Monday, May 9, 2011

Reflections on Mother's Day, With a Poem Thrown In...

Guest Post by Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel

Mother's Day, Mother's Day, the adverts are everywhere--for frilly boxes of chocolates, showy bouquets of flowers, pink and red greeting cards, for restaurant reservations honoring Mom's big day... It's never been a major occasion here at Casa Biscuitbarrel. When our sons were small, they made glittery tokens of affection at their schools. The senior Mrs. B requires a telephone call from her son, but nothing more. Anything else would be, in her word, "excessive." And given the ugly relationship my mother had with me, and the homage I was expected to shower upon her in return... well, let's just allow the day to pass as peaceably as possible. That's all I hope for. Flowers arrive for me from Mr. B and the boys. Invariably, I'm surprised.

"Mother's Day is an opportunity to atone up for three hundred and sixty-four days of previous neglect," wryly noted Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who gave birth thirteen times. Cheaper By the Dozen, a wildly popular book written by two of Gilbreth's offspring, catered to post-World War II book buyers by markedly playing down Gilbreth's role as a female pioneer in the field of industrial engineering, in favor of portraying her as an eerily calm, devoted mother who carried her knitting everywhere. Before this revisionist history was published, journalists interviewing Mrs. Gilbreth stressed her "femininity." Forget the doctorate degree, the professional presentations, papers and books published in conjunction with her husband before his untimely death, alone afterwards; one particularly flattering article described Mrs. Gilbreth refashioning the twelve yards of silk from the skirt of her wasp-waisted Edwardian wedding dress into a less formal, 'Twenties-style bridal gown for her eldest daughter, Anne.

Sarah Palin is another, far less admirable. example of a present-day woman who has pointedly focused some of her fame on her balancing act between motherhood and highly paid... can we really call it "work"? Now that Palin no longer sends e-mails to State of Alaska employees sniping, "I hate this damn job," Palin has turned from a half-term governor to engineering of a sort, creating a glossy image of an outspoken mother who delivers the same speech again and again for six-figure fees, who rarely nurtures at home, and whom, we suspect, "mothers" primarily when photographers are present. Those of us who take motherhood at least a tad more seriously (and far less lucratively) than Palin have had more than two years now to mull over "the Reckless Ride." That's what Kathleen of Politicalgates has re-christened the so-called "Wild Ride." Despite what Megan Carpentier of might think, the majority of those here who question Palin's priorities as a parent are mothers ourselves. Some are grandmothers. Some are women who have not been able to carry a pregnancy to term. Statistically, it would be a miracle if none of the female Trig Truthers ever had chosen to terminate a pregnancy, or had had to relinquish a newborn baby to be raised by other parents.

"Three Women," by Sylvia Plath, is a poem in three voices, each expressing a different story of a woman's experiences of procreation--First Voice, who becomes a mother, Second Voice, who miscarries, and Third Voice, whose pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted. First performed on the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1962, poet and Plath biographer Anne Stevenson calls it "perhaps the first great poem of motherhood in the English language." I did not discover this poem until Plath's Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Poems was published in 1981. In that year, I was extricating myself painfully from a disastrous early marriage. I remember weeping bitterly over First Voice's rush of wonder, in the words devoted to her newborn son:

"What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
I have never seen a thing so clear.
His lids are like the lilac-flower
And soft as a moth, his breath.
I shall not let go.
There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so."

Thirty years ago, I wondered if I ever, ever would glory in such an experience. I hand-lettered those lines onto the cards for baby gifts for a few friends, but would not allow myself to imagine, then, that those words could come to life in my arms. Six years and three thousand miles later, for the first time, they did. And re-reading those words, as my young adult sons now tower over me, with their unshaven faces and deep voices, I privately--very privately--wish that they will marry and have children in their turn. But what I do not wish is for them, or for their wives, to use their children as symbols, to thrust them forward and assign them roles--"The Combat Veteran," say--that are not only public, but in which the symbol's voice remains mute. Have we ever heard Track speak?

First Voice is a wife. Like those of us who have borne children, wives or not, as she progresses deep into pregnancy, First Voice proclaims,

"...When I walk out, I am a great event.
I do not have to think, or even rehearse.
What happens in me will happen without attention...
I cannot help smiling at what it is I know.
Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready."

On March 5, 2008, the day after John McCain won Super Tuesday, thus virtually guaranteeing that he would be the Republican candidate for president, Sarah Palin had known for a year that she was on a list of potential vice-presidential candidates. On that day, she announced for the first time that she was in the seventh month of pregnancy, and made herself "a great event." As we have discovered, "what happen[ed] in [her]... happen[ed]" with plenty of attention, and to the astonishment of her staff and reportedly, even her own children. "I cannot help smiling at what it is I know," indeed. Coats worn indoors, "leaves and petals" in the form of voluminous, colorful scarves, a pillow stuffed down her pants, and for at least one photo opportunity, an "empathy belly"--Palin's smile more closely resembled a smirk. "See how I fooled them all!?", it said to me.

Second Voice is a working wife, a secretary, who laments, "When I first saw it, the small red seep, I did not believe it." Incredulous, she continues,

"I watched the men walk about me in the office. They were so flat!
There was something about them like cardboard, and now I had caught it."

Not only has Sarah Palin--she says--undergone one miscarriage, before or after the birth of Piper, but in Going Rogue, her ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent, went to great lengths to explain how Palin's "perfectly timed" 1989 pregnancy that she knew was a boy, a boy to name Tad, due exactly one year after the birth of Track, is a miscarriage, do we understand? Not an abortion, painted over with Wite-Out on the medical forms. And the doctor was mean, peering at the sonogram screen and "flatly" saying, "There's nothing alive in there." Either way, Palin is "flat... like cardboard," and she makes a tremendous show of her loss in a best-selling book. Second Voice mourns privately:

"I shall move north. I shall move into a long blackness.
I see myself as a shadow, neither man nor woman,
Neither a woman, happy to be like a man, nor a man
Blunt and flat enough to feel no lack. I feel a lack..."

As we students of Palintology have noted, and not without sympathy (when we can muster it), Sarah Palin definitely feels a lack. Many of them, in fact. She has told us all about them. She never misses the opportunity to paint herself as the victim. She was not the prettiest of the Heath daughters, or the family's best student, or the most gifted athlete. Her parents did not give her "a backpack and a Eurailpass" so that she could skylark around Europe. She lacked continuity in her education, pledged no sorority as a sister did, and her short attention span motivated her to hop from job to job. Her children seem to merit only sporadic mention and care. And one more thing: Sarah Palin, in the spring of 2008, definitely was flat. Before Elan Frank's videocamera, which had traveled from Israel through the "long blackness" north to interview her, Palin thumps emphatically, almost brutally, on a square, flat object curiously lodged under her black jersey.

We know that at least briefly, Sarah Palin played the role of Third Voice. Though not a student at the time, she conceived a child out of wedlock. A circumstance as old as womankind, it is true, but "Three Women" was written at a time when illegitimacy was a scandal, something to be hidden. Before World War II, maternity homes in the United States encouraged mothers to breast-feed their babies, and despite the taint of illegitimacy, did not assume automatically that the child would be surrendered to adoptive parents. However, in the postwar fetishization of happy homes filled with children, from 1945 until around 1970, young pregnant white women who did not marry immediately most often were "sent to visit relatives," as the euphemism went, hidden away until their babies were born and placed in foster or adoptive homes. Third Voice recalls with horror,

"I remember the minute when I knew for sure.
The willows were chilling,
The face in the pool was beautiful, but not mine--
It had a consequential look, like everything else...
I wasn't ready."

Sarah Palin may not have been "ready" when her first child--that we know of--was conceived in 1988. But she took decisive action, eight months before her child was born. Sarah and Todd eloped. The wedding feast took place at the drive-through window at Wendy's, and then the couple had their picture taken. As a married woman, Palin enjoyed the status of a new bride, spared the indignity of Third Voice, who:

"...thought I could deny the consequence--
But it was too late for that. It was too late, and the face
Went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready."

Visiting the hospital in which her unplanned child will be born, Third Voice's comfort only can be found in the scornful tone of her voice:

"I am a mountain now, among mountainy women.
The doctors move among us as if our bigness
Frightened the mind. They smile like fools.
They are to blame for what I am, and they know it.
They hug their flatness like a kind of health.
And what if they found themselves surprised, as I did?
They would go mad with it."

Ironically, much later in life, Sarah Palin "hug[s] her flatness like a kind of health." Once she entered the public eye full time in 2008, she became obsessively lean, living on "a few bites of steak" daily, and sips of Red Bull and Diet Dr. Pepper, according to the book Game Change. If Palin was not pregnant on April 17, 2008, the night her "pregnancy" went altogether unnoticed by the keenly trained eyes of the Alaska Airlines flight attendants," her "flatness" indeed was "like a kind of health." With her empathy belly in the suitcase, there was no need to call for a seat-belt extender, no frequent trips to the loo. On her orders, on her trip to Texas and back, Palin was escorted by no "security" but Todd. There was no need to visit the NICU at Providence Hospital in Anchorage, and the extra hour's drive to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer--if it occurred--represented merely an extra hour tacked onto an already tiring day.

Bristol Palin has played the role of Third Voice at least twice, we believe, but despite the rage, fear, and family in-fighting she must have endured, she was spared Third Voice's secrecy and isolation. Her form of "isolation" was unique, unprecedented in American history. Thousands of conventioneers and millions in the home television-viewing audience gawked at this unmarried, pregnant teenager, a symbol of her family's "values," as Bristol stood with the rest of the Palins, and with her then-"fiance" Levi Johnston, before the Republican National Convention. "I am not ready for anything to happen," said Third Voice, as Bristol may have said to herself then, and as she certainly said to herself, in some form or another, before telling her parents that she was pregnant. That, she said, was "harder than labor." How did she know? If that were the case, how could Tripp, reportedly born in December 2008, be Bristol's first child? But only one "choice" awaited her, having come to sexual maturity in a family that clearly eschewed teaching a "popular" teen anything about contraception. "I should have murdered this, that murders me," mourns Third Voice. But neither is that an option for Bristol, as it very possibly may have been for her mother at some point in her life.

Sylvia Plath, who had difficulty conceiving her first child, and experienced a miscarriage between the births of her two children, obviously drew on her experiences to speak with such authority as all three voices. Readers of Plath's biographies know that she enjoyed an active premarital sex life with a number of partners between 1953 and 1956, the year she married poet Ted Hughes. An irregular menstrual cycle, and occasional carelessness about using that hard-won diaphragm (illegal to own in Massachusetts in the 1950s) led to pregnancy scares, which Plath documented ruefully in her published journals. Had Plath conceived a child out of wedlock, it is not unlikely that if she did not marry, she would have experienced the ultimate trauma of Third Voice, carrying the fetus to term, followed by relinquishment. Where First Voice announces, with the weary pride of new motherhood, "One cry. It is the hook that I hang on. And I am a river of milk. I am a warm hill," Third Voice's ambivalence and grief cuts the reader to the bone. The word "hook," here, takes on a far more ominous meaning:

"I see her in my sleep, my red, terrible girl.
She is crying through the glass that separates us.
She is crying, and she is furious...
Her cries are hooks that catch and grate like cats.
It is by these hooks she climbs to my notice...
I think her little head is carved in wood,
A red, hard wood, eyes shut and mouth wide open...
My daughter has no teeth. Her mouth is wide.
It utters such dark sounds it cannot be good."

Third Voice has trouble seeing anything "good" about her nameless daughter. Unlike Bristol, Third Voice will schedule no highly paid photo ops. Her daughter will not appear in her mother's arms on magazine covers, or on the dust jacket of a book written by someone else. The best outcome that Third Voice can hope for her daughter may belong to a First Voice-like adoptive mother, but it is too soon for that thought to bring any comfort. Third Voice grieves,

"She is a small island, asleep and peaceful,
And I am a white ship hooting: Goodbye, goodbye...
There is very little to go in my suitcase.
There are the clothes of a fat woman I do not know...
I am a wound walking out of hospital.
I am a wound that they are letting go.
I leave my health behind. I leave someone
Who would adhere to me: I undo her fingers like bandages: I go."

Since we do not know for certain the identity of Trig Palin's biological mother, somewhere, a woman has "undo[ne his] fingers like bandages." If Bristol did, in fact, give birth to Trig, she would join a long line of women whose babies were raised as their "brothers," as were Bobby Darin and Jack Nicholson.

One in-our-face difference between the voices of "Three Women" and the Palin women is that the experiences of two of the Voices are intensely private. When Third Voice is a "wound walking out of hospital," there are no paparazzi to document it. Come to think of it, there are no photographs of Sarah Palin walking out of Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, or the unnamed Anchorage hospital that Palin inexplicably mentioned in a Waco speech--why is that? Second Voice works among "flat" men who are unaware of her loss. "Parliament Hill Fields," a poem that Plath wrote after her miscarriage, contains a potent phrase:

"Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack."

This admirably sums up the isolation felt by women who have miscarried a wanted pregnancy. After reapplying her then-modish bright-red lipstick, Second Voice tries to console herself:

ycan tell what I lack. .
"I can love my husband, who will understand.
Who will love me through the blur of my deformity
As if I had lost an eye, a leg, a tongue...
I am myself again. There are no loose ends.
I am bled white as wax, I have no attachments.
I am flat and virginal, which means nothing has happened.
Nothing that cannot be erased, ripped up and scrapped, begun again...
This woman who meets me in windows--she is neat."

But as all women know, a miscarriage means something has happened, yet we appear tidy, "neat," as though nothing had happened. Not even discussing her loss with her husband, Second Voice both suppresses and feels her pain:

"Tasting the bitterness between my teeth
The incalculable malice of the everyday."

Though First Voice could be considered fortunate, compared with Second and Third Voices, she already is feeling premonitions of danger for her baby son. Sitting in her pretty nursery, which she has "papered with big roses [and] painted little hearts on everything," First Voice muses,

"I shall meditate upon normality
I shall meditate upon my little son...
I do not will him to be exceptional.
It is the exception that interests the devil.
It is the exception that climbs the sorrowful hill
Or sits in the desert and hurts his mother's heart.
I will him to be common,
To love me as I love him,
And to marry what he wants and where he will."

First Voice's devout wishes did not, in the end, save Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself when her daughter was two years old, her son just eleven months of age. Nicholas Farrar Hughes was genuinely exceptional, which must have "interest[ed] the devil." Fascinated by natural sciences from a very early age, and a gifted student, Hughes graduated from Oxford before receiving a doctorate from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. There, he avoided members of the English department. They understood, they said, in articles written after Hughes' death.

Dermot Cole, a Fairbanks-based journalist, asked Hughes several times for an interview. "A few times, I called him to let him know I would like to write about his life and his family connections, whenever a news story about his parents appeared, but he did not think it was a good idea, so it never happened. He deserved his privacy. In Alaska, he had the freedom and the opportunity to live on his own terms and be recognised for his own accomplishments. Here he was not a literary figure forever defined by the lives of his parents."

As a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at UAF, Hughes, a popular faculty member, stood on ice floes with his graduate students, tabulating fish migration patterns. After a lifetime of battling depression, in March 2009 he hung himself in the home he shared with his girlfriend. His sister, poet and painter Frieda Hughes, is the sole survivor of the little Hughes family; British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes died of cancer in 1998. Neither Frieda nor Nick became parents. The shock of Nicholas' death made me feel that I had lost a son. I hoped that Alaska would save him, that living half a world away from his parents' legacy as arguably the two most gifted poets of the twentieth century would keep him safe.

But as mothers we know that no matter how hard we try, no matter how cautious and caring, our children are not ours. Up to a certain age, they are entrusted to us for safekeeping, but safety is something we never can guarantee, not really. First Voice asks:

"How long can I be a wall, keeping the wind off?
How long can I be
Gentling the sun with the shade of my hand,
Intercepting the blue bolts of a cold moon?
The voices of loneliness, the voices of sorrow
Laps at my back ineluctably.
How shall it soften them, this little lullaby?"

We do the best we can, most of us. (Out of tact, I will omit the names of people whom I do not believe are doing the best that they can.) Even Second Voice, whose pain is so great and so invisible to others, begins to feel hope, to stand straight once more:

"I find myself again. I am no shadow
Though there is a shadow starting from my feet. I am a wife.
The city waits and aches. The little grasses
Crack through stone, and they are green with life."

May all of us, mothers and others, be renewed, become "green with life" once more. I hope you all had a very happy Mother's Day.

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