Rebecca Walker
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HER MOTHER'S DAUGHTER,
By Sara Sklaroff, © Washington Post, 03/18/2007

     
 

A thoughtful memoir by Alice Walker's only child.


Rebecca Walker comes to her ambivalence by birth. The biracial daughter of divorced parents, she spent her childhood moving between two households on opposite coasts -- and between two radically different ways of life. She is also a product of 1970s feminism, a member of "the first generation of women to grow up thinking of children as optional." Her mother, the novelist Alice Walker, has written of her own mixed feelings about having a child; now it is Rebecca's turn. Her new memoir is a thoughtful and amusing play-by-play of pregnancy and birth, investigating the difference between the theory surrounding motherhood and the scary, messy, snuggly practice of it.

She barely got beyond the theory phase. During her eight-year relationship with the musician Meshell Ndegeocello, the two women had asked a male friend to serve as birth father -- "the natural way, no turkey basters." They considered moving as a group to Europe, "where I could write and be cared for by the thriving holistic midwifery and healing network. I could learn French, and the baby could be bilingual, and we could live in one of those charming villages in Switzerland." The arrangement fell apart after a first failed try at conception.

But that's just backstory. The 30-something Walker who learns she is pregnant on page 1 of Baby Love is somewhat more grounded, no small thanks to her new partner, Glen, the baby's father, seemingly a model of well-adjusted, nurturing manhood. He rejects her "polytheistic fiesta" childbirth fantasy, in which "everyone I know and love will climb into the hot tub-cum-birthing pool with me," massaging her scalp with lavender oil and feeding her organic chocolate cake. But mostly she worries about the usual stuff: What kind of hospital? Amnio or no? And can they even afford a kid? Consulting an array of health professionals (homeopath, Tibetan doctor, birth doula, et al.), she decries the medicalization of pregnancy and society's lack of support for pregnant women but delights in buying haute maternity wear. Ultimately, the actual birth brings her further down to Earth: "I retract my judgment of every woman who has had or will have a scheduled C-section," she declares. Yes, the pain is that bad.

Baby Love never mentions Alice Walker by name, and some readers may not infer the connection. Regardless, Rebecca's mother does not come off well. For years, she kept a sign over her desk comparing her young daughter to the obstacles faced by great women writers -- Virginia Woolf's madness, Zora Neale Hurston's poverty and ill health. "You have Rebecca," the sign reminded her, "who is much more delightful and less distracting than any of the calamities above." Walker had the right to say that (she concludes one important essay by quoting that sign in full), but for her daughter, there were consequences to being considered a "calamity," no matter how prettily it's put.

When Rebecca told her mother she was pregnant, Alice was hardly effusive. Later in the pregnancy, she suddenly threatened to denounce Rebecca in a letter to the online magazine Salon, which had recently quoted a passage from her memoir ( Black White and Jewish) that criticized her parents. "She called me a liar, a thief . . . and a few other completely discrediting unmentionables," reports Rebecca. Alice backed down, but there were more confrontations via e-mail: "She writes that she has been my mother for thirty years and is no longer interested in the job."

By the time Rebecca's son was born, they were no longer in communication. Perhaps because of the book's journal format, which puts big and small events on an equal footing, these developments don't get the attention they deserve. Nor do we know for sure what Alice's side of the story is -- though to be fair, this isn't her book.

Rebecca has lived most of her life similarly to her mother, valuing personal independence over all else. Getting pregnant changed that. "Until you become a mother, you're a daughter," Rebecca writes. In her case, that also means a chance to be the parent she wishes she'd had. But lest she hold herself to too high a standard, it's worth considering that motherhood is, by nature, a bifurcating force: Childbirth threatens to split you literally in two, but good parenting does it emotionally, again and again. Ambivalence goes with the territory. ?

Sara Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer and editor.

 

 

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