walker reveals that Black, White, and Jewish caused hurt between her and her mother, she doesn’t spend a lot of time in scenes or dialogue detailing their crumbling relationship. Readers may find themselves wanting more, but the absence of the presence of her mother – during a time when Walker is about to become one – serves as an eerie silence communicating the loss better than words ever could.
Walker also delves into topics that are controversial, like abortion. In one passage she talks about the emotional distance she placed between her and the baby she aborted at age 14, and, in another passage, the instinctual and “no choice” love she feels for Tenzin. She also talks openly about the fact that she feels a different kind of love for Solomon, her non-biological son with a female ex-lover, compared to the love she has for her child from her flesh and blood. And of course she hits on topics one would expect in a book about pregnancy: midwives, doctors, and doulas; food cravings and weight gain; whether to get an amniocentesis and physical complications (one of which required a hospital stay).
Throughout the story, Walker backtracks here and there to discuss some of her prior relationships and the ways she considered having a baby: with another female by using the sperm of another woman’s boyfriend, or have one baby with her current partner Glen and a second baby with an ex-boyfriend in Africa. Complicated and messy? Yes, and Walker shares how she came to realize that how she and reached a point of understanding what is important not only in terms of a life partner, but in “maintaining intimacy” within a family unit.
Walker’s prose is easy to read and the story unfolds naturally. The highlight – and heart – of the book is Tenzin’s birth and the medical crisis that follows. Despite Walker’s visualizations of having a natural birth in a hot tub with friends and family massaging her temples with oils, labor and delivery is hard for Walker, nearly resulting in a C-section, and ending with Tenzin in the NICU with meconium in his lungs. During the birth, the story noticeably shifts from Walker to Tenzin, as it should. And it’s clear there is no ambivalence about Walker’s decision. In fact, she states the advice she wishes she had received: “It’s okay to worry, but don’t by any means let it keep you from having a child! Instead of telling me that I had plenty of time, or that I should adopt because the world is full of needy children, someone should have sat me down, looked me right in the eye, and told me not to let anything keep me from the experience.”
I know what she means. Earlier this year, Ron and I found out we were parents-to-be. Immediately, I felt a wild fierceness to protect my child and a deep love that I hadn’t known before (so I do have those maternal instincts). We lost the baby at ten weeks, but even though I had a miscarriage, I’m no longer standing at the fork in the road. Like Walker, I’ve chosen. I’m on the path to motherhood.