FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
During the 1960s and '70s, some feminists thought that playing the traditional role of mother and homemaker would hold them back. But generations of women since then have debated how to balance the roles inside and outside of the home. One of those is author, lecturer and mother Rebecca Walker. She also happens to be Alice Walker's daughter. And she's written about being a modern day mama in her book "Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence." Rebecca, welcome back to the show.
Ms. REBECCA WALKER (Author, "Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence"): Thanks so much Farai, it's great to be here.
CHIDEYA: Take us a little bit into some of those decisions that you had to make before your son was born. I mean, what brought you to the brink of motherhood, I guess?
Ms. WALKER: You know, I call the book "Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence" because I was ambivalent. Not only because I was a daughter of feminism, but because I was a daughter of divorce and I wasn't sure that I could create a stable family for a child. The state of the world's pretty horrendous, I wasn't sure I could, in good conscience, bring another human being into the situation. And I had had such a turbulent relationship with my own mother, that I felt a lot of trepidation about carrying forth a lot of those negative habits and dynamics.
And so, really I had to resolve a lot of that stuff through psychological work, through spiritual work, through really tough decisions about taking care of myself. I had to, instead of pursuing unsuitable partners who were not really interested in having a child, I had to decide that I needed to be with someone who was a suitable partner, who did say to me of course you want to have a child, and let's do it. And I want to do it with you, and I want to do it for you and I want to do it by you and to trust that he would actually show up. And it wasn't easy.
And I ended up throughout my pregnancy resolving more and more of the issues, sort of day by day. And the book is structured as a day-by-day diary. It starts on the first day I find out I'm pregnant, and it ends on the day, pretty much, the day I bring my son home from the ICU, where he was for a few weeks because of complications. And then it's bisected with nine different chapters about sort of the macro issues of pregnancy and generational struggles, and having had an abortion at 14 and what does that mean in relation to being pregnant and falling in love with the rock star girlfriend and trying to get pregnant in all these non-traditional ways and realizing that was not the answer.
And having a struggle with my mother over various and sundry, and having to really come to the conclusion that being around her was not healthy for me anymore and wouldn't be healthy for my unborn child. And one of the reasons I wrote the book is to document those changes and the things I was experiencing. And then also to try to encourage women to use the nine months to work through a lot of psychological stuff that needs to be resolved before you can become a healthy parent.
CHIDEYA: You mention your mother a couple of times. And recently a newspaper in the U.K. called The Daily Mail ran a piece called "How My Mother's Fanatical Views Tore Us Apart." Now, you're listed as the author, but it wasn't quite a traditional writing assignment, was it?
Ms. WALKER: No. And I wish it had been, because it would have paid a lot better. But no, they definitely pushed the envelope on the piece. But, you know, I said I would say 95 percent of what's actually in the actual piece. So I stand behind, you know, most of it. I wish it hadn't been as sensationalized as the title suggests. But the sentiments and the feelings were very true and real.
CHIDEYA: One line in the piece is, "The truth is that I very nearly missed out on becoming a mother thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman."
Ms. WALKER: Oh my. Did I say that?
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CHIDEYA: That's what they say you said. Let's pull out a couple of phrases. One is the worst thing that could happen to a woman. Do you think your mother really transmitted that message, that motherhood was kind of a curse?
Ms. WALKER: Well, I think she was extremely ambivalent about motherhood, as were her cohorts. That whole generation. She wrote a well-known essay called "One Child of One's Own" in which she talked about how you should really only have one child, because if you had more than one child you would be enslaved to your children, and you wouldn't be able to be creative, and you wouldn't be able to be free, and you would lose your independence and your peace of mind. And that really to me reflected a great deal of ambivalence.
She also had a poem that I discovered when I was, I don't know, in my early 20s or late teens. And it was a poem that she wrote about different writers and the calamities that they were able to overcome in order to be creative. So you know, Virginia Woolf had madness, and the Brontes had something else. And you know all these horrible things that poets had to get through.
And then she said and I have Rebecca, you know? Sort of the idea is I was delightful, and she said I was delightful, but in the context you could see I was a calamity nonetheless. I mean I think there was a real ambivalence about the role of children in lives of independent, thinking women. And what was transmitted to me was not that being a mom was the worst possible choice, but that it could definitely be a serious hindrance. And that there were other things worth pursuing more.
CHIDEYA: That's just a portion of my conversation with writer Rebecca Walker. We talked about the strained relationship she has with her mother, the legendary writer Alice Walker. And we turn now to Phyllis Chesler. She is a well-known psychologist and feminist writer. Phyllis recently published her own essay in the online magazine Salon. It covered Rebecca Walker's article and the tensions between second-wave feminists, whose organizers include Gloria Steinem and third-wave Generation X feminists. Phyllis, great to have you on.
Dr. PHYLLIS CHESLER (Psychologist, Author): It's my pleasure to be with you. You know, one thing I was thinking about is that it's not so much second versus third-wave feminists. What it is, is an ongoing mother-daughter relationship that each generation wrestles with. And often the most important aspects are not acknowledged. Such as envy, competition, desire to sabotage, the so-called other side of the good fairy godmother, the evil stepmother.
And it's really important but very sad as women. And I think Rebecca did a very brave thing in saying all right, this is a toxic relationship, it doesn't work for me now, or for my child. And I will pull away from it. But it's so sad, it's so tragic. And I'm sure that Alice has her side of this story, there's always the other side.
CHIDEYA: And we did try to reach her, but, you know, we understand she was not able to make herself available.
Dr. CHESLER: Well, you know, this is something, one of the things that I gently said in my Salon piece, is I wish that they could be gentled into working this out privately. Part of the problem is that both of them are writers, and their blood flows on the page, if they're any good. And they therefore are going to be writing about each other. But because Alice is so much a celebrity and very much cherished, it is some - an element of pain and voyeurism and opportunism that attaches to Rebecca's otherwise rather brave and important truth-telling.
CHIDEYA: Tell me how that idea of on the one hand, you know, struggling for independence and on the other hand maybe the comfort, the slight comfort there is in unconsciousness might play out between a mother and daughter?
Ms. CHESLER: Well, we all want to have very good mothers. And if we have murderous mothers and envious mothers, we're going to blame ourselves, because it's too frightening to think that we're not in charge of our maternal affection line. So we remain unconscious about what threatens us and terrifies us. So too, mothers are not going to happily admit that a daughter, like Electra of, you know, Greek tragedy, that a daughter really prefers daddy and that nothing a mother can do is right, that the standards for a good-enough mother are ever so much higher than that for a good-enough father.
And so mothers feel abandoned and heart-broken and daughters feel that indeed mothers are betraying them by. And Rebecca brings an example, not valuing motherhood, thereby rejecting the child herself. And also positioning the child not to become a mother, cutting off any future progeny of that child. And there were many second-wave feminists, myself included, who wrote very seriously about motherhood, who viewed it as a sacred choice. Who became mothers, perhaps not always at very young ages.
On the other hand Rebecca has an absolute point, and in the Salon piece I grant it to her fully. The most lionized, iconic, glamorous, sexually radical figures of the second wave were single women or symbolized not choosing motherhood as indeed a form of degraded, unpaid work, and or as Rebecca has it, as a form of even slavery.
And there was an ambivalence about motherhood, a fear of biological motherhood, which perhaps was understandable given how earlier generations of women were absolutely trapped into motherhood and multiplying as the only thing that a woman is fit to do. And I think that Rebecca is crying out to be paid attention to. The mothers to say I'm sorry that I hurt you, I didn't realize, I was bad, you're wonderful, I love you, you know, let's be close. That's what a daughter wants to hear.
CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, Phyllis, thank you.
Dr. CHESLER: Thank you very much.
CHIDEYA: Phyllis Chesler is the author of several books on women's issues, including the landmark "Women and Madness." You can hear my interview with Rebecca Walker in its entirety. Just go to our website nprnewsandnotes.org. And here's a quick hit of what you'll hear.
Ms. WALKER: You have to make compromises in order to maintain a stable partnership with someone. And that is something that I think my mother has been unable to do, because of a need to serve her muse only.
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CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.