Ms. Walker was saddened by what she called her mother’s lack of enthusiasm to the news that she was pregnant.
Evolution of a Feminist Daughter
REBECCA WALKER — the daughter of Alice Walker, the author of “The Color Purple,” and Mel Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer — was a nascent feminist when she laid bare the details of her freewheeling, lonely adolescence in her 2001 book, “Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self.”
The memoir, like the 20-something Ms. Walker, was impassioned, poetic and occasionally messy. But it hit a nerve with many critics who considered it a poignant meditation on race and sex.
It also chronicled the author’s efforts to cope with being hot-potatoed from city to city in the wake of her parents’ divorce and what she perceived to be her mother’s ambivalence about her existence.
Left to her own devices by parents she thought were preoccupied with their careers, Rebecca Walker experimented with drugs, had sexual encounters with men and women, and had an abortion at 14.
But by the time she was an adult, she was writing about intergenerational feminism (her godmother is Gloria Steinem), and had helped found the Third Wave Foundation, a philanthropic group for women ages 15 to 30, becoming a symbol for young women who may not have considered themselves feminists.
Symbol though she was, Ms. Walker also cultivated a private life, and in her 20s was in a serious relationship with another woman.
Today, however, Ms. Walker, 37, has become what she called a new Rebecca, one who has a male partner, a child and some revised theories about the ties that bind, which she explores in a new book, “Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence” (Riverhead), to be released on Thursday. A review appears in The Times Book Review today.
Its inspiration? Her son, Tenzin, 2, who is named after the Dalai Lama. (Ms. Walker’s father voted for Chaim and lost.)
Ms. Walker and her partner, a Buddhist teacher named Glen (whose last name does not appear in the book), have been living in Maui, where Tenzin plays amid the lush landscape and is pushed about in a Maclaren stroller.
“I feel like I have arrived in myself to where I want to be and who I want to be,” Ms. Walker said in a telephone interview.
Motherhood, she writes in “Baby Love,” is “the first club I’ve unequivocally belonged to.”
The book explores the usual pregnancy topics like food intake, genetic counseling and the doctor-versus-midwife debate, and reveals that Ms. Walker is now estranged from her famous mother.
But it is also unusual in that it is a pregnancy book with a message for women who are not yet pregnant, amplifying a theme Ms. Walker sounds on the undergraduate lecture circuit.
“I keep telling these women in college, ‘You need to plan having a baby like you plan your career if it’s something that you want,’ ” she said. “Because we haven’t been told that, this generation. And they’re shocked when I say that. I’m supposed to be like this feminist telling them, ‘Go achieve, go achieve.’ And I’m sitting there saying, ‘For me, having a baby has been the most transformational experience of my life.’ ”
And so Ms. Walker has become the latest to lend her voice to the long-running debate of work versus motherhood, a trade-off that to younger women probably no longer seems as stark as it did to Ms. Walker.
Jennifer Baumgardner, 36, an author of “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future,” who also lectures on the college circuit, said that students today do see having children as important. If they are shocked at hearing Ms. Walker talk about the epiphanies of motherhood, it may be because of her image as something of a radical feminist.
“Rebecca Walker is extremely significant for younger feminists,” Ms. Baumgardner said. “She’s definitely a superstar to them, and to me.”
Ms. Walker said she is not suggesting that all women have children, only that those who feel the urge should not ignore it because they fear career derailment or because they had difficult childhoods.
“Mine is the first generation of women to grow up thinking of children as optional,” Ms. Walker writes in the new book. “We learned that children were not to be pursued at the expense of anything else. A graduate degree in economics, for example, or a life of renunciation, devoted to a Hindu mystic.”
Children, she writes, “smelled of betrayal and a lack of appreciation for the progress made on behalf of women’s liberation.”
But Tenzin has since erased her doubts.
The most incendiary notion in “Baby Love” may be that, for Ms. Walker, being a stepparent or adoptive parent involves a lesser kind of love than the love for a biological child.
In an interview, Ms. Walker boiled the difference down to knowing for certain that she would die for her biological child, but feeling “not sure I would do that for my nonbiological child.”
“I mean, it’s an awful thing to say,” said Ms. Walker, who in a previous relationship helped rear a female partner’s biological son, now 14. “The good thing is he has a biological mom who would die for him.”
Ms. Walker acknowledged that her idea of blood being thicker than water runs contrary to her own philosophy in “Black, White and Jewish,” in which she writes that “all blood is basically the same.”
In a 2001 Curve magazine article she said, “the bonds you create are just as important and just as powerful as the bonds that you are born into.”
When asked about this incongruity, she explained: “To grapple with how my parents raised me I had to come up with a philosophy that could sustain me. Having my own child gave me the opportunity to have a completely different experience. So hence a different view.”
That she is altering a belief or two is something that Ms. Baumgardner said is part of Ms. Walker’s contribution to the Third Wave sensibility, not a betrayal of it.
“She reserves the right to evolve, and that’s a good model for us,” Ms. Baumgardner said.
Ms. Walker’s own evolution, from wounded daughter to earth mother, was perhaps particularly significant because “she was raised in a more radical zone,” Ms. Baumgardner said.
There is a tradition of feminist writing about pregnancy and motherhood, but not everyone had such a complex mother-daughter dynamic to process.
Alice Walker “gave to the world this incredible thing,” Ms. Baumgardner said. “But what you want from your parents is parenting.”
Attempts to reach Alice Walker through her literary agent and her daughter this week were unsuccessful.
Ms. Walker and her mother have a complicated love, according to Rebecca. In high school, Rebecca legally changed her last name from Leventhal to Walker because, as she put it in “Black, White and Jewish,” she wanted to link herself to her mother “tangibly and forever” and to associate herself with blackness because she does not feel “an affinity with whiteness, with what Jewishness has become.” (That last sentiment, which is echoed in other parts of the memoir, led several publications to criticize it for reinforcing stereotypes.)
The Walker estrangement was decades in the making. Most recently, Ms. Walker was saddened by what she called her mother’s lack of enthusiasm to the news that she was pregnant.
During that time they exchanged e-mail messages, with Rebecca demanding an apology for years of hurt, and her mother responding that she had apologized plenty, Rebecca writes in the book. A cousin later tells Ms. Walker that she has been cut out of her mother’s will.
But what if Tenzin wants to meet his grandmother — the writer, the social activist, the matriarch who helped to shape his own mother?
“Yeah,” Ms. Walker said gently. “Sure. I mean there’s only so much I can do. I can explain the situation and help him understand. But I’ve always been and I always will be open to reconciliation with my mother, you know? I love my mother.”