In last week’s Sunday New York Times, the “Sunday Styles” section included two articles that caught my interest (beyond the wedding and engagement announcements which I for some reason have to read first every week). The first article was about an “Easter Dress” sold at the St. Louis Woman’s Exchange for the past fifty years. If we have any more children, they won’t ever dress for Easter, but they might very well wear this dress on another occasion. Especially if we have another son, I want the boys’ version.
The second article, “Evolution of a Feminist Daughter,” was not nearly as fun. Rebecca Walker, the daughter of Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal, has written another book to follow-up on Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, titled Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence. She writes in the book that motherhood is “the first club I’ve unequivocally belonged to.” That’s fine. I wish my own membership hadn’t been revoked. But then she goes on to state in an interview,
You need to plan having a baby like you plan your career….Because we haven’t been told that….I’m supposed to be…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.’
Walker has an ambivalent relationship with her own mother – the two are currently estranged. I have benefited from Second Wave Feminism’s emphasis on career and self-fulfillment, but I was not the daughter of two famous public intellectuals. Nor did my mom drag me around the country, resenting me and privileging her own ambitions above my happiness and security. I know perfectly well that my parents sacrificed some of their ambition for us, but I haven’t been plagued by their regret.
Even still, my entire life I have also heard on television that I can have it all – but I didn’t hear it as more than the silly slogan that it is. I’ve never felt it would be easy, or wouldn’t take planning. In fact, I think the emphasis on planning is unfair because it exaggerates our responsibility and ability to influence the future given the current state of medicine, especially obstetrics/gynecology.
If we aren’t told that we have to plan for having a baby, why would searches for “pregnancy” and “motherhood” bring up over 146,000 books on Amazon.com? If you search motherhood, the first book to come up (as of today) will be The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It. Walker is spouting tropes. Watch one day of the View or a few sitcoms and you’ll realize that we are constantly being told about the difficult but life-changing wonders of parenthood. In fact, a few weeks ago while watching the View at the gym, I learned that I won’t be a “real woman” UNTIL I’ve stayed up nights with my sick baby (I didn’t get the feeling that babysitting or sitting with nieces and nephews counts).
It has never been okay for women to forego motherhood. While childlessness no longer makes us automatic suspects of witchery, we have not gone so far as to encourage it. Have you seen the commercials for Dead Silence? The trailer includes these lines from a poem: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw; she had no children, only dolls. And if you see her, do not scream, or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.” Women who don’t have children are not an admired demographic.
If I hadn’t known I was supposed to plan for motherhood, I wouldn’t have gone on prenatal vitamins and folic acid 4 months before trying to become pregnant. I wouldn’t have given up alcohol, coffee, soft cheeses and sprouts. Or purchased an armoire, crib, travel crib, “aquarium series” swing, and so on. I don’t regret being conscientious of course, but I wish I had been more prepared for the reality that the most careful planning promises nothing. I am exceptional, I realize, because of my background, education, privilege and medical insurance but Rebecca Walker’s primary audience is the female undergraduate. She is talking to younger versions of me – young women who should get the knowledge they need about pregnancy without this bombardment of information from others about what it does/should mean for them to become a mother. Information that is somehow commercially shallow and reductive.