Baby Talk with Rebecca Walker

Baby Talk with Rebecca Walker

‘Baby Love’ is the new book to come from the pen of Rebecca Walker, a woman hailed by Time Magazine as one of the most influential American leaders under 40. The founder of the feminist activist ‘Third Wave Foundation’, Walker is also the (currently) estranged daughter of the feminist writer Alice Walker. The two Walker women have quite different takes on feminism, and the contrast is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Baby Love’. On hearing about ‘Baby Love’, and even after reading it, I was full of questions for the young Walker about what her ‘plan for motherhood’ message means for the modern feminist. Luckily, I was able to meet with her whilst she was in London to promote the book and ask her about all the issues she is hoping to raise with her audience.

I meet Walker in the apartment of her publisher, a welcome cool environment compared to the dusty stuffiness that is sunny central London. She is cool and collected, padding bare-footed around the apartment. This calm exterior should be a surprise, as she recounts how she has had no time to even eat that day since she has had so many interviews here and there, along with an appearance on Women’s Hour. However, having become used to Walker’s voice through reading ‘Baby Love’ (where even at the most hysterical of times Walker has a fiercely intelligent form of reasoning, a Buddhist faith, and a huge slab of common sense to fall back on) I am expecting a woman who is serenely calm.

Baby Love is written as a diary, a format I always enjoy reading. The book begins with the words ‘I’m pregnant’ and from then on we follow Walker through her pregnancy journey, right up until her son is safely in his highchair at home. It’s not all plain sailing however, with panic attacks, huge fears and soul searching along the way, and with all the tribulations that come with pregnancy I wonder what possessed her to give birth to a book along with a child?

“I had been so, in some ways, stunted by my feminist ideology that I thought that I couldn’t actually have an identity and have a child at the same time” says Walker. “It was then that I started to think about all the other women who were on the fence about it and I wanted to connect with them”

This time-delay through fence-sitting is something that Walker is keen to tackle with ‘Baby Love’. The tagline of the book is ‘Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence’, and the ambivalence that Walker refers to is one she feels has been deep wired within her through her feminist upbringing, an upbringing that led her to believe motherhood to be one of the least empowering choices for a woman. So what is her message for other women who may be wondering if motherhood is for them?

“When I go round and talk to young women about this I say ‘Y’know, I think you should try to plan to have children the way you plan your career’, and I don’t mean in terms of finding an age where you decide you’re going to have a child by, but in terms of reaching some kind of psychological integration where you feel you that you’re mature enough to actually care for another human being. ”

And this is the sentiment within the pages of Walker’s book that I found most hard to swallow. After having had so many tabloids wagging their fingers at the modern day women who leave having children ‘too late’ I feel, as I’m sure many others feel, very sensitive to this subject. Is this just another text that tells us that because women can have children, we should, or face regret later in life? Is Walker suggesting that our biology our destiny?

“Part of third wave feminism has been about not trying to dictate what empowerment means for anybody else, but to really own what empowerment means to you. I think there are lot’s of women who don’t need to have children and that’s totally fine, but for those of us who feel this biological urge…” she pauses “and this kind of psychological urge, I think it’s important not to let ideology keep you from this self realisation process.”

But many feminists might write off this urge, I counter, saying that such desires are only taught to women by society…

“The critique of motherhood has been so important and strongly articulated by second wave; the idea that the exploitation of women has been based in this identity of women as vessels and as producing offspring which are to be manipulated by the patriarchy. Simone De Beauvoir said that ‘women are made, not born’; the idea that this identity of motherhood is projected onto you as opposed to you having some kind of internal desire. I really wanted to claim the nature aspect and say that it’s not just nurture, that there is something in between.”

This is a point Walker brings up in the book saying that, whilst second wave’s insistence that women and men were more the same than different was ‘a smart move’, we are now left with a ‘polemic [that] puts women in the ridiculous position of wondering whether wanting a baby is proof that women actually are the weaker sex.’

“We live in world in which people are afraid to identify with feminism because there is a rejection of certain ideas that do feel very natural for a lot of women. I think to deny them an identity of an empowered woman based on the fact that they have urges that seem [at odds with] standard status quo feminist ideology does not bode well for a long term feminist movement.”

Walker is clearly understanding and admiring of the work of second wave feminists like her mother. However, it seems that second wave feminists are not so understanding of the young Walker’s own work. In ‘Baby Love’ Walker documents the breakdown of her relationship with her mother.

“It was a very small part of I think” Walker says, slightly bemused at the spate of interviews and reviews that have focussed on the Walker feud. However, it’s hard not to be drawn in to such a vivid portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship, and an inter-generational feminist relationship, being bitterly played out. In one section of the book, Walker recounts going to her mother’s house to ask why she is threatening to send an unflattering statement to a website editor in response to an interview Rebecca Walker had done for that website. The young Walker found herself sat down by her mother and told that she was ’someone who thinks she is a good person but really isn’t’. I wonder if Walker had considered this was also her mother’s way of telling her that she is someone who thinks she is a feminist but really isn’t?

“Yes I think it is, I think she feels that I’ve sold out a kind of feminist ideal. Her critique of my work started way back with my first book, ‘To Be Real’, that critiqued second wave feminism.” Walker says. ‘To Be Real’ is a book that does dole out criticism, but Walker had felt that all deconstructions of second wave ideas were balanced with adoration and support. “She didn’t really feel that,” Walker says of her mother, “She felt that I was selling out womankind.”

Did Alice Walker view ‘To Be Real’ as a backlash, then?

“Yes I think so, I think they all did. I think I’ve been quite ostracised from that community as a result. I don’t have the kind of institutionalised feminist support – because feminists in America have quite a bit power. When you’re dealing with someone as powerful, culturally and economically, as my mother – who has very powerful friends who take sides – my ability to thrive is really compromised. I was so upset with her threat to publish the letter against me because I’ve worked so hard…” Walker pauses to take a deep breath, “I’ve worked so hard…and the idea that that machine would support others and not me…and I don’t think that I’m at all unique in this inter-generational struggle.”

I wonder if perhaps Walker’s experience of motherhood can help heal some old wounds. Whilst she was brought up believing motherhood to be problematic and creatively stifling through her mother’s writing and actions, maybe she can empathise now. In one poem by her mother, the young Walker found herself compared to the ‘calamities’ that struck other women writers, such as Virginia Woolf’s mental illness. I wonder whether she can relate to her mother’s feeling at all now that she has a child? After all, Walker does write in ‘Baby Love’ ; ‘I miss having what felt like an endless supply of mental and emotional stamina.’

“Sometimes I feel a bit tired mentally because it’s very demanding thinking about another human being and having to work full time” Walker agrees, but goes on to say that she feels that her son’s dependence on her will only be for a finite period, “So if there is a diminishment, and I don’t necessarily think there is because I’ve gained so much from having him in terms of my psycho-emotional range, I’m fully prepared at the end of this phase to move on to another phase in which I probably will be different again. I think of it as like; I have some parts of my identity, then I gain another part of my identity and when he leaves there’ll be a whole other aspect of my identity that I can’t imagine.”

In Part 2 Rebecca Walker talks about the effect her bisexuality has had on planning her motherhood and the controversy around the statements she makes in ‘Baby Love’ regarding biological and non-biological bonds.

By: Sarah Barnes, 13.06.2008 | Comments (0)
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