Why Sylvia? Why Now?

James O'Brien

At the park the other day, I noticed a thirtysomething woman on the bench across from me muttering to herself. Open on her lap was a loose-leaf notebook with laminated pages, which she was staring at. On her right was a toddler playing in the sand; a school-age kid going down the slide on her left. She looked psychotic, which isn't unusual for this park, or for parents of a certain age.

At one point, she fixed her eyes on an unseen demon and her muttering got more animated, complete with flailing hands, until she was interrupted by a "Mommy!" The woman half-looked up from her notebook and, as sweetly as she could muster, barked, "Just give me a second, honey. I'm working on my play." I watched her memorize her lines for a little while longer; then, when we were leaving the park, I said to her, "I'm in awe of your concentration." "I've got a deadline," she laughed. "I need to learn this whole thing by Monday." It was Friday.

I never asked her name or what play she was rehearsing, because I didn't want to further interrupt what was obviously precious work time. But in her I saw a lot of people I know, a lot of the moms, especially, who are not only engaged in that most American and most insane of rituals, multi-tasking, but who are constantly being tugged between their lives and their Lives. A scenario like the one I witnessed--a woman trying, literally and figuratively, to be many things at once--would undoubtedly be met with scorn by the family values brigade, but there is something heroic about that image, historic and purposeful even, and something that haunts of Sylvia Plath, about whom there is something in the air at the moment.

And I don't just mean the fact that three Plath-related pop culture artifacts have surfaced in the last week--the Gwyneth Paltrow biopic Sylvia, Diane Middlebrook's Ted Hughes biography Her Husband: Hughes and Plath--A Marriage, and Paul Westerberg's Plath tribute "Crackle and Drag," which appropriates the last line of the suicidal poet's last poem, "Edge." Rather, like the image of that stressed-out actress-mom-at-the-park, tattooed on the collective American parental psyche for the 40 years since her death is Plath, a creative and ferociously independent mind, who seemingly needed rest from the effort of trying to be too many persons at once.

Plath killed herself at age 30 due to a clinical mental breakdown, but the tragic-romantic snapshot for any sleep-deprived or penned-in young parent is the one of the ultimate freedom that came only when, as Westerberg sings, "While her babies slept, she took a long deep breath/...Now they're zipping her up in a bag/Can you hear the blacks crackle and drag?"

"Poets rarely become cultural icons," writes Middlebrook. "But Plath's suicide had occurred just when women's writing was beginning to stimulate the postwar women's movement. The posthumous publication of Plath's poetry, fiction, letters, and journals added her voice to a swelling chorus of resistance to the traditional positions women occupied in social life."

Those positions still exist, if only as an archetype, in almost all the moms I know: Even if their mothers worked, they are constantly being self-measured by the stay-at-home mom of yore who seemingly had it all together in simpler times. And no matter how much genuine joy their children bring them, there is another, darker, side that rarely gets addressed. In "Falling," her superb August 27 City Pages cover story on Naomi Gaines, infanticide, suicide, postpartum depression, and young mothers on the verge of nervous breakdowns, Beth Hawkins writes, "Whatever choices we go on to make about raising our kids, assuming we're privileged enough to have choices, all new mothers lose their freedom and wholesale chunks of their identities. And there's no going back."

So instead of going back, women, unlike men (whose wrestle with domesticity is still more socially accepted as something of a rakish extension of their wild oats-sowing years), women fall in line. No matter how mundane it feels, no matter how much they may be haunted by past thrills of college or clubland, no matter how perfectly they "balance career and family," women are, above all, expected to settle down and become the perfect mother. In The Secret Life of Dentists, the mostly awful adaptation of Jane Smiley's riveting novella The Age of Grief, Hope Davis stars as Dana, a dentist who marries her dental school sweetheart, has kids, loses a part of herself in family life, then tries to recover it by joining a community opera company and having an affair. At the end of the film, Davis, whose face registers the spooked-young mom thing with perfect ambiguity, crawls back into her cage, having learned nothing.

Which is why I guess I find the actress-mom-at-the-park's instinct to be so heroic. Maybe it, and the genesis of this column, is because I see something of my mom in her. She was a homemaker, but the home she made was filled not only with love, but with her constant forays into politics, books, board games, decoupage, etc. She loved her family, but she had an inner life, a tough mind, and when things got too kid-crazy around her ankles, she had a tendency to say, "One of these days I'm gonna walk out on all of you."

That sort of declaration--and the fact that she never followed through on it--sticks in a kid's mind, and not necessarily in an unhealthy way. What it said to us was that our mom was more than our mom, that there was more to life than us and dinner and dishes, and that, despite her yearnings for more, she was going to fight to fuse her selves into a whole. Plath's and Gaines's and others' stories are tragic, partially because they didn't or couldn't get help, but just as interesting are the ones about the day-to-day thrashings that never quite reach the end of their rope.

Stories like the ones that belong to my wife and her friends, who struggle and juggle and pass out at the end of the day and get up and do it all over again. Or to my sister, a high-powered cardiologist who dreams of chucking it all to wait tables and hang with her kids. Or to Hawkins, a journalist-editor-mother who wrote, "God help me if I live to see the day where my self-esteem is tied to the sheen of my porcelain." Or to my friend Pam, a lawyer-mother of two whose lesbian pal takes her drumming and dancing to "contribute to the delinquency of a mother."

Or to Plath herself, who wrote, "Perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But oh, I cry out against it."


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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