Alice Walker has become famous for her writing, especially for The Color Purple, a novel which tells of the difficult early life of a woman of colour. She was married to civil rights lawyer, Mel Leventhal, for ten years and a daughter, Rebecca, was born of that union. Mother and daughter are now estranged.

Rebecca Walker, the daughter, became a mother when she gave birth to her first child, Tenzin, a boy, in December 2004.  She has published a diary of her pregnancy, which is also an account of her attempt to come to terms with the maternal and paternal ambivalence she experienced as a child, an ambivalence which infused her beliefs until she decided to move from a scarcity model of love to a model of love which presupposes love being present in abundance.

Baby Love, the title of the book, grated, until I realised that this short phrase encompasses her own experience as the child of her mother, as well as her experience of having a child of her own. The book is both about being the baby, and having the baby.

Rebecca Walker’s estrangement from her mother begins towards the end of her pregnancy, at the point where she decides that if her mother is unable to apologise for her maternal neglect then she is “too emotionally dangerous to me and my unborn son”. Alice Walker doesn’t say sorry. Instead she writes that she won’t miss what she doesn’t have , that their relationship has been inconsequential for years, that she is no longer interested in the job of being a mother, and she ends her letter with her name, not her role-title, mother.

Despite the absence of the mother, the mother is everywhere in the pregnancy:

“because mothers make us, map our emotional terrain before we even know we are capable of having an emotional terrain, they know just where to stick the dynamite. Decades of subtle undermining can stunt a daughter, or so monopolize her energy that she in effect stunts herself. Muted, fearful, riddled with self-doubt, she can remain trapped in daughterhood forever, the one place she feels confident she knows the rules”.

In Rebecca’s case, the ambivalence of her mother toward childbearing was sufficiently chronicled in her mother’s writing – specifically in a poem and an essay written around the same time, the former of which compares a child to the calamaties that befell other women writers and impeded their writing.

It appears to have been an ambivalence that Alice Walker was unable to resolve, and which fed through to Rebecca’s sense of who she was:

“Ambivalence itself is rarely positive. Ambivalence about one’s offspring is a horrific kind of torture for all involved. It affects me to this day, stealing my certitude at critical moments. I have sat with others and said, Well, of course my mother loves me. But in the very next moment I will purse my lips and squint my eyes and tilt my head back and remember all of the indices of ambivalence, and the thought will arise with an even greater clarity: or maybe she does not.”

What hope then, that a woman afflicted by such ambivalence could master the role of mother herself? The ambivalence described runs deep and has consequences that spread not in ripples, but like a tidal wave, for it is accompanied by a misguided insistence on independence. The feminist, the womanist, cannot allow herself to depend in her maternity on her male partner with the result that she cannot afford to be a mother at all. For being a mother involves spending time with your child, being invested in your child’s welfare, being dependent for your happiness on your child’s happiness, allowing your partner to play a role in the child-rearing, sharing the parental role. Losing the ambivalence involves abandoning self-sufficiency as a goal. Mothers are not meant to be mothers alone, but alongside fathers.

Rebecca experiences “a letting go into inseparability”, a realisation that “I was not autonomous and never would be”, and she reflects on the self-sufficient career women that she sees around her and how they radiate to their menfolk an emasculating lack of need, as if men can be rendered obsolete by having enough money and a few good girl friends. And she reflects how utterly devastating it would be to be told by the person you love that you are not necessary to them:

“Because the fact is that we do need each other, and we are locked into this dance with the whole frickin’ world whether we like it or not. This lack of separateness is awful and terrifying, amazing and exhilarating, and just plain true. It seems to me that men and women both need to come up to speed on this, instead of competing for the prize of who can do without whom, for longer. There is power in partnership…”

And how she has never felt so dependent as during her pregnancy. She knows that she needs “someone who will show up”, but at the same time she needs to be someone who will open up, and she is worried that the inherited ambivalence will mean that she cannot sustain it forever, which is how long she wants the partnership to endure, but she has never felt so motivated to try.

Except, when it comes to it, it doesn’t need any effort. It just happens. Rebecca’s mother told her that she chose to love her, that the decision could have gone either way. Looking at her baby, Rebecca writes “There is no choice in my love for Tensin, and if there were some secret place where I wondered, and there isn’t, I would never tell him about it.”

The ambivalence is gone, and with it the scarcity model that had governed her relationships. A few days before the expected date of birth she muses on these two sides of the coin – scarcity and abundance:

“For my whole life I have operated as through there isn’t enough love to go around, that love is something that must be stockpiled, hoarded, guarded for fear of losing a few precious drops. But lately, maybe because I’ve been contemplating what life would be like if I had, gasp, two or even three children, I have been thinking about how, while there may never be enough time or money, there will always be enough love. What if everyone could let go of the fear and territoriality that comes from trying to control the love supply? What if everyone realised that love is about giving, not getting? What if everyone realised all of these things before it was too late? What if it is true that when you believe in abundance, what you have multiplies magically?”

The move from the scarcity model to abundance is not one Rebecca could have ever made alone. Glen, her Buddhist rock of a partner, is the foundation of the new model, upon which everything else is built.   Or perhaps their faith underpins it all. 

The book is a celebration of unambivalent maternity, but it is equally a celebration of fathers, of how they are essential, and how the success of the two parents is contigent upon their mutual dependence and, ultimately, their love for each other and their lack of ambivalence about what matters most. The baby, not the career.

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[Thanks to C Jones of Malepositive whose comment on this blog a while ago pointed me in the direction of this book.]

Baby Love: Rebecca Walker

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