Mothers of the Same Fate: Plath & Sexton

Well, I’ve disappeared again. It seems like I have been opening my posts with the same “apology” (almost as pathetic as Qwikster), but I’ve learned so much while I was away. I have been burying myself in tons of life-shaking literature that I couldn’t get away from, and I’m happy to share with you what I have picked up.

I withdrew myself some time ago from continuing  to read the Bell Jar, a semi-autobiography by Sylvia Plath, because it hurt me so darn much to read it. It was like revisiting my nightmares—nightmares that more often than not creep into my waking life and torment me. Some people can read a piece of literature for the sheer enjoyment of it, observing a fictional account of a life from a distance. This novel in particular, however, grabbed a familiar, stale knife from my quiet kitchen and insidiously stabbed me with it. It is a funny feeling, however, to want it but at the same time hate it. Plath is like crack to my brain, but I’m making the best out of my experience with her writing by using this whole personal attraction to tragedy for good.

It was just recently that I was introduced more formally to Plath’s friend Anne Sexton. Sylvia and Anne were both literature classmates, confessional feminist poets of the late 50s to early 60s,  mothers of two children, and sadly, victims of the same tragic fate. For the style enthusiasts, Sylvia was a guest editor in 1953 at a prestigious fashion magazine called Mademoiselle (later bought by Glamour‘s publishing company, Condé Nas), and Anne was a model for a time. For those unfamiliar with either Plath or Sexton’s work,  the themes of their poetry revolve around death or suicide, madness, hate or  anger, and depression. It was interesting to read a particular poem from each woman centered on the joy of having children.

Plath wrote a poem called “Child” that may have been about her son Nicholas or daughter Frieda, while Sexton wrote “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman” about her daughter Linda. These two poems are not only similar in topic—they are also surprisingly off-theme and mostly delightful. We’ve all heard people sometimes say that children are glue to a troubled marriage. In this situation, for a short but significant time, children helped alleviate these women’s insanity. How marvelous was it that even for a moment in time, these women felt immense joy in their children despite their concurrent turmoil? It’s beautiful. Sadly, the women did not endure their hardships. Sylvia still separated from her husband, and she and Anne still eventually gassed themselves to death. Even when Sylvia “protected” her children from the gas by keeping them in another secure room, her protection only lasted for so long. Her children grew up not having the comfort of a mother and not having a good example to live (or die) by. Eventually, her son committed suicide himself in 2009, and her daughter got divorced three times. The mistress that Sylvia’s husband was with also took her life along with her child a few years after Sylvia died.

You can call these occurrences a genetic disorder or a venomous curse—you decide. What I was more interested in hearing about is how children can affect someone’s life—in a marriage situation or not. Do you have children or plan to have them? Why or why not? How have children changed your perspective in life when times were rough?

If you’re contemplating about suicide, please contact me or get some help from a friend or a professional. If you’d like to blog about your suicidal experience and triumph, it’d be great if you could participate here.

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13 thoughts on “Mothers of the Same Fate: Plath & Sexton

  1. Really interesting post, thank you for sharing. I have thus far only read The Bell Jar, and nothing of Anne Sexon. Definitely makes me curious to read some of her work!

    1. If you like Sylvia, most likely you will like Anne as well. They were taught by the same professor in college. It’s so bizarre how these two wound up with uncanny similarities.

  2. The Bible talks about the father’s sins visiting the third and fourth generations. What parents do most certainly DOES affect the children. I would love to have children some day in the future, though it’s going to be awhile (I’m 17.) Unfortunatley (or fortunatley! :) God is the one parents need to rely on, in and of themselves they can do nothing.
    A Modest Fashion Blog:

    1. Hi Natasha,

      The bible does talk about the generations curse (ex 20:5, 34:7, num 14:18, deut 5:9-10) and of course that all started from Adam and Eve’s sin. My family was the first in our family tree to ever become Christians, and we believe that we somehow broke off part of our lineage’s curse by being saved, but because we live in a fallen world, we are still subject to hardships.

  3. As a mother I feel talking about children this way demeans them. Children are not objects we use to feel better, they are gifts from God. We need to be of service to our children, not the other way around. Of course, children can bring great joy and even heartache when they “show us to ourselves” and give us opportunities to improve our character. I heard a minister say the best thing we can do for our children is improve our OWN character and I’d say these women could have done a lot better on that front. When you become a parent you have a responsibility to better yourself for the sake of your children (and the world). I read the Bell Jar in high school and it was a moving and important text. Suicide, though, is the most selfish act and obviously generations of children are paying the price.

    1. Hi Laura,

      It’s nice to hear from an actual mother, and I appreciate your response. I do believe children are gifts from God, and I was referring to them with high regard in this post, so I apologize for not making that clear. I was actually criticizing the poets (however much I admire their work) for choosing to abandon their children despite all the joy they brought to their lives. I wanted to open a discussion about children in hopes that we all will see their value—as gifts and not as disposable objects. I also favor having children, because I believe one of the reasons for marriage is to be fruitful (and multiply). I have a few friends who distinctly chose not to have children, and I hope that they will change their minds. We have responsibility to rear and raise children to be the light to the next generations, and of all people, we who are aware of this should be more inclined to do so.

    2. I also agree with being the servant to children. I was raised the other way from a really tough family. I was an employee under our family business since childhood, and I was never paid or allowed to leave until I married… which was even unapproved and despised by my parents. I worked for food, shelter, and education up until 22. I was taught by my parents to obey them as if they were God with no questions asked even in my adult years, and the things they asked me to do interfered with my beliefs and goals in life. I love my parents still, but I highly dissaprove of their parenting and philosophy.

  4. In my parents’ house. . the original owner (maybe the second owner) whom I know (he’s in his 90s now. .nearly 100) was married to his first wife in their home. He explained to us that his wife gassed herself in the place where my mom has been reading her Bible since they moved there in 1973. She locked her son in the basement (so he was fine. . sorta). She died and her son has been in a mental instution for a couple decades. The man remarried in time to an amazingly sweet woman who has such great faith in Christ (i love her). They had kids of their own (and one of them is a deaconess with me in our church) but she’s told me before how hard it is for her brother still to deal with his mother’s suicide.

    I don’t like how people glorify people like Sylvia Plath. I hate it.

    by the way, Qwikster is not happening. netflix emailed us today to say they are keeping the site as it is. yey!

    1. I never knew that about your house. It is really sad that people give up on themselves and not think about their children. I am glad that the man remarried and is a Christian :)

  5. It definitely affects you reading the bell jar. You have to be in the right place in your life. I read the entire thing in the emergency room, so not such a good place. What I really enjoyed more was the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath. I reccomend that to you if you like her or find her interesting.


  6. We haven’t written each other in a while. So good to see you posting again! :) This is a really interesting post. I haven’t read either authors. I actually haven’t read much of anything for years that whatever I have read I no longer even remember!
    I’m 20 weeks pregnant with my second child now. Finally :) I haven’t had an ultrasound. The doctor said I’m measuring big and she’s curious that I may be carrying twins. I’ll know this Friday. Kinda scary. My son is 4 1/2 now and having him in my life is amazing but there have been times that were impossible. His third year was the hardest yet. I got to some points where I felt like I didn’t know him and was at a complete loss of how to keep up with him. He would break my heart. But my husband and I prayed over him and continued to be steadfast and God has seen us through that hard time in such a huge way. Honestly, I’ve been thinking how could I love another baby as much as I love my son. When I’m sad (and being pregnant I’ve been pretty emotional) he preaches to me! Reminds me that Jesus loves me so much and that I need to have joy. He’ll even pray over me.
    Life with child(ren) is so different than life without (understatement?)… and it can be so rough! My husband continues to remind me when I start to get discouraged that if we are repentant of our sin and keep doing our best to seek God’s will in every decision we come across in child rearing that He’ll be faithful to see this job through. I’ve suffered from depression on and off for so many years and though we planned this pregnancy only a couple months into it I started to panic. I felt haunted by my passed sin so heavily that I’d forgotten everything I knew of God, his love his grace and mercy… and was thinking pretty seriously about suicide. I thought I’d completely lost my faith. I didn’t see a way around just getting out of this, I was so blinded and scared. And then started feeling guilty knowing God had given me my son, husband and this pregnancy… I kept thinking there was no way I could raise them in a way that would benefit them. That I wasn’t cut out for it, that God had made a mistake giving them to me. Plus being in youth ministry at the time and feeling like I was totally failing at helping the teen girls I felt like the future for my own kids was simply hopeless. I just didn’t feel like I could fight that fight.
    Thankfully I got the nerve to admit to my husband how terrified I was and how I just wanted to give up and he began to pastor me better and softly remind me of who God is and who I am in Him.

    So basically with all the emotional ups and downs, the hormones, heartache and exhaustion that can come with pregnancy and raising a child comes some serious strain on a mother’s faith and when she’s already broken and scared the enemy comes in and really uses that weakness. I really can’t imagine going through this without the foundation my husband and I already have on Christ. Having children is an incredible journey and blessing but no one can do it successfully on their own. As soon as I think I can I quickly realize it’s a battle only God can and will win. My hardest times have been when I think it’s all up to me. When I think I just need to find the right way of discipline, the perfect way of showing love, and the right schedule it’ll all work out. This thinking is so flawed, prideful and foolish! And I’m so guilty of it but praise God for His grace or I’d be right there with Sylvia Plath.

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