The Eclipse of Childhood into Motherhood:
A Biographical Analysis of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton

 

            The lives of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are often compared; the women are most commonly discussed as friends and famous female poets who both committed suicide.  Their biographical background is also similar.  These two authors followed parallel paths: both grew up in Wellesley, MA; both had two children; both divorced; both were poets; and both committed suicide.  Beyond the more obvious comparisons between these two female authors, there is one more similarity that is found in the relationships they had with their children.  Familial life had a profound impact on these women. Their experiences as children and young adults were further played out in their own motherly roles.  It is essential to examine the background of these writers, in order to further grasp a sense of the influence these experiences had on their maternal roles. The biographical backgrounds of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath reveal two mothers who sought refuge in their children.

            Born on November 8th in 1928, Anne Sexton was the third daughter of Ralph Churchill Harvey and Mary Gray Staples Harvey (Hall 1).  She grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she attended public school.  Anne proved to be a rambunctious and promiscuous girl, infatuated with boys and in typical teenage rebellions.  Despite her “carelessness and lack of attention…many of her report cards remarked on her verbal ability and intellectual agility” (Sexton 6). Sexton’s life outside of the home was comparatively happy.  Her parents were self-involved alcoholics.  Anne’s relationship with her mother was a heavily conflicted one.  Obsessed with her mother’s approval and attention, Anne clung to her mother, Mary, even though the affection was unreciprocated.  Mary Harvey was seen as a “vivacious, sociable woman, attractive, strong-willed, absorbed in her own concerns…she tended to squelch Anne or compete with her” (Middlebrook, 37).  In therapy sessions Anne would later say, “I always thought I was my mother’s favorite--I was just like her, I had to be: it’s a fixed idea” (Middlebrook 49). Her mother died of breast cancer on March 10, 1959 (Hall 6).  Sexton became guilty about her mother’s death.  She once wrote in a letter “My mother is dying of cancer.  She says I gave her cancer” (Hall 6). This troubled and unresolved relationship with her mother would soon be revisited in Sexton’s inability to mother her own children. 

            After graduating from high school, Anne attended junior college for one year, until meeting her husband, Alfred Sexton II, nicknamed “Kayo,” “through an exchange of letters” (Middlebrook 22).  They married on August 16, 1948, in Sunbury, NC (Middlebrook 23).  After serving in the Korean War, Kayo came back to the United States, and Anne and her husband moved back to Massachusetts. On July 1953, she gave birth to her first daughter, Linda Gray (Hall 4).  From this point Anne found another new role, the mother.  Anne became severely depressed following the months of Linda’s birth.  She was eventually diagnosed with post-partum depression.  During this period of depression, she became pregnant again and gave birth to a second daughter, Joyce (Joy) Ladd in August, 1955 (Hall 5).

            The birth of her daughters proved to be a tremendous stress on Anne.  She was emotionally unstable, and this adversely affected her ability to mother her young daughters.  She told her therapist Dr. Orne, “I want to be a child and not a mother, and I feel guilty about this” (Middlebrook 39).  Sexton’s daughters were unable to provide her “fulfillment as a woman, instead they made demands on her emotions; rather than feeding her hunger for acceptance, they required her to respond to their separateness” (Middlebrook 39).  She was often afraid of being alone with her daughters, fearful of physically abusing them, or possibly killing them (Middlebrook 33).  When Linda was a baby, she would occasionally have spells of rage in which she would choke and slap her.  Sexton recalled one incident in which she found Linda “stuffing her excrement into a toy truck and as a punishment picked her up and threw her across the room” (Middlebrook 33).  This incident was reminiscent of events in Sexton’s own childhood, when her mother would “inspect her bowel movements and threaten her with a colostomy if she didn’t cooperate with efforts to regulate elimination” (Middlebrook 15).  Anne’s love for Joy, the youngest daughter, seemed to be a projection for the love she longed for as a child.  Anne, herself the youngest daughter, had wanted to be the most attended to.  Sexton once spoke of her inability to love Linda, “I loved Joy…Something comes between me and Linda” (Middlebrook 73).  These connections between Sexton’s mother-daughter relationships, and her past relationship with her own mother were not so coincidental. 

            In 1973, after many arguments and accusations, Anne and Kayo Sexton divorced.  The end of the marriage brought on another phase of Anne’s life.  She became involved with various men, almost a revival of her behavior as a teenage girl.  Her own daughters were growing into young women.  At this point “she had grown to depend on [her daughters] warmth and concern for her, and she felt able to offer them some sort of intimacy her own mother had never been able to give” (Middlebrook 203).  However associated with this intimacy existed the unsettled mother-daughter relationship of her childhood.  Linda recalls, “The image lingers of a giant head pressing against [my] chest, insisting on being the baby, making [me] mommy; and the sense lingered of being asked for too much physical intimacy” (Middlebrook 204). Unfortunately, Sexton was still trying to seek some sort of childhood refuge through these disturbing interactions with her daughters.  Although Sexton’s relationships with her daughters were improving after her physical outbursts of the past, her spells of depression were inescapable.  Sexton’s life began to take a drastic downward spiral.  She regularly resorted to alcohol and sleeping pills as her own form of self-therapy.  She finished up her final three books of poetry, The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, and The Awful Rowing toward God (Hall 9), books that were published posthumously.  On October 4, 1974, she gave into her worst seducer--death, climbed into a running car in a closed garage and died at the age of forty-five (Middlebrook 397).  It was a suicide by asphyxiation, similar to the death of Sylvia Plath nine years prior.

            Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932 to Otto and Aurelia Schober Plath (Wagner 15).  The older of two children, she also grew up in Wellesley, MA.   She excelled as a student and writer during her childhood and teenage years; she was bright, ambitious, and sociable.  At eight years old, Plath was traumatized by the death of her father (Butscher 13).  This proved to be a source of pain and confusion for Sylvia.  As a child, Sylvia had gone out of her way to please her father.  This fostered a type of conditioning where “her major worth as a human being depended upon what she did rather than who she was” (Butscher 11).  In addition to her father’s praise for Sylvia’s accomplishments, he also maintained a patriarchal rule over the family.  This “created a certain amount of hidden hostility, which was transformed into anxiety by a daughter’s awareness of her need to repress negative emotions for fear of losing her father’s love” (Butscher10).  Thus she dealt with feelings of abandonment and spent much of her life unresolved about her father’s death.  These themes of abandonment continued throughout her life and were again revisited after her divorce from Ted Hughes.

            When Sylvia graduated from high school, she began attending Smith College in Northampton, MA.  Sylvia was constantly torn between differing images of herself, “Sylvia the modest, bright, dutiful…the poet, the golden girl…the sad little girl still hurting from the profound wound of her father’s rejection and abandonment of her” (Butscher 67).  In August of 1963, Sylvia was overtaken with inner turmoil and attempted suicide. The event made the papers and brought the depth of Plath’s depression into the public eye (Wagner 105).  Luckily, able to recover from her breakdown and continue as a student at Smith; she gained recognition as a writer, and after graduation received a Fulbright scholarship, enabling her to study at Cambridge University in London (Wagner 119).  It was in England that she met Ted Hughes, and by the summer of 1956, they were married (Hayman 107).  On April 1, 1960, Sylvia gave birth to her first child, Frieda Rebecca (Hayman 142). She continued her career as a writer and published her first book, The Colossus.  The birth of Frieda acted as a positive turning point her life, “I looked on my stomach and saw Frieda Rebecca, white as flour with the cream that covers new babies, little funny squiggles of hair plastered over he head…I have never been so happy in my life” (Wagner 175).  But, after Plath’s original excitement, postpartum depression sank in, and Sylvia became weary with the demands of a new baby.  In February of 1961 expecting yet another baby, Sylvia miscarried (Hayman 152).  This was a depressing event but Sylvia used the experience in her writing and turned out seven poems about the miscarriage.  Plath became pregnant again and successfully gave birth to her second child, Nicholas, on January 17, 1962 (Hayman 165).  Sylvia thus began the domestic life she often spoke negatively of in her earlier writings.  She was recognized as being a devoted and immensely nurturing mother by her neighbors.  Her children, in addition to her writing, remained her main responsibilities.  Extremely protective of them, she longed to shield them from the corruption of the world.  David Compton, a neighbor of the Plath’s recalled, “her children were central, nothing about their lives should be touched, not out of ego but fear, and she could be savage as a leopard in defending her offspring, in being protective” (Butscher 285).  She sought normalcy through her children. The perfectionist idealism embedded in Plath by her father (as a child) was once again reflected through her family life.  After the births of Frieda and Nicholas, Sylvia “desired more and more children--reasserting an earlier determination to breed a race of giants” (Butscher 257).

            Settling into her role as mother, Sylvia learned Ted was having an affair, less than a year after Nicholas’ birth.  By September the two were divorced.  Ted had left her for a young woman, Assia Wenvill, whom Sylvia had met and even entertained.  This monumental event again triggered Sylvia’s depression.  Sylvia later juxtaposed Ted’s affair beside that of Jason in Euripides Medea.  Like Medea, Sylvia had similar thoughts of killing herself or her children as revenge. 

            In December of 1962 she moved with Frieda and Nicholas, both still babies, to Primrose Hill (Hayman 187).  This proved to be a darkly ironic location where famed suicidal poet William Butler Yeats had once lived.  The time leading up to Sylvia’s death was similar to Sexton’s. It was a wave of devastating events.  The living conditions in the Primrose flat were horrendous; the children and Sylvia were constantly sick with the flu.  Pipes froze; heat was transitory, and Sylvia was striving to compensate for the absence of her children’s father.  She was once again forcing herself to overcome the loss of another man.  Her life at this point was seemingly the same as her mother’s after her husband’s death, “though she did not say it she would live the life own mother had led, a life [she] had often criticized for its self-sacrifice and dedication” (Wagner 241).  Sylvia put her final energies into trying to compensate for the loss of Ted in Frieda and Nicholas’ lives.  Yet “even if her freedom hadn’t been restricted by her children, she was too much of a perfectionist to be capable of starting all over again” (Hayman 194).  The stress of her children, the affair of her husband and subsequent divorce, in addition to the struggles she had always had with depression, ultimately brought her to her death.  Covering the doors and crevices to her children’s sleeping area; Sylvia put her head into the oven, turned on the gas, and killed herself by asphyxiation on February 11, 1963 (Wagner 243).  She was only thirty-one years old. 

            Both women and brilliant poets tried to find resolution for their own childhood issues and inner conflicts in their own children.  Sexton and Plath projected many of their own issues onto their children.  But they still proved to be loving mothers, though Anne Sexton was more of a destructive and inconsistent mother than Sylvia Plath.  She vented her own frustrations and inner turmoil into physical abuse and hoped to be “mothered” by her own daughters.  Yet even through Sexton’s physical outbursts “and though her children were never able to experience her as stable and reliable, her capacities for affection and pleasure endowed them with lasting emotional resources” (Middlebrook 135).  Anne Sexton loved her children and longed for them to have happy lives.  In one of the last letters Anne sent to Linda she wrote, “Be your own woman.  Belong to those you love.  Talk to my poems, and talk to my heart-- I’m in both: if you need me” (Sexton 424).  In response to her mother’s legacy, Joy once stated, “She was an emotional survivor, and so am I” (Middlebrook 394). Sylvia Plath assumed a hovering, protective position towards her children to relieve her own issues of abandonment, from her father and husband.  She shielded her children to prevent them from being harmed by the “world,” or the world beyond her control.  Frieda and Nicholas Plath were too young, while Sylvia was still alive to articulate any views about her.  She, just as Anne left did, poems for her children as recognizable symbols of her love for them.

            The lives of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are tragic legacies.  In response to Sylvia’s suicide, Anne Sexton wrote, “The loss of it, the terrible loss of the more she could have done” (Wagner-Martin 9). This line is just as true for Anne Sexton.  They left the literary community with powerful and symbolic poetry.  Furthermore the complexity of their lives is left to be examined.  Before being criticized for their negative roles as mothers, one must understand the biographical and psychological basis for their actions.  These women carried their unsettled childhood conflicts into their maternal roles.    Although not idealistic mothers, they were mothers hopeful of changing the adversity of their past through the promising lives of their children.  Both of these women were able to experience life through their children, despite their untimely death. 



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