A Conversation with Rebecca Walker
In Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, feminist and author Rebecca Walker discusses wrestling with the decision to become a parent, writing memoirs, the unique sensibilities of American mothers, and the different feelings she has for her two sons, Tenzin and Solomon, her non-biological son with a former female partner. In addition to Baby Love, Rebecca has published numerous essays, edited two anthologies, and written a memoir, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, a story of her life as the daughter of African American writer Alice Walker and liberal Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal. She and her partner, Glen, live in Hawaii with their son, Tenzin. Writer Jenny Rough chatted with Rebecca about her new book, parenting in the United States and Europe, and the writing life.
On why she wrote this book: I have a maternal drive, and in all my relationships I thought I was constantly trying to mother people, the ones I fell in love with, people that I knew, and other people’s kids. So I felt pulled towards it. If there was an intellectual or psychological part, it had to do with trying to heal some childhood wounds by having a kid myself, and trying to re-parent myself through parenting Tenzin. I think that in needing to become protective of Tenzin, I’ve become more protective of myself. I really moved away from unhealthy relationships and patterns, and I feel much more healthy and grounded. I think that has to do with re-parenting my inner child. I hate to say that, but I think it’s true. It’s a result of feeling the need to protect and parent him.
On why the decision to have children is so emotionally charged, especially in America: I think in some ways it is specific to America — this ambivalence — because we have had the most discussion about motherhood in our culture and because the American women’s movement audibly deconstructed the whole idea of women as predominantly childbearing beings. We have forged this new language of women having many options — that biological motherhood is not the be-all and end-all of women’s fulfillment. So I think American women are more focused on this issue of “Should we or should we not?”
Also, I think it has to do with the way in which our culture is not really supportive of children and mothers and families. I was just in Sweden a couple months ago speaking — believe it or not — at a conference of female executives who were trying to become more sensitive to the ways in which men were treated in the workplace. Sweden is the most egalitarian country in the world by many indices and men are demanding to stay home more with their kids. All over Europe, really, men are demanding things like shorter work weeks and paternity leave.
I burst into tears in Sweden because I swear I felt like if I saw one more man walking down the street with three babies crawling all over him, or one more happy looking mom pushing a pram because she was on her one-year paid maternity leave, I was just going to freak because we don’t have that. I think the issue of whether or not to have children becomes much more dire: Can we afford it? Can we find good childcare? Are we going to have to hire assassins to make sure our kid gets into the right nursery school? I mean, the pressure — our public school system is crazy. The health care system is crazy. In Sweden, there is affordable great childcare, nationalized health care, a year of paid maternity leave, and family leave.
On writing this book in comparison to writing Black, White and Jewish: I’m a memoirist for better or for worse. I’m always trying to innovate, in some ways, the form. Or at least describe time as I experience it. With Black, White and Jewish I experienced my childhood by region or by state, so it’s organized by Atlanta, San Francisco, New York. It became a geography of my body or my psyche. For this latest book, it’s obviously the journey of pregnancy so it’s got the day-to-day journal entries. Then it’s intercepted with these nine chapters, one for each month of pregnancy. It’s also punctuated at each trimester point with a web voice because when we’re pregnant, so many of us spend time on the Internet trying to make sure we’re not crazy. So that structure felt very organic and true to the experience.
On addressing her painful relationship with her mother, Alice Walker: There’s a whole version of this book that doesn’t include any of the mother stuff, but I ended up feeling that it just wasn’t true without it. I kept trying to make it work, but as a piece there was something about it that just wasn’t satisfying. Also, I had to weigh what was most healing for me. My mother obviously can take care of herself in a certain way, and she’s made that clear. I had to really think: Well, who is telling my story? Who’s going to tell my truth if I don’t tell it? And if I don’t tell it, then have I been chained into holding some kind of family secret that will fester? But they’re very difficult decisions, especially when you have a mother who is publicly known. But, you know, with Black, White and Jewish I tried to protect her as much as I possibly could. She didn’t feel protected.
On deciding to have a baby: Well, I think that my partner was very helpful. He was the one who cut through my ambivalence and reached in and affirmed my longing. He kind of woke me up to the fact that time was of the essence and that I could muck around and miss my life by being obsessed with whether or not this is something I should do. Coming into this amazing relationship with Tenzin, I remember thinking, “I could’ve missed this if I had followed my ideas. I could’ve missed this whole thing.” It freaks you out when you realize it, and then you say, “Wait a minute, what else am I missing? Because I have all these ideas about ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t.'” It makes you evaluate the ideologies you hold so dear.