(Originally published onFebruary 19, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
While “celebrating” the 6-day weekend with my three kids during Snowpocalypse 2010, I had the ingenious idea to avoid the oven and grill. It turned out to be less than genius.
Even in just a few weeks of writing this blog, it has come up more than a few times. Sylvia Plath, isn’t that a little dark? Isn’t she dead? Is Sylvia Plath really in your playgroup? And, who’s Sylvia Plath? Granted, I’m related to most of the people asking these questions.
However, it raises the topic nonetheless. Yes, the author Sylvia Plath is indeed dead after asphyxiating herself in her oven while her two young children napped in the next room. And, as if there was any doubt, it did happen during the month of February. So, yes, parking oneself in a mothering club with Sylvia is ironic, sardonic and dark. It is also the truth.
I’m not saying that I should be put on watch or that I don’t enjoy being a mother. I am only saying that there is a very, very dark corner to motherhood and that being able to acknowledge that has not only made me a better mother, it has also allowed me to enjoy the role more. And for that, I have Sylvia Plath, Andrea Yates, Maggie Young, Susan Smith, Melanie Blocker Stokes, and hundreds of other women to thank. Because of their own deeply personal and grisly tragedies, I have learned one of my life’s most important lessons. Mothering is thathard.
When I was pregnant with my first, I went back to Manhattan to visit one of the few people I knew who had a baby. The babysitter had her nine month old out for a walk, and as we sat in her fabulous Madison Avenue kitchen, I waited for my friend to tell me how all of this fabulousness soon would be mine.
“Until I had a child of my own, I never understood child abuse,” she said as she calmly stacked our luncheon dishes and moved on to the sink. I was speechless and desperate for something to busy my eight-month pregnant self. Only weeks later, I viscerally understood that truer words were never spoken. Certainly, motherhood is a very big continuum, be we are all decidedly on it.
In my baby days I kept a mental clip-file of these stories of women who’d gone before and failed by ending their own lives or those of their children or both, as grim testimony to the challenge of motherhood. And that meant some crying and some screaming (on my part) was more than okay.
I also had another little file for Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey and their septuplets and their 15-seater van outside of Des Moines, Iowa. That was my “it could be worse” file. Over the years I have augmented the file with such gems as Nebraska’s safe haven law, which allowed parents to abandon children of any age at hospitals, no questions asked. Nothing like indulging in a little dose of domestic schadenfreude to make my own fortunate lot a little easier.
Only now, when I am far from those dark corners of the early years of motherhood can I consider the subject academically. To that end, I’ve found two academics who’ve taken up the subject full time. Professors Cheryl Meyer and Michelle Oberman write books, comment on trials, speak at conferences and receive weekly phone calls when a new tragedy strikes. “People need to realize, some of it is hormonal and some of it is the social construction of motherhood. And we need to address both,” Meyer says. “People who were close to the woman always say, ‘she was such a good mother, such a devoted mother.’ She’s always, always described as ‘a devoted mother.’”
Their important work is aimed at increasingly awareness, understanding and help for women and families so that such extremes can be avoided. “The media tries to spin it ‘this couldn’t happen to you.’ When the reality is exactly the opposite, this could happen to anybody.”
Such was the case last summer. I was with friends when someone mentioned the story of a local mother who was pushed to – and over – the edge when she put her hands on her daughter’s mouth to make the screaming and crying before a bath stop. It did, and so did the girl’s breathing.
The collective reaction from the gathered group of women was, “Oh my God, that’s awful. I can’t believe that happened.” Then, leave it to one in the crowd to say, “I can’t believe it doesn’t happen more.” And, if you’ve ever wondered how to clear an entire deck at a summer tennis club, then consider that my little gift to you.
But it does happen more. There are over one hundred cases a year of children dying at the hand of their own mothers. That’s one every three days. These were not violent women and they did not have any criminal histories. At its simplest, they were women whom mothering had gotten the best of. And what they were left with was often depression, inadequacy, isolation, too many babies and not enough money, and crying that wouldn’t stop. And most insidious of all, they were left with a reality that did not match the dream.
And whose does? No one but another mother will believe you when you say that those most magical baby days can be the loneliest, darkest, most isolating and angriest you will experience. Sure, you are surrounded by people bearing gifts and good wishes, and the baby is fast asleep. But your guests will leave as soon as the baby wakes and you are left with the seemingly insurmountable task of writing a thank-you note for a hooded hippopotamus bath towel. And your husband will ask why he is having toaster waffles for dinner.
And for many in the great sisterhood of motherhood, it doesn’t seem to get any better. Yes, I could afford the toaster waffles and I had a husband to eat them. Many have neither but have two or three times as many babies as I. However, as the academics discovered, these extreme cases of helpless and hopeless follow no pattern for birth order, religion, time of year, age of mother, age of child, gender of child, or number of children. It would appear isolation and exhaustion are doled out fairly equitably in motherhood.
I fortunately seemed to get more than my share of irony and dark humor. Which helps explain why I write Playgroup With Sylvia Plath and will never have to be described as “such a devoted mother.”