The Sylvia/Marilyn Syndrome

fig tree artSylvia 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.


12 thoughts on “The Sylvia/Marilyn Syndrome

  1. You know how firmly I support you in your struggle and other women in theirs, as I have been a grand example of what happens when you follow society’s demands instead of your own desires. As you also know, after paying the price, I was given a second chance, for which I will always be thankful. Many are less fortunate. It is one of my dearest wishes that you will find your way through to your own flourishing fig tree! Julia


  2. A thought provoking article, Rosemary. And thank God you’re from a newer generation which doesn’t have the pressure of the “female role” that those two unhappy women had to deal with. The good news is you’ll come to discover you’re gradually outgrowing the guilt hassle as you find yourself just doing what you feel like doing without going mental over it. Your spirit/soul wants you satisfying yourself, and your instincts tell you how to go about it. Trust them to lead you always in the right direction. And if doing that leads to uncomfortable feelings, then you’ve been given a lesson to learn. But I think your statement about turning your back to society says it all. No one nor collective knows better than you what’s right for you. Hopefully, if you can remember what a wise teacher once said, “quit shoulding (shitting) on yourself,” you’ll find yourself confidently relaxing more and scowling less. I love you ….. Hugs… Connie

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Sylvia was a great movie, but it bummed me out for days. Hughes second wife also killed herself in the same way, but took their daughter with her to “protect” her from him. He must have been quite a piece of work. I love this post! I’ve been thinking a lot about the generation just after mine and how much has changed in such a brief time and I find it alarming. I worry. And I think your point on finding balance is superb. Gracias for the great read this afternoon!


  4. Excellent post, Rosemary. Points women have pondered for many years now. Balance is what we try to achieve and many times our own personal desires upset the scale one way or another and that brings out the guilt we seem to live with constantly.Young mothers today walk a tightrope I think trying to have it all and do it all without the guilt. I don’t see how it can be done.


    • Glenda,

      I have a funny little Wonder Woman bracelet that I bought on a lark at a thrift store. When I wear it, I’m only being ironic in part, because I feel like many women DO try to do everything. And we can’t. We have to figure out how to meet our own needs and then those whom we love. Thanks for reading!


  5. I feel being a woman is problematic because of all the expectations our male dominated society puts upon them. The problem is compounded because males hold most of the power. I see this changing. There are more women in the US Senate. There are more women who are heads of large institutions. We have more women on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, at the micro-level, women and men need to find their balance. How often do mean and women do what is expected of them instead of what would promote their health and wholeness? I think too often. The easy way out of individuation is to follow expectations. Finding your voice and honoring it is hard work. Hopefully, it is rewarding work.


  6. Rosemary,

    I really do “like” this blog! I have about a dozen blogs in progress (mostly intended to help me compose my thoughts and organize my access to the internet), and chose this theme and this banner for a blog I’m playing with on impressionist art.

    I am in the process of establishing a “platform” for freelance writing, and decided to look and see what you were up to, literarily speaking.

    I see that you have published quite a bit since we talked last. You’re an inspiration! Now that I’m (forcibly) retired from engineering, I’m trying to get serious about writing. The question is not whether I have the time, but do I have the energy.

    Love to all,
    Uncle Rick


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