Sylvia Plath’s birthday was in October, so I re-watched Sylvia. A week later, I watched an overly hyped Netflix documentary on Marilyn Monroe (which failed to deliver). I noticed connections though, in each film/life, that women still battle. I call it the Sylvia/Marilyn syndrome. If you read Plath’s unabridged journals or even The Bell Jar, there’s a clear wrestling of what the main character, Esther, wants to do and what she is expected to do as a woman. In one particular passage of The Bell Jar, Esther confronts her choices in the image of a fig tree. Each fig represents something that the main character can do – and the figs range from homemaker to poet, mother to professor. The great fear is that by the time Esther makes up her mind, the figs will have shriveled and died.
I believe Sylvia tried her best to “do it all.” One scene from her journals is played out well in the film – Sylvia and Ted go to the beach to write and instead of writing, Sylvia bakes at least 10 pies, perfecting her ability to be a homemaker. It’s almost as if she wanted to check that box off and move on. Marilyn took a similar approach in one of her marriages, trying to be the domestic when she was not. I certainly can empathize. In fact, over the holidays my own daughter asked me, Is it okay that I like to bake? Her question was a direct response to my parenting model (as seen in the kitchen). I dislike cooking (most of the time). So, not seeing me engage happily in the culinary arts, she’s asking if there’s something not okay. I told her it was wonderful that she liked to bake (and offered for her to make supper!). When I have time off, I do enjoy cooking. However, when I walk in from work all I want to do is sip a beer, mull over a passage in a book or poem, or scribble my own words.
And that’s the thing. We all need the space, time, and respect to do our art.
Women before me (some of you my good friends and readers) have made huge strides for me and others. I can work outside the home without being looked down upon. I can wear pants. I can nurse in public. I can stay at home and go back to work when the kids are older. I can vote. I can make choices about my body. I can have my own bank account. I can represent myself. In her essay “Metamorphosis From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness” (GA Review, Winter 2012), Maxine Kumin writes that as recently as the 1950s her husband had to write a letter “certifying” that her poem was original. Can you imagine? Because she was a woman, her husband had to certify her work as authentic.
The key is, though, for those of us who reap the many options, is how do we balance ourselves? We have more options, but I’ve found this doesn’t mean I should try and do it ALL, although at times I think I am attempting just that. When I cease the daily grind of what I’m “supposed” to do, I often feel guilt. Can I write now? Or should I be cleaning the puppy stains off the carpet? Or working on my syllabus? Or planning supper for the remainder of the week? How do I honor my art so that I do NOT feel guilty about the time I allow for it?
Do I find myself baking pies because I’m expected to, or I obtain joy from the act of creating? Which fig do I choose, and can I choose more than one? If so, how do I manage? Just as importantly, how do I ensure that my daughter has the same rights and options as I do, along with further equality (such as equity in pay)?
What I do know is this: to live in a lifestyle that does not meet your essence or reason for being, then there will be a painful payoff. It may come in physical illness, psychological illness, or a mix. It is easy to spot (in hindsight) in points of both Sylvia and Marilyn’s lives where a brief point of balance occurred, the bulk of their time being devoted to their gifts, not things they were expected to do. However, finding your gifts is only part of the life act – how you balance your gifts, your art, and your duties is an ongoing process. Learning to turn off the noise from society may very well help strike it.