Married, Bisexual With Kids: 'One Big Happy Family'

What does a family look like? If you think it's all about a mother and father, two point five kids living in a home with a white picket fence, think again. Host Michel Martin speaks with author Rebecca Walker about her book "One Big Happy Family," in which she explores the revolution in the American family.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment, well remember the life of a groundbreaking woman of words: Lucille Clifton, poet laureate of Maryland. She died over the weekend.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today though, we want to talk about family. Now, when I use that word, what comes to mind? For many people, that means, you know, wife, husband, kids, picket fence, lets not forget the dog. But what if family means a same-sex partner, and a husband, an incarcerated spouse? What if it means a sperm donor who is also a best friend or a best friend to whom one is married solely for the sake of his immigration status.

All of these variations on theme are explored in a new anthology by author and social commentator Rebecca Walker. Its called, One Big Happy Family. The book features 18 writers tackling the expanding variations of the American family. And Rebecca Walker joins us now from Philadelphia, where we were happy to catch up with her. She's at a speaking engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. REBECCA WALKER (Social Commentator; Author, One Big Happy Family): Its always a pleasure to be with you, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Ms. WALKER: All my books come out, generally, of experiences Im going through. And I found when I was pregnant with my son that I was partnered with a man 15 years older, I had a step-son from a previous relationship with a woman. My new partner had a daughter who was a little bit older than me. I mean, it was so dynamic. And I realized that I didnt quite know how to negotiate the family structure and that there were no models, there was no Dr. Spock to explain how to deal with the psychological resonance of this kind of complexity. And as I began to talk to friends and colleagues, I started to realize that there were many of us living these new family configurations and that we needed more vehicles to help us create a normalized discourse around our family life.

MARTIN: Well, you wrote

Ms. WALKER: So, I started, you know, commissioning essays, which I want to do as my third collection. And I - you know, families that were making different decisions and that seemed healthy and happy when I met them and talked to them, I said, you know, write me an essay. Tell me, how you are doing that.

MARTIN: You wrote in your forward that you used to watch The Brady Bunch with longing. Youve written in previous books about the way you grew up, of course, you the daughter of the very well-know novelist, Alice Walker, and her then-husband Mel Leventhal. Youve written about being black, white, and Jewish. But you also in those previous books, those seemed to be more reporting. This one does seem to have a flavor of advocacy around it in the sense that - it seems like youre trying to persuade people of something. Do I have that right, and what youre trying to persuade them about?

Ms. WALKER: I feel that this book is an act of advocacy. I really want to support the families that are making different decisions and finding new ways to love each other, and - because theyre not getting very much support. For the most part, quote unquote, nontraditional families" are thought of as, you know, in the margins. They are still not completely accepted. So, I definitely want to shift our notion of what a family looks like away from exactly what you mentioned, the wife and husband and picket fence and 2.5 kids - because its not real.

MARTIN: So, I hear you, that your quest is in part to normalize what already is, to make people sort of see that a lot of the relationships that people already have are normal. But some people would argue that they're not, that they are not particularly beneficial for kids, for example, that some other relationships that people enter into they may have the right to do it, but its not necessarily ideal. What do you say of that?

Ms. WALKER: Well, I say that, you know, what's going on in your house, you know, it's very easy to judge from the outside. But honestly many people stay together out of some sense of doing what's best for the kids. And ultimately, you know, they're fighting constantly or having relationships outside of the marriage, which destroy the fiber of the stability of the home. And is that healthy for kids? I don't think so.

So there are ways in which people make these judgments. But they don't they don't really know what the the real inner-dynamics of the relationships are? So, I think it's, you know, for some of these families we'll see what the kids say when they're 30, 35 years old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALKER: These writers, they all seemed to recognize that families are not necessarily based on pleasure. There's not a hedonism there. It's about long-term survivability.

MARTIN: You start the book with what I think many people will consider a very provocative essay by Jenny Block. It's called "And Then We Were Poly." Tell us about it.

Ms. WALKER: Yeah, well Jenny Jenny's piece is about her relationship. You know, she is married, I think, 10 years to a man, a very satisfying stable relationship. And at the same time she felt that her sexual needs weren't being met and she started to have sexual relationships outside of her marriage, and ultimately realized that she wanted to have the deep trust and honesty in the marriage and not give up the other sexual experiences, which led to her opening up - her and her husband opening the marriage.

And now today she has just fallen in love with a woman. And the woman is now part of their family. So, they're a triad, which what's called in the polyamorous community. And Jenny, in her piece, walks the reader through the different steps that she took: talking to her husband, being extremely honest about her feelings, listening to his feelings, introducing him to these ideas very slowly at each step making sure that he was okay with it, setting really clear boundaries. You know, did he also want to see people outside of the marriage? He did not. How are they going to tell their child? You know, all these

MARTIN: Hmm.

Ms. WALKER: different things. So, I think it's kind of a more model, an abundance model, a sense of openness and more love, managed responsibly really does equal more love.

MARTIN: I just want to mention for people that the book describes a lot lots of different kinds of family relations. Another is Suzanne Kamata's piece. It's called

Ms. WALKER: Hmm.

MARTIN: "Foreign Relations." Tell us about that.

Ms. WALKER: That's a great piece about an American an European-American woman who maries a Japanese man, moves to Japan to be with him, ends up having two children, one of whom is born with several different issues going on. And within the traditional Japanese culture, children who are differently-abled or disabled are thought of as very shameful. They bring shame on the family and really should barely be taken outside.

And she has to negotiate her Western view of and her maternal view of loving this child with her mother-in-law's view - very hardcore traditional Japanese mother-in-law who fights with her about the acceptability of this child. And it's a piece about negotiating cultural differences and living in a foreign environment and how the commitments to love, these people that we've chosen to love can propel us to both stay in difficult circumstances and at the same time transform them for the good of all involved.

So, by the end of that piece she has gone from wanting a divorce to understanding that her mother-in-law is always going to have some of these beliefs. But she sees her daughter and her mother-in-law forming a bond, transcendent of this cultural belief system.

MARTIN: Many of these stories are very personal. People you really have a sense that they put a lot on the table in choosing to

Ms. WALKER: Hmm.

MARTIN: publish these pieces. Was there anything that anyone subsequently regretted?

Ms. WALKER: Hmm. That's an interesting question. There was one piece that we had to cut for legal reasons that I still feel should be in the book and the book will always feel incomplete without it. And that's a really beautifully written essay by a writer. But her piece was about being physically abused by her father and deciding when she got married to cut herself completely away from her father and mother and start her own family. We couldn't print it because it would implicate the father in certain ways that might have caused us some legal

MARTIN: Hmm.

Ms. WALKER: problems. But other than that everyone has been very proud to be a part of the book.

MARTIN: Is there a story in the book that really just kind of shook you by your socks? Given how much you already have thought about family and the ways that families can form yourself, is there anything that just kind of made you go, wow, I don't know, hadn't thought about that?

Ms. WALKER: All of them really resonate with me. Let's see. I love Susan McKinney de Ortega's piece. She writes about moving to Mexico and falling in love. She's a white American woman, again, falling in love with a young Mexican man, I think 15 years younger than she was, and moving to Mexico and having kids.

And when they found love she lived in his parents' house and they shared a bedroom with his sisters. And, you know, it's a very poor family and she had coming from affluence. And again, that piece is about transcending not just cultural divides but class. And I think that's something that we need to talk a lot more about: how to negotiate the different expectations that our various socioeconomic backgrounds put upon us.

MARTIN: Her piece is called "Two Red Lines." Where does the title come from?

Ms. WALKER: "Two Red Lines" is her pregnancy test. I think she really decided she was going to stay in Mexico with her to-be-husband when she realized that she was pregnant with their first child.

MARTIN: It is an interesting - the opening paragraphs are very interesting too because she talks about at the wedding just how many people were openly betting that they wouldn't make it that they wouldn't last a year.

Ms. WALKER: Right.

MARTIN: They're sitting there eating her mother-in-law's, you know, chicken and mole, but they're sitting there saying well, I don't think they will make it six months. No, I think it will be a year. But at the point that this piece was published they had been together for 12 years.

Ms. WALKER: Yeah. And they're still together.

MARTIN: They're still together and have children and are kind of doing their thing. Is there

Ms. WALKER: They're totally their doing.

MARTIN: Totally doing their thing.

Ms. WALKER: He is now getting a degree in psychology

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALKER: And they have been building their house, you know. Their - his father's a construction person and they I mean, you know, they're doing it and they seem happy, so.

MARTIN: Is there a piece that you found yourself arguing with?

Ms. WALKER: I think that the one piece that gave me pause is Liza Monroy's piece about marrying her gay best friend, a Lebanese friend, so that he could get a green card and stay in this country. Because if he had gone back to his country, as he was supposed to, he would have been brutalized for his sexuality. I really understand the decision and I support it. And I'm glad she made it. And I think it was the right decision. I think breaking the law is a sticking point for me. I believe in law.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALKER: I mean, I think we need to change laws in order to make them more humane. But until they're changed, I think it's important to follow the law. So, that I had a couple of moments with that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALKER: But overall, no. The rest of the pieces I had not one moment. Well, wait that's not true. Antonio's piece - the piece about the sperm donor - this guy helped his good friend become pregnant and didn't really want anything to do with the child. And I kept saying, well, how is that possible that you don't want anything to do with the child? I just kept pushing him on it. And he said, why does everyone push me on this? I wanted to give her this baby. I don't really feel like I want to be connected to him. That's just how I feel. And I thought well, you must be emotionally really shut down or there's got to be something wrong with you. And - but the more I talked to him, it's just not where he was coming from.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Ms. WALKER: So, that was hard. And then to hear that his mother is very close to the child, and he's not, was surprising.

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting. The piece is called "Daddy Donoring." And I don't - maybe it's surprising because it explains something about about something else that's painful, which is how can fathers walk away from their children.

Ms. WALKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Maybe that's why

Ms. WALKER: But he doesn't think of it

MARTIN: He doesn't think himself as a father. He thinks of himself

Ms. WALKER: Right.

MARTIN: as a sperm donor.

Ms. WALKER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Because he is not father.

Ms. WALKER: Exactly. I mean, and, you know, he says, you know, my the child has two wonderful mothers. And he's very well loved. And, you know, he said that if he ever needs him, he'll do whatever he can to help, you know, so he's not walking away. And actually, the woman who had the baby didn't really want him to be super involved.

But as a mother, you know, and especially as a new mother when I did the book, I was feeling so connected to my son and I still do. I just couldn't imagine not wanting that primal connection.

MARTIN: Sure. No, I can understand that. So, finally how

Ms. WALKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you think - is there anyway in which collecting and editing these stories affected your own sense of family?

Ms. WALKER: I think that looking at these families deep into my sense of compassion for my own family, that I got a deeper understanding of how difficult it must have been for my parents coming from such different places at a time in which there were no books like this saying, yes, it's okay, so many people in this country are trying to do this family thing in a different way.

MARTIN: So what reaction are you getting to the book?

Ms. WALKER: Lots of notes about how, you know, reading other people's stories is helping people to feel more sane in their own family configurations, helping them to fell less, you know, crazy. But I hear that a lot, like, I thought I was crazy but now I see that I'm just part of this, you know, group of people who are doing things differently - not much pushback.

I think the polyamory has been biggest hurdle because even the gay community has resistance, as you mentioned, because there is a sense that the polyamorous community is kind of spoiling it for the gay marriage advocates. Because there's this thinking that if we have gay marriage then the polyamorous people are going to want to be married. And so there has been some pushback on that from communities that I didn't expect, but for the most part, great reaction.

MARTIN: The book is called "One Big Happy Family." It was edited by the author and social commentator and activist Rebecca Walker. She joined us from the studios at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you so much for having me, Michel. It's always a pleasure.

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