Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cautionary Tale about a Neglectful Mother

I was going to look for something uplifting on Mother's Day; but I stumbled across this article and it was too powerful to pass up. Especially since it covers so many of the themes I frequently blog about here: 1. How feminism has evolved into a cult with the destruction of the mother/child bond as it's main target; 2. How women continue to viciously undermine one another, (yes, even mothers and daughters) and last but not least, how NOT making any children you bring into this world your primary focus is selfish and damaging to them.

I see it everyday where I work. Women having babies and returning to work after the poor little things are barely a few months old and dumping these kids off on just about anybody. They work from 9:00 in the morning until late in the evening. I often wonder why they even bothered having kids as they spend no time with them whatsoever. I think I put more planning and time into my adoption of a puppy, who ultimately graced my life for almost 10 years.

So I guess this article is also a cautionary tale to women who think they can have children and ignore them for the sake of a job...


From The Sunday Times
May 4, 2008
The day feminist icon Alice Walker resigned as my mother

The Color Purple brought Alice Walker global fame, but her strident views led to an irreconcilable rift, her daughter tells
Margarette Driscoll

In the mid-1980s, The New York Times ran a profile of the American writer and activist Alice Walker. Her novel, The Color Purple, had won the Pulitzer prize and was being turned into a film by Steven Spielberg.

The article was illustrated by a photograph of Walker sitting on her teenaged daughter’s knee. It was meant to be a “fun” picture; but, in retrospect, according to Rebecca Walker, the photographer unwittingly portrayed the true nature of her relationship with her mother.

Alice Walker was, and remains, an icon of the American civil rights movement. “People adore her. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Your mother saved my life’ and ‘I have an altar to your mother in my bedroom’. They feel a connection to her and revere her greatly,” says Rebecca.

Walker’s success as a campaigner was to her detriment as a mother. Like Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby, who neglects her home and her children as she directs her energy towards the poor of Africa, so America’s icon often went to feminist meetings and rallies and left Rebecca to fend for herself. Her daughter experimented with drugs and became pregnant at 14.

“My mother\did a lot of leaving to go to her writing retreat, which was over 100 miles away — so she’d go there and leave me a little bit of money, leave me in the care of a neighbour,” recalls Rebecca, now 38.

“When I was pregnant at 14, I think it was because I was so lonely that I was reaching out through my sexuality. My mother’s a crusader for daughters around the world, but couldn’t see that her own daughter was having a difficult time. It was me having to psycho-emotionally tiptoe around her, rather than her taking care of me.”

Walker is furious with Rebecca for making such sentiments public, and mother and daughter are estranged with little hope of reconciliation. Rebecca has a three-year-old son, Tenzin, whom her mother has never seen. Their last meaningful exchange, during Rebecca’s pregnancy, ended in Walker sending a terse e-mail in which she resigned from “the job” of being her mother, and told her that in any case their relationship had been “inconsequential” for years.

The depth of her anger was such that she refused to budge even when Rebecca had a difficult birth and Tenzin’s life hung in the balance in a special-care baby unit. “My father called her to tell her what was happening. He couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t run right over . . . In some ways, I wanted her to — but in other ways, I didn’t. I knew she wouldn’t be able to be there for me in the way I wanted. It would be problematic.”

Walker, the eighth child of poor sharecroppers, grew up in Georgia during segregation. Her extraordinary intellect and determination won her a scholarship to study in New York; and after university she returned to the South and became involved in voter-registration drives and setting up children’s education programmes in Mississippi.

There she met Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. In the midst of the feverish, sometimes murderous, racial politics of the time, they became the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi, defying both their families’ disapproval and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

The marriage did not last but it produced Rebecca: a living, breathing, mixed-race embodiment of the new America that they were trying to forge. The problem was that, during her childhood, Rebecca felt precisely that — a political symbol rather than a cherished daughter.

Being progressives, Walker and Leventhal decided on shared parenting but came up with the agreement that Rebecca would alternately live two years with each of them. From the age of eight, she lived in utterly different worlds: with her father and stepmother in New York’s conventional, rich, Jewish, Upper East Side; and with her mother among bohemian, black, mostly poverty stricken activists and feminists in California.

She felt she did not fit into either world. In New York, she was the only black face in the neighbourhood. Yet she felt she was far too steeped in “white privilege” for her mother’s friends’ taste. And, if she tried to talk to her parents about any of this, she was ignored.

“My father had come out of world war two and the Holocaust, my mother from the segregated South. Their attitude was, ‘The Gestapo isn’t after you, you’re not getting beaten up by mobs just for sitting at the lunch counter — what’s your problem?’ ” she says.

Walker had also joined the early feminist movement — Gloria Steinem is Rebecca’s godmother — and it was her politics, more than anything, that shaped mother-daughter relations. The so-called “first wave” feminists believed that housework was another form of slavery and that women did not have an innate need to nurture but had been conditioned into their subordinate role as wives and mothers through centuries of patriarchy.

“My mother is very ideologically based, and her ideology is much more important in many ways than her personal relationships,” says Rebecca.

When Rebecca became pregnant at 14, Walker wasn’t shocked: she calmly picked up the phone and arranged an abortion. “Her feminist thing was about empowering me to have an active sexuality and to be in control of my body, and that trumped any sense of boundaries,” Rebecca says.

Certainly, Walker believed that what she was doing was right. Leaving her teenaged daughter to “do her own thing” was a way of fostering Rebecca’s independence and avoiding inadvertently passing down patriarchal values.

“Her circle were questioning power relationships and whether a mother had any more knowledge than a child. Some friends of hers were living on communes. I know those kids and they’re totally screwed up.

“Some were sexually abused, all kinds of bad stuff happened, but even those who survived intact don’t want to create communes for their children. They didn’t want to be raised by 10 different parents — again, it was this ideological thing trumping the maternal instinct.”

Towards the end of senior school, an ecstatic Rebecca showed Walker her offer letter from Yale. Instead of celebrating her daughter’s success in landing a place at one of the world’s top universities, Walker asked her coolly why she wanted to go to a bastion of male privilege.

Rebecca went to Yale anyway, and started thinking about feminism for herself. Her first book examined what feminism meant to young women and what role it played in the modern world. “When I began to challenge status quo feminism, my mother started to feel very injured,” she says. “To have a daughter who was questioning feminism — it was seen as a threat. Imagine Margaret Thatcher having a hippie child who wanted to live in India and become a Hare Krishna. It was that kind of schism.

“I keep telling people feminism is an experiment. And just like in science, you have to assess the outcome of the experiment and adjust according to your results, but my mother and her friends, they see it as truth; they don’t see it as an experiment.

“So that creates quite a problem. You’ve got young women saying, ‘That didn’t really work for me’ and the older ones saying, ‘Tough, because that’s how it should be’.”

The debate goes on: Rebecca, who lives in Hawaii with Tenzin and Glen, his Buddhist-teacher father, recently wrote about why she was supporting Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton — and immediately came under fire.

“The response from older feminists was that I, and other young women, were naive in thinking Obama could ever truly represent us, and we should be supporting the female candidate. The belief is that women become more radical as they get older, that we’re naive and we’ll ‘get it’ later on.”

Predictably, Walker was upset at Rebecca’s next publication, Black, White and Jewish — a memoir about growing up in her fractured family. “My father was quite shocked at first, but he got behind me 100%. However, my mother felt very injured,” says Rebecca. “I’m not blameless. I can be very direct and strong in my opinions and I wasn’t as sensitive to other people’s feelings as I could have been.

“My mother is a celebrity, and celebrities need to constantly police their reputation. If you put a chink in their public persona, it can be very dangerous and threatening to them.”

The final showdown happened while Rebecca was pregnant, and is chronicled in her new book, Baby Love — a diary of her pregnancy in which she explores modern women’s dilemmas about relationships and motherhood.

Having been raised to believe that “it’s not nature, it’s nurture”, she was not prepared for the strength of her feelings for her baby. “I adore him,” she says. “He’s really into running and jumping and he’s very attached to me. It’s all, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy’, and it’s very difficult to leave him.”

People she meets constantly express surprise at what’s happened — surely having a child should have brought her closer to her mother, rather than splitting them asunder? She agrees.

“People don’t really understand how strong ideology can be,” she says. “I think sometimes of that group and that feminism as being close to a cult. I feel I had to de-programme myself in order to have independent thought. It’s been an ongoing struggle. When you have a cult, you have a cult leader who demands a certain conformity . . . And when you have a celebrity who has cultural-icon status, economic power beyond what you can imagine, you can’t resist that person — if you want to stay in their realm. Because once you start challenging them, they kick you out.”

Baby Love by Rebecca Walker is published by Souvenir Press at £15. Copies can be ordered for £13.50, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585

From Rebecca’s diary

June 29, 2004
Two days ago, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my mother threatening to send an attached statement [to a website.] In a nutshell, she took offence to a section of my 2001 memoir, reprinted in a publication two weeks ago, in which I wrote that my parents didn’t protect or look out for me . . . In the statement, she calls me a liar, a thief (because when I was eight, I took quarters from her purse during my parents’ divorce) and a few other discrediting unmentionables . . .

I went over to her house to find out what the hell was going on. Never have I been so frightened by my mother. She sat me down and called me “someone who thinks she is a good person but really isn’t”. She said that because I wasn’t from the South and didn’t have the full memory of slavery (read: I am half white), that I don’t know what it feels like to be sold down the river.

I asked whether she thought it was a little strange that I wrote about my struggle in an attempt to get her to take care of me, but here we were, talking about how I should be taking care of her.

She grew quite vicious. After two hours of trying to convince her of the merits of my existence, I left the house shaking. [My partner] Glen was extremely upset: This is how she treats you when you’re pregnant?

November 24
E-mails have been flying back and forth. I ask her to apologise for the statement she threatened to send [to a website]. She tells me that she and all of her friends think that I have lost my mind. When I write that if she can’t apologise, I don’t want contact because I feel she is too emotionally dangerous for me and my unborn son, she writes that she won’t miss what we don’t have. She [adds] that she has been my mother for 30 years and is no longer interested in the job. Instead of signing “your mother” at the end, she signs her first name.


Val said...

A sad, sad, sad situation...
I really feel for Rebecca.

NYMOM said...

Yes, probably their relationship had been damaged over the years while they were doing that weird joint custody arrangement, which had the child living with each parent for TWO YEARS and then switching. I never heard of anything so ridiculous. I would never have allowed one of my children to go live with someone else for two years??? WTF????

But long before the end, the relationship probably wasn't very much. She mentions how her mother told her something like that before the final breech. So I suspect they never had much of a relationship to begin with due to these long separations.

She doesn't say how old she was at the time this custody arrangement began either, but if she was too young (maybe even an infant), she might not even have remembered her mother by the time the first two years was up or forgot her shortly after she began living with the other parent on the east coast. One woman I know who was forced into a similar arrangement, told me that later her daughter told her she thought her mother had died when it first began. You don't just remove a child from its mother for two years w/o some psychological damage. Needless to say that kid is a complete mess today.

What was Alice Walker thinking. I'd say she wasn't. I guess the thing that really puzzles me is that women have the choice these day to NOT have children if they don't want to make time for them in their lives...Yet you hear these stories over and over again. It's really a form of child abuse I think, child negligence anyway.

Do the world a favor already and don't have any kids if you don't want to dedicate adequate time to them. Save everyone else a whole lot of trouble. It's like these idiots who adopt kittens or puppies and then when they're a year old abandon them. A burden to everyone else to figure out how to find a place for them for the next decade or two of their lives. Idiots.

Anonymous said...

I am wary of taking any one side of a quarrel between mother and daughter... especially not one where going public is being used as a weapon.
The daughter will have the moral high ground, the mother has to apologise for whatever the daughter says she did wrong, no matter what her mothers motives, or intentions. That is what we do to mothers. We stand by and judge.

people can dedicate all the time in the world to their relationships and still have them go wrong. It takes two, or in some cases, its a tangled web of loyalties, hopes and hurt feelings.
sounds like they are both struggling, both of them are hurt and angry, neither wants to give in and say what the other wants to hear... and publication of such an intimate battle seems to me like an atomic bomb in any relationship.
When i read this review, I think like mother like daughter. they are both going to fight and continue to fight.

I feel for both of them. the pain of that lack of resolution is going to stay with them forever. i dont imagine any mother pushes away their feelings about being a mother as 'inconsequential'without having felt some serious, serious pain - sounds to me like it was said in retaliation.

do women "ignore their children for the sake of a job?"
Sometimes, I suppose. And sometimes they work to earn the food their kids eat or to pay for a better education.

Never had your heart broken by a teenager you love? you're a luckier woman than I am.

Anonymous said...

The article says the kid was eight when they split and started that 2-year thing.

If by then neither parent was close enough with her to object to 2-year separations, then there was something wrong with both of them.

They were each just looking for a place to put her while they followed their real passions.

The kid was hosed from birth.


NYMOM said...

Well Richard for once I agree with you...

Also anonymous I think you're right as well. There are two sides to this story and we don't know Alice Walker's side.

BUT I've seen many other mothers who have no problem leaving their children for hours on end every single day and, no, it's not always from economic necessity. Some women use this 'economic necessity' as an excuse to literally abandon their kids almost from birth...

AND yes, I've had my heart broken many times by my children...and now by my grandchildren...

But the bottom line is women have choices today. So if they don't wish to make the commitment of time needed to properly raise children, then they don't have to bear them in the first place. It's not like decades ago where women had to marry to secure a place in society since men controlled most of the economic resources. Once you married, you had to perform your wifely duties and that included having sex, which eventually leads to bearing children. Those days have been over for about two generations now, so there is just no excuse for this sort of behavior as outlined by Alice Walker's daughter.

Sorry, in my opinion, even the joint custody arrangment was abusive to an eight year old and should not have been allowed. It wasn't like one parent lived in New York and the other in New Jersey, where a joint custody flip like that would mean little in the way of real change for an 8 year old.

I'm just curious if the parents would have been okay with doing the opposite scenario and leaving the child in the same household and having the parents flip in and out of it on a two year schedule????

Like Richard said, it sounds like this kid was 'hosed' from birth.

Anonymous said...

ok, I find the two year thing a bit bizarre too. Not something I'd agree to, but then again, I find 'custody' arrangements distressing enough no matter how they are done.
any which way, someone loses out. no idea why those parents chose it - maybe they thought uninterrupted years of care was the best way of keeping up a family life. And do you know how much contact went on between the child and non custodial parent? daily? weekly? letters? phone calls? how do you know? does rebecca remember one thing ,and her mother another?

you keep talking about choices in this post, but i think you're sitting there with the luxury of hindsight. You have your children for a lifetime, and how many of us have them believing we are going to end up doing it on our own? that our marriages might fail?
(I didnt.) How many of us find ourselves where we have to make choices we never ever wanted to make, trying to do what's best for the child, knowing full well that whatever we decide, the child may well turn around and tell us we got it wrong.

and hosed from birth? jesus wept. the woman has written a book, made money from her argument with her mother, and now is raising a kid with a loving husband. that's not hosed, that's a functional human being, eating sleeping and staying warm.

NYMOM said...

"that's a functional human being, eating sleeping and staying warm"...

Well forgive me but my concept of a functional human being is a little more then a body that's eating, sleeping and staying warm. This woman could be emotionally damaged in ways that even SHE is not aware of as yet which will come become obvious later and pass the damage along to her own child.

Anyway I still say women have the 'choice' today whether or not to have children. There is a certain amount of time that must be invested in a child in order to raise it to healthy adulthood and those women who don't wish to invest that time or can't for some reason (demanding career, lots of travel, away from home for long periods, etc.,) should forego having children.

They can save themselves, their children and the rest of society a lot of trouble by using birth control. If they want a once-in-a while companion, they can adopt a dog or other companion animal.

debbie said...

As a stepmother who married a man who took full time care of his children and ran a business while his ex-wife lived a wanton life I can only screan silently for yet another child - the author - having been born to a woman whose sexuality was more important than the child that sexuality produced and it angers the hell out of me...after all these years of my husband being mom and dad and sacrificing anything and everything for their benefit and to make up for the guilt of bringing this woman into his childrens's lives do you know that woman is now back in their lives trying to appear as the victim and a poor soul who nobody understood?! She is the Madonna all of a's as if I am watching a horror film but we are in it...these kids get a crumb from her and treat it as if they just won the lottery...the kids fall for it at 22 years of age...I am a woman who gets very angry at neglectful women who come up with all sorts of excuses...the children are so wounded and hurt and try as they might they never get over it...they don't.

debbie said...

I've been thinking about this terrific website since yesterday and want to add something to my previous comment...for the sake of children I don't really care which parent or which gender the parent is who wounds their child's wrong. There are neglectful mothers and neglectful fathers out there and somehow we are more horrified that mothers are neglectful. Why? Dads are just as important as a mother to the well being of their children and children need and deserve the love and nurturing of both to be whole, happy, expressive and free to love others in a healthy way...

NYMOM said...

Well if you're done any reading around here, you can see I'm no fan of neglectful mothers.

BUT we do need to find another term to designate people who marry someone who has children...they appear to think it's okay to morph into a step-'mother' w/o paying any dues.

I guess it's basically the same issue I have with men...

NYMOM said...

Postscript: you're not entitled to be labeled a 'mother' or a 'father' just because you've married someone who had children before they met you.