Excuse the sensationalistic title but it’s been a while since I blogged and I might as well be punchy for a change. I just moved to Oklahoma to start a tenure-track position, and am exploring the new environment, the new culture, and a new house. The move and adjustment have given me very little time. I have dedicated most of my “spare” time to unpacking boxes, caring for a toddler, and completing academic projects.
The whole endeavor – trying to track a 2-year old’s whereabouts as well as work on a book project, while unpacking boxes and categorizing objects into closets and shelves – makes me look somewhat unsympathetically upon Rebecca Walker’s wholesale attack on her mother, Alice Walker. This is not because I am a fanatical feminist. As a Muslim woman, many mainstream feminists may indeed find much wanting in my feminism. And given my religious background, I do not feel the need to parade fanaticism in anything.
But I find Rebecca Walker’s “analysis” to be far more personal than political (piggybacking off of Svend’s analysis); I do not find that her factual evidence is establishes a convincing case (that Alice Walker was a bad, uncaring mother and a hypocrite vis-a-vis her own values and principles. But worse, I find RW’s analysis to be deprived of context and distressingly devoid of awareness of her own background and advantage.
It is not a bad thing for analysis to be personal. “Too personal” is how masculinist, hyper-rational cultures discredit discourse that they disagree with. But RW’s analysis in the “Daily Mail” article smacks of narcissism and lacks reflexiveness. Her subjectivity is frequently presented as sufficient evidence of her mother’s inadequacy. “When I hit my 20s and first felt a longing to be a mother,” she says, “I was totally confused. I could feel my biological clock ticking, but I felt if I listened to it, I would be betraying my mother and all she had taught me.” I know plenty of women in their 30’s who are deafened by the sound of their biological clocks but their circumstances (not their excessive independence) do not permit them to have children. At the same time, we know that plenty of teenagers and women mistake other personal issues for a biological clock’s ticking, hurry off to have babies, and destroy their chances for happy lives by having children too early. RW’s confusion is not adequate evidence that AW’s parenting and her principles corrupted her.
And then, she outgrew her “confusion” before the clock blew up, didn’t she? Is it she alone that takes credit for that? To rephrase an Islamic principle, whatever good in her, comes from herself and whatever bad happens, is from mom. So what’s new. Modern children have learned to blame their parents for every personal and physical flaw they may have, and to accept no responsibility of their own. Thank you, Freud.
As for her facts: AW traveling to Greece for two weeks and leaving a teenage daughter behind appears to me to be extremely careless, but parenting takes many forms. Moreover not all parents see teenagers as dependents. One may argue that this is clueless, careless and even criminal, but it whether it was “just plain selfish” is a matter of opinion.
RW blames AW for shuttling her, two years at a time, from one parent to the other. If she has the leisure to examine other children of divorced parents, she will discover circumstances far more terrible that children must grow up with. And why is it that Alice Walker and not Dad takes all the blame for this situation?
RW blames AW’s ideology for the fact that she started having sex at 13. RW is not the first teenager in the world to start having sex, and parental disapproval or approval or permissiveness do not play the role in the process that parents would like it to. AW believed that RW should have control of her body, and she did not prevent her from having sex. To me, as a believer that chastity gives you control of your body, Alice Walker was wrong. But it is not difficult to understand, in the 1960s (or even today). AW accompanied RW as she sought an abortion, and tried to be supportive, but this is not enough for RW. Well, one asks, does RW wish her mother had waited 2 years or 3 or 4 to give her permission? Which age would have been just right?
RW is devastated when (she breezily mentions) after an interview where she criticizes her parents, her mother calls her to express her anger. What is she supposed to do? “Go on, honey, drag me through the mud as much as you like because after all, I am a feminist and you should have the power to call me names?” One would like to have such lofty spiritual ideals but most parents would probably react to public calumny. RW never stops to consider how AW might feel about her interview, and merely calls her to ask for an “apology.” The narcissism is blinding. AW writes her an extremely hurtful letter, distancing herself from her daughter. Who’s more hurtful and selfish? RW seems to expect more from AW – after all, she’s the mother, right? – but why? And for all this, RW blames AW’s feminism rather than her personal qualities, or perhaps a combination of her flaws and those of her daughter’s.
Parents are human, and universally imperfect. Part of the process of parenting is the haunting realization that one is in charge of a child and one will never be able to care for her and raise her perfectly. I would like to find RW in the moments when she is sleep-deprived, hungry, anxious about the bills, and Tenzin bounds into the room and clambers up on a shelf that SHE left there by mistake, grabs a piece of crystal and tosses it to the floor – just as she is getting ready for bedtime. Moreover, RW may occasionally wonder what Tenzin will say about her writing and her frequent public appearances when he is grown. Parents lose it every now and again. Parents are exhausted at times. Parents struggle with balancing work and family. It is easy to preach universal principles at people: “Prioritize your children over everything,” “A family that prays together stays together,” and so on. How we put them into practice makes them ours. Many parents do an outstanding job. Many parents do an average job. Many parents suck at parenting. And yes, many parents don’t give a hoot about the quality of parenting they offer. Such parents may be feminists and anti-feminists, Republicans and Democrats, pro-choice and anti-choice, and from all religious and racial backgrounds.
RW is angry with AW for raising her with her convictions, i.e. that children are millstones for women, and that women don’t really need men. RW wants to prove that the opposite is true. RW should remember that she has ONE child, not eight, and that she is living in relative prosperity, not struggling to make ends meet in a dead-end hourly wage job at Kroger, and that she does have her partner to share the task of raising Tenzin with her. She seems to imply that most heterosexual women choose to have children without their fathers, and that it’s generally the fault of their rabid feminism and rampant independence that they don’t keep the men. She does not seem to see that there is no imminent civilizational pressure on men to choose between career and fatherhood, nor does she seem to question this.
Because of her agenda, RW doesn’t acknowledge that the painful “millstone” notion may have a kernel of truth to it for many women. It’s not the child’s fault, of course. But the woman who marries a caveman under social pressure, quickly has 6 kids only to be dumped and to struggle to raise them in a sordid inglorious fashion that brings Child & Family Services to her doorstep all too often – may argue that RW doesn’t know what she’s talking about. For RW not to grant these realities is to merely oppose AW’s black with her white, and these extremes are not helpful. We mothers would lay down our lives multiple times for our children: to acknowledge such sad things is not to surrender the glory of motherhood. It just aint no picnic, no matter how much you find fulfillment in it.
“Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness,” RW declaims. “It is devastating.” I hope that RW has statistics in her book, because for my part, as a woman academic, I still see yet another generation of women who mostly fail to get tenure because they are responsible for bearing, rearing and caring for the children. It is this default responsibility for children that is unjust to women’s life chances and careers. Sacrifice and compromise are, of course, an integral part of our lives, but sacrifice and compromise are, inevitably, the lot of women rather than men. In this respect, RW refuses to recognize the facts, and AW takes them and writes poems that call her child a “calamity.” (RW, a poem is a poem. Of course it must have been devastating, but it’s a personal expression of her experience.) Unfortunately, our culture still does not recognize child-rearing as work because it does not bring immediate financial returns. Women are penalized for having children, often both at home and at work but most often at work. This is undeniable, and it is possible that Rebecca Walker’s circumstances allow her to escape this lot. But surely some recognition of the lot of mothers is to be expected from – well, a rather fanatical advocate of motherhood.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that children are a treasure. I believe that parenting – fathering and mothering – are spiritual and emotional experiences that should be experienced by people. But because I have a fiercely protective instinct towards children, I believe that there are people who will not benefit from parenthood, nor will they offer much to their children. There are people who do not miss parenting, much as RW would like to deny it. There are people who would prefer to use their good china and sleep in on a weekend and meditate instead of waking up bleary-eyed at 6am with the toddler, and hurry off to prepare the children to school, and then to soccer practice and music lessons and eventually collapse into bed, only to be woken by cries in the nursery. There are people who find the struggle empowering, it is the essence of life for them. But for some, it is not. For some, it reduces them. You should do what you can do.
I find Rebecca Walker’s dogmatism – Thou shalt procreate – quite disturbing. I do not see much wrong in some people choosing not to have children. In fact, there are people who one would rather not see having children, for the sake of the children. If a woman finds total fulfillment in spiritual and intellectual endeavors, or in gardening and entertaining, should she then MAKE herself have children? Would that be beneficial for her or for her children? If a man/woman was scarred from his/her life experiences and was at risk of being a very bad parent, should s/he then avoid it, for ethical reasons or force him/herself to procreate? There is not one single reason for not having children, and RW seems to live in too small a world – her own – to empathize with this. And her “hurry up and listen to your biological clock” is infantilizing.
I do not, also, see any wrong at all in some people adopting orphans instead of procreating (quite the contrary). And whether they have the “same feelings” as they would towards biological children is inconsequential, as long as they strive to be good parents. I’ve seen enough dreadful biological parents and enough stellar adoptive parents to know not to be dogmatic about that.
In other words, Rebecca Walker’s absorption by her own personal experience is excessive. She does not show much ability to transcend and grow from the personal. She says she is “happy” as a mother and that she “loves” her mother, and other writings show this, but her words in this article betray bile and even somewhat adolescent anger.
Feminism has made life easy for women. There is no doubt about this. Even the female poster-children for anti-feminism owe much to feminism for making their careers possible. What RW is denouncing is not “feminism” but bile, not independence but wholesale rejection of men, not un-maternal feminists but child neglect which can happen to anyone.
RW appears to forget that she was raised in relative prosperity by a famous mother and a White lawyer. Her mother, AW, was raised the “impoverished eighth child of sharecroppers from Georgia.” She mentions this, and she refuses to dwell on the enormous consequences of this background – racial, economic, gender. AW married in 1967, when slavery was in the not-so-distant past. RW writes today, 4-5 dramatic decades later, as if her motherhood and her embrace of a partner are simply her personal achievements and qualities. She writes of AW as if she, as a feminist, should operate above her context and pure of her background.
I am not trying to absolve AW of blame. Her behavior as a mother must have been painful to RW, and her neglect of RW must have been extremely difficult. Welcome to the club, RW. Who doesn’t have complaints about how their parents sniffed at their accomplishments, criticized them for their flaws and left them alone when they needed support? Who hasn’t been “lonely” growing up with parents? To paste all these flaws on to “feminism” seems to be part of an agenda rather than honest, reflexive examination of one’s past. But few of us are capable of such honesty when we examine our own biographies. Our own biographies are epics of tragedy, pain, and climactic success/failure. There must be drama in our lives, and its conclusion must be comprehensible.
What is sad to me is that RW seems to consider “a happy family” a choice. In our patriarchal world – still a patriarchal world – there are far too many reasons why this may be a struggle, an unattainable goal, for far too many women. RW’s vision needs to be broader to be broadly applicable. It is too colored by self. It is too reactionary. This is too bad, because it could offer much that is helpful to feminism. Scholarship asks for honest examination of all sides of a debate, and RW does not offer this. She offers an agenda.
It may indeed be that Alice Walker is a selfish, self-absorbed individual and a terrible mother, who never was meant to be a mother, who never wanted to be a mother, and who did a below-average job as a mother. But the jury is still out. In Rebecca Walker’s court, she is judge and jury. But to this reader at least she does not make a convincing case.