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.