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).
Read an excerpt here. 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. Exploring 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 decision.
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?
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.
that just for you or was it with the intention of turning
it into a book?
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.
the actual book written while you were pregnant?
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
is your advice to women who are ambivalent?
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,
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
someone had told you these things, do you think you would
have had a child sooner?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 first place.
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 served.
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
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.
do you see feminism fitting in with what you write about
in the book?
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.
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.
you feel that the feminist movement has not valued motherhood?
[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.
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
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.
there certain political issues that you think the feminist
movement should be valuing more?
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.
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.
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.
next for you? Do you plan to have more children?
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
your daily routine like? Do you have a nanny?
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.
are you working on next?
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.
appeals to you about memoir as a genre?
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.
you wrote them down?
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 it.
do you see as your main audience for Baby Love?
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
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. Visit www.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