Sylvia Plath and Parenting

OR, Toward an Equity of Selfishness

I’m not well suited to the realities of parenthood. Parenting, especially for the female presenting parent – the mother – is a fairly consuming process. Children need and want things and parent needs and wants come second. I have a more artistic, erratic and fluid sense of my own being, which is to say: I like to be left alone to adventure through my own self without distraction. I want to have the space to consent to interruptions into my interior world.

There are a series of hilarious “jokes” I employ about being a parent, specifically a mother. “Why did I think this would be a good idea? I hate messes, loud noises and people touching me – what made parenting seem like a good idea?” And my personal favorite, “my true orientation is 1960s breadwinner.  I come home from a day at the office doing adult things, I get handed the paper and a cocktail, the dinner is made, the children are fed and no one needs anything from me except what I want to give.” I have said this enough times that even I can convince myself it is sort of a joke. It’s not really a joke. It’s totally true. For me to be optimally myself and achieve my best version of myself that is really what I need. It’s probably what everyone needs, but we have all these silly stories about how women are selfless and not only like the process of parenting but are uniquely suited/designed for it.

My parents told me to go away and entertain myself a lot. I liked them when I was kid and wanted them to be interested in me and things I was interested in, but mostly they were not. If I wanted to be around my parents I needed to talk about things they were interested in and do things they wanted to do, and usually I had to do this with my mouth shut. Once I was through the unspeakable horror of my first child’s infancy [he was not objectively a particularly bad baby, that part is really just awful] I was often struck by how much he liked me and how much time I had to spend caring about kid things or just playing with him. Those things are excruciating. Why didn’t he just go play by himself?

It is worth mentioning at this point [I have to so that you don’t think I am a monster mother] that now that I have children who are actual people, I enjoy their company much more often than I don’t. This is a slow process, this becoming a person. My daughter, who is the younger of the two, emerged into personhood earlier than my son. She is a woman of internal conviction [it fills me with pride even as it makes my life more difficult]. My son, was slower to be himself, probably because he is more acutely aware of what other people want from him [this is probably my fault]. And because he was first born, there was a long period of him needing me to help him decide everything. This concerns me, but it’s probably fine.

My ex-husband [about whom it must be said remains a poor fit for me interpersonally, and is perhaps not a very nice person when you get right down to it] used to tell me that it was clear [to him] that I hated our kids from the way that I talked to them [I believed that this was true for too long]. 

Two things remain true about me: 

1) I am acutely sensitive to loud noises and get very overstimulated easily which can cause me to yell [in shock, in frustration, in overload]. 

2) when I don’t like something I have a tendency to say something about it so that other people around me can understand and adjust accordingly [because if you don’t tell people you don’t like something, how exactly are they supposed to know? Once I know that someone doesn’t like something I try not to make them endure it]. 

It is these behaviors – a marked expression of my self, or selfishness – that my ex-husband interpreted as hate for our children. Expressing, with a heightened tone of voice, that I was busy and this was the fifth time I had had to say I was busy so please go find something else to do. I don’t care if you have to stare at the wall for a while there is nothing wrong with you, you do not need anything, another parent exists to make sure that you don’t die [he should stop drinking that beer and playing playstation and acting like I am the default parent]. Entertain yourself, this is my time. I get to have time.

So why did I become a parent? Interesting question that no one ever asks a man who is drinking a beer, playing playstation and acting like his wife is a the default parent. This isn’t actually me being bitter about my ex-husband. In most ways he is the best father because it is really easy to be the best father. Expectations are very low. He is pretty involved and now that we are divorced he has to be the default parent half the time – and lo! – he manages about as well as I do and still gets to have some time to himself.

I do have a reason that I became a parent [two of them], but they aren’t really important because in becoming a parent I didn’t cease to be everything else or myself. This is why Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven. When I learned about the way Sylvia Plath had died – like the actual circumstances of her death, that she had sealed her children into their rooms to protect them even as she was killing herself – it all made perfect sense to me. I was 16. I already knew what being a woman and a mother was, it was being a supporting character in the story of a middling poet when you are a genius. No one asked Ted Hughes why he wanted to be a parent. He was incidentally a parent. Sylvia Path ceased to be anything else once she became one.

This isn’t an argument for why women and mothers should get to be Ted Hughes. The world  – and children generally – isn’t better off if all women are [alive] Sylvia Plath.

For about a year of my life it was the most economically advantageous choice for me to not have a “job” and for my kids to be on Medicaid while their dad worked full time [the fucked up calculus of this is a unique American phenomenon that I’m not going to go into here, but it’s a demented intended consequence of policy in our country and it continues to disgust me. But hey, I’m “free,” right?]. This was the year before my son started kindergarten, so my kids were in front of 5.5 and 2.5, which is a very sweet spot. I did not like being a stay at home mom. It was very hard to have conversations with other adults about anything that wasn’t potty training. I never got a break. Contributing no money to the household further alienated me from my husband by cementing roles I had been trying to break out of. But I really enjoyed watching my kids be people – meeting them – and having no real constraints on our lives other than a 1:30 nap time, a 7:30 bed time and a body-weight appropriate number of calories consumed at regular intervals so that we could all retain our meager executive function. I was an exceptional parent for that year. And I was glad when, at the end of the year, my oldest went to kindergarten, my youngest when to full time day care and I went back to work full time.

One of the reasons I wanted to have kids was because I thought I could have the detachment necessary to help them grow up to be good, well-adjusted and thoughtful people I might want to share the planet with. To not make their existence about me. Parenting is actually a public trust. It’s not that love and family togetherness are not important to me, because those things feel really nice and make for pleasant memories/motivation for being good to others, but so much of family is the institutionalization of expectations about essential categories. Mother is selfless and nurturing. Father is the stoic provider. Brother and sister follow the path that was laid out for them and the cycle begins again. Everyone gets trapped in this. 

When I was about 9, I remember being outside with my father in our backyard. It must have been summer, probably August, because it was humid and the air was very still, until all at once it wasn’t. The wind swept up and all the leaves on the elm tree that we were both facing turned over, exposing their lighter undersides. Without turning to me he said, “it’s going to rain. You can tell because of the leaves. See how they are upside down?” And he smiled and pointed to them so I could have some context for his prognostication. And then, within the hour, it rained like holy hell. In that instance, he taught me that there is an underlying sense all around you if you are awakened to it. This was something I had had an inkling of myself, but I had never seen the full power of an adult mind that had integrated all that information to make the sense. 

In his way, my father is very nurturing to the soul of a child because he is childlike in the way he experiences the world. He is delighted by beauty and hidden things and he knew that I also was, that I wanted to know the invisible secrets. He’s also an incredible pain in the ass and very selfish. Just like I am, just like everyone is if there are never any requirements placed upon them to be selfless. Mothers [women] are not naturally selfless, we get the selves beat out of us. Fathers [men] are not naturally selfish, they just get told in a million ways that their selves are more important to indulge, that it is ok for someone else to mind the children while they write poems [or drink beer and play playstation].

A good friend once told me that she didn’t want to be mother because she didn’t like the job description. She said she wouldn’t mind being a father, but that role was not an option. This was the wisest thing I ever heard about parenting. I too wanted to be a father, but it was too late by this time because I was already a mother. 

When you are someone’s mother and you have to quietly fight for your own space in your own life, you get very good at prioritizing, negotiating, delaying gratification. These are the real adult skills that many adults don’t have to learn because they have a wife. For me they have been invaluable to learn. Among other jokes that I tell about parenting is “if I had known at 19 how much I could accomplish before 8 am, I would have solved the damn energy crisis before I was 25.” This is true, which means it is only a joke because other people laugh when I say it [and them laughing is most of why I continue to say something I already know is true]. 

I feel bad for people who don’t have something in their life that makes then acquire these real adult skills. People like my father. This doesn’t have to be kids, but they have a way of requiring that at least someone around them acquire these skills. My friend who thought she might like to be a father instead of a mother is definitely a grown-as adult. But I also feel really bad for everyone who never gets to be a little selfish, who never has the opportunity to choose to drink beer and play playstation [or in my case listen to an audiobook and knit] because what they want has to always be second. 

That sort of existence would make anyone want to put their head in an oven. It is a deeply inequitable place to find oneself when one might be Sylvia Plath. Billions of people never get to negotiate between how much they need to be Ted Hughes some of the time and when they need to tap out and be the person who makes Ted Hughes possible. They never get to be a mother and a father, they get assigned one for arbitrary reasons. One of my gifts to my children is in trying to show them that they get to be a little selfish some of the time, because their selves have inherent value, and it is also my gift to me.

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