Motherhood as battleground: Alice and Rebecca Walker

This story appeared yesterday on my friend Patrick O’Hannigan’s blog, The Paragraph Farmer, but my friend Martha Brozyna, medieval historian and author of a recently published book on stock trading, had already sent me the link to the Daily Mail article.

In it, 38-year-old Rebecca Walker blames her famous mother, author Alice Walker, for very nearly depriving Rebecca of the joys of motherhood. “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,” says Rebecca Walker. “You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women.” She believed what she was taught, and did not have a child until her thirties. “My only regret is that I discovered the joys of motherhood so late – I have been trying for a second child for two years, but so far with no luck.”

Rebecca Walker claims that she and her mother have not spoken since Rebecca became pregnant, and that Alice Walker has never seen her only grandchild. “My crime?” Rebecca askes rhetorically. “Daring to question her ideology.” I suspect there is more to the story. Even if Alice Walker was disappointed that her daughter chose motherhood, it is difficult to believe that she cut off all ties with her daughter for that reason alone. It’s possible, of course, but there is a great deal of bitterness between mother and daughter, and we only have the daughter’s side of the story, told in more detail in Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence, published last year but recently released in paperback. I have not yet read it, but the word “narcissism” crops up frequently in the reviews.

Whatever the real details of the Walkers’ mother-daughter relationship may be, it’s clear enough that Rebecca felt discouraged from becoming a mother in large part because of her own mother’s teaching. “It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.”

This is something to which I can relate very well myself. While neither my mother nor my mother-in-law were active members of the feminist movement, neither of them were particularly eager for my husband and me to have children. Both of them emphasized how difficult children were, how they tied you down, how your life would never be your own again. My mother was married, had two children, and was divorced all well before she was thirty. When other pretty young women were out having fun in the hedonistic early 1970s, she was an exhausted single mother, working all day and coming home every evening to two children and no help from a husband. Small wonder that she saw motherhood as more burdensome than joyous. My mother-in-law had a husband with a successful business, but seemed to have a natural immunity to baby fever. She had her first child because her husband wanted one, and her second because contraceptives weren’t as reliable then as now. She was a kind and conscientious mother, but she hired nannies and went right back to work because she enjoyed being out among people.

Once we finally did have our first child (late in life, like Rebecca Walker), my husband was struck by how little the “ball and chain” scenario of parenthood that he’d been given corresponded to the way he actually felt about being a father. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it diminished one’s independence. But because people had always emphasized the negative aspects, he was not fully prepared for just how wonderful the positive aspects would be. I had wanted a child desperately already, but once we finally were parents, my husband became even more enthusiastic than I about having more children. We were lucky, and are expecting our fourth in July.

I wish Rebecca Walker equally good fortune.

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  1. From Moralia - Essentialism on 12 Jun 2008 at 12:31 pm

    […] don’t think I am devoted to my children because I was socialized to be so. As I explained in a previous post, my mother actively discouraged me from a maternal vocation, and the culture in which I grew up was […]

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