Rebecca Walker is a rare writer—an author who displays such honesty and courage in her work, as shown in the New York Times bestseller Black, White and Jewish which documented her lonely and complex adolescence, and more recently with her memoir Baby Love which gives us a peek into her journey of becoming a mother. We got the chance to chat with Rebecca about losing herself in motherhood, reconciling her relationship with her own mother, and how you know you’re ready to have a baby.
In your memoir you say,
“But there was something else, too, a question common—if not always conscious—to women of my generation, women raised to view motherhood with more than a little suspicion. Can I survive having a baby? Will I lose myself—my body, my mind, my options—and be left trapped, resentful, and irretrievably overwhelmed?”
Do you feel that you have lost yourself within motherhood?
Oh but this an essential but impossible question!I have lost and also found myself within motherhood. I have lost—or should I say, I have temporarily suspended—a kind of willful freedom.
I find I cannot ever let go completely the way I once did; Tenzin is always on my mind. I need to know where he is, that he is safe.
I need to know he is psychologically stable. I need to know that he has eaten enough food, is being treated fairly, is developing appropriately, is becoming more and more competent each day. I need to know his character is on track for goodness. That he never loses his compassionate nature. Though I am far from being a helicopter mom, I consider each decision that will effect his life carefully—food and friendship, education and spirituality, fashion and social consciousness, and so much more.
This all takes a tremendous amount of energy and so in that regard, the amount I have in this life for everything else—myself, my work, my relationships, my need to roam without a tether, is greatly diminished. And yet, motherhood has been a massive rite of maturation: I truly understand it is not all about me, my ego, my needs. And so as a human being I think I am larger, with a real sense of being connected to all the mothers, and all the children of the world. Does that sound saccharine and easy? Perhaps, but it is true.
Motherhood has taught me how to love unconditionally, and in many ways it has taught me how to love—to put the needs of someone else before my own.
I also now understand the fascination (and deep satisfaction) of observing the persistence, the determination, of genes. I am enjoying the undeniable archetypal power of having a role—or series of roles–in an unfolding, multigenerational story. And I am amazed, too, by how much I know, literally how much information I hold, that seems specifically for him. I think—where would the fruits of all of this living go, if not to him? What is it for, except to pass on, and how else than through the intimate channel between mother and child?
You write about how you were freaked out and anxious about becoming a mother—even though you were excited and really wanted to have a child. I think a lot of women feel this way at first. What would your advice be to the woman who is newly pregnant and trying to wrap her head around all of it?
Don’t worry! Really. I worried way too much. You know more than you think you do, I promise. First of all, you don’t need very much. You don’t need the expensive stroller or the seductive, beautifully designed toys that promise to boost your two year old’s IQ.
Your child will only want you in the first years, they won’t notice all the rest. They are absorbing more than judging, and what they need to absorb most of all is YOU, your tenderness and devotion, your responsiveness and enthusiasm, your unique passions and gifts.
The culture puts so much pressure on mothers, I think best to ignore most of that. Take your vitamins, play music, find cute clothes that make you feel good, go swimming if you can, make love a lot, laugh as much as possible.
Pregnancy can be wonderful if you relax into it. Powerful. There is nothing else like it—and I say this as someone who gives birth to books and might say something about the similarities. But no. Believe it: there is nothing like being pregnant with a child. Cherish the moment. You’ve gotten on the ride, all that’s left is to experience it fully. It will be over in a blink.
Oh! And have the epidural on hand, even if you are absolutely opposed, or don’t think you will need it. TRUST ME ON THIS.
At some point, I think every childless woman feels the clock ticking—whether she’s sure she wants kids, sure she doesn’t want kids, or is somewhere in the middle. What’s the one most important question you think this woman needs to ask herself to see if she is ready to take the leap into motherhood?
Do you have enough energy, and I mean that in the broadest way—psychic, emotional, physical, intellectual—to give a substantial amount of your reserves to another human being? And if you do, do you want to give that energy away, or do you need it for your own growth, your own process of becoming the person you want to be, your own work you need to do in order to feel successful in this life.
After having my son and truly understanding what motherhood is, I feel strongly that if you have doubts about becoming a mother, real doubts that are organic to you and don’t come from others, tread carefully.
Motherhood is a game of stamina and endurance. Your desire to become a mother is the fuel, the energy, the food, that gets you to the finish line. Without it, I worry about the outcome.
Are you currently still estranged from your mother? In what ways has this impacted your relationship with your son? In what ways has your relationship with your mother and the way you were raised, impact the way you are raising your son?
I am no longer estranged from my mother, and this is a tremendous relief. We have missed each other, and I am exceedingly happy that her relationship with her grandson is deepening every day.
They need each other in ways I cannot fully understand, but profoundly respect. Perhaps we are each born with seeds that cannot take root unless recognized and tended by someone who knows them intimately, in a place beyond words, and denying the primacy of this bond does not serve any of us.
In terms of parenting styles, I am probably a little more hands on than my parents—but this could also just be a sign of the times. I suppose I worry more than they did, and keep my son a little closer to me. And even though he tires of my questions, I ask about his feelings a lot.
I want to stay involved, connected with what is really going on for him, even when it involves anger or resentment toward me. I expect him to come to me with problems and issues, and I take on the responsibility of working them through as best I can until they are resolved.
This means I am always cultivating this kind of relationship, this trust. I can’t say this is all good, though. Sometimes I can be too involved and this carries with it the potential to infantilize, and rob him of his own experience. I try to find the balance, and hope to get it right fifty one percent of the time.
Your mother, Alice Walker, is the acclaimed author of The Color Purple for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Has your mother influenced your career as a writer? Do you look up to her professionally—as an author?
This is a straightforward question that could have a long answer, but the true, basic, simple answer is yes and yes. I am very fortunate.
I am a writer by nature and nurture.
My father is also part of this equation. He is a lawyer by profession, but a tremendous writer of plays, and even his legal briefs are elegant and artful. Both of my parents have influenced me. I admire them both. I am grateful for both.
How did you get the courage to write such an open and honest memoir? Are you happy you did?
Another good question with a complicated answer I will attempt to distill.
I feel deeply connected to Baby Love, even though I think it is the least known of my work. The book captures my pregnancy and all its attendant issues, fears, hopes, and dreams accurately.
What helped with Baby Love, if we are speaking of courage, also helped with Black, White and Jewish: I knew, I can’t say how, that many women would benefit from the book, that many women were looking for it or something like it. I was propelled by that sense of purpose and connectedness. I was…encouraged.
Am I happy I wrote the book? Well. I felt I had to write it in order to be true to myself and my process. But also, and I imagine many writers have this, I have in my mind the sense of a queue of books to be written, and am certain that if I do not write the one at the head of the line, it will hold up all the rest.
So I can say definitively that I am happy I did not let fear get the better of me and jam the queue. But really who knows what to say about all of it? How to judge? I think best to keep moving. There are other books in line, and time is running fast...