House Wife Blues: Plath, The Bell Jar, and Writerly Neuroses
Yesterday, my boyfriend and I were out walking the dog, and I was feeling shitty about work as usual. Rounding the corner where the Bay meets the roadway, sun setting pinkly, I blurted out, “Sometimes I just wish I could be a housewife.” He looked at me and said, “Me too.”
That was the end of it. Which pissed me off even more. I wanted to have a legitimate conversation about what it means to be a housewife (which, by the way, I could never be in the 19050s sense), the fact that it’s not even an option anymore for most women. We’re worker bees now, too. It’s only fair. If I want to stay home, which I kind of do, I have to figure out a way to pull in enough income to pay the mortgage on the house I bought all by myself. I have to be able to pull my weight. Not to mention take care of the dogs, do the laundry, make dinners–all because I’m home, which somehow still means, not doing anything at all. My boyfriend would never say or think these things, by the way, but I would. I struggle with these concepts because I would feel guilty if I had the luxury to write. As if writing isn’t work. Writing poetry isn’t work, it’s what you do in your spare time.
In her essay “The Bell Jar at 40,” Emily Gould writes of Sylvia Plath:
Of course not everyone was as sensitive as Plath was, and not everyone was such a compulsive overachiever. Trying to be all things to all people, especially if two of those things are “creative genius” and “mother,” still seems like a recipe for unhappiness, if not certain death. While I do think of Plath as a feminist icon, I don’t think it’s necessary to essentialize her in the way the feminists who chipped “Hughes” off her gravestone did. Those feminists want Plath to be a victim—specifically, a victim of Hughes and America’s repressive 1950s perfect-housewife culture. And Plath was a victim: a victim of not being able to see any situation she was in clearly. She wanted very badly to live in a reality where she was a good, kind person who was also a good mother, but that part of her was always fighting with being a very selfish person who wanted to devote time and resources to her work. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to want—it’s just not compatible with being a pretty, popular girl who is nice to everyone all the time. Instead of acknowledging this impossibility, Plath tried to keep both sides of herself going until the whole precarious enterprise broke down. It broke down in New York, and then it broke down again, forever, ten years later in London.
This business of trying to be all things to all people is a taxing and asinine endeavor. I’ve spent a good many years doing it. A few years ago, I had an experience in which I woke up in the middle of the night and saw myself staring at myself from across the room. Which sounds crazy, but really it was just my brain actualizing the struggle, to use Gould’s language, to keep both sides of myself going. Plath didn’t have much choice, I believe, even if she did. Society was pretty clear about what was expected of her and sort of let her bleed out, both literally and figuratively, because she was such a talent–though in the end she managed to deny and defy the world in the ultimate way.
Maybe, as a woman born in the late-70s, I was raised to believe that I literally could and should do everything (though it would be better to marry a doctor): be selfless and kind (barf!), clean the house, cook the meals, take care of rugrats, have a meaningful career, be sexual and sensual, stay in good shape, have creative outlets, etc. etc. (Maybe men have been raised the same way, but I’m no man.) In a way, Plath epitomizes the feminine compulsive overachiever. Part societal expectation, part genuine psychosis, it was those disparate pieces of herself that she never managed to merge and that sent her reeling toward the oven. I’m not going to be good at anything anymore is what she could have been saying. Being an all-around success became a burden.
My brother wrote to me the other day, “We’re neurotic. That’s part of our allure,” which made me nervous (ha!) that I was veering dangerously close to some writerly stereotype, that I like so many others have worshipped at the Altar of Plath et al. I don’t believe neuroses are an inevitable part of being a writer. I think we cultivate and love our neuroses because of the drama and interest they create for us. As many doomed writers do, Plath hit a crossroads in her life as a writer/mother/wife/teacher. She was going to either have to change and grow fundamentally (the common crisis of hitting 30) or she was going to have to stop the madness altogether–but perhaps mental illness didn’t give her the luxury to choose sanity. I’m talking more about me here than Plath.
For a few years before and after I turned 30, I wasn’t sure which way I’d go (in my case, sane or batshit crazy), but I knew I could not go on in the same trajectory; I couldn’t write the same poems or think the same obsessive dark thoughts or live in the imaginary loop I’d created. I am not mentally ill, but I was up against a wall and likely will be again, and here’s the thing: It was never, will never be writing that dooms me or saves me. It’s just me.