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).
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.
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
Kramer Bussel: 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?
Rebecca Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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
What is your advice to women who are ambivalent?
Walker: 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,
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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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
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
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
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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
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.
Bussel: Are there certain political issues that you
think the feminist movement should be valuing more?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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
Bussel: What's your daily routine like? Do you have
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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?
Walker: 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
Who do you see as your main audience for Baby Love?
Walker: 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.
Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence
(Riverhead) is available now (You can read an excerpt from
Baby Love here. Visit 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.
Rachel Kramer Bussel lives in New York City. She is Senior
Editor at Penthouse Variations, and a Contributing Editor