Motherhood

I revisted a poem by Sylvia Plath this evening – a poem called ‘Morning Song’. It’s one she published in her second anthology Ariel. It’s not a favourite, but one stanza in particular has always haunted me…Perhaps haunted isn’t the right word. But it did definitely strike me the first time I read it, and the echo of that discordant note still sounds about me faintly. And of all the countless notes that buzz about my head in this cacophonous way, in some durable white noise, I suppose I tuned into this one tonight because of what I saw on the train home this evening.

I saw a family – a mother, a father and a brother – all taunting a small boy. He couldn’t have been more than four. He was their son, their sibling. I’ve written about the experience itself in my last post. It was shocking. The way the father and the older brother jeered and jostled the small child was appalling. But all their taunts and tricks weren’t nearly as shocking somehow as the comparative passiveness of the mother. The lighter ribbing of the older brother I could somewhat understand. My own brother is ten years my junior and when we were younger I probably tormented him in similar ways and, sadly, no doubt with similar glee.

The behaviour of the father on the other hand definitely rattled me. In fact, it disgusted me: the way he egged the older brother on and rewarded each newly devised torment with an encouraging “son” while on his youngest he showered only invective.”Fag”. “Gay Boy”. “Nancy.”

Yet somehow that still didn’t compare to the easy complicitness of the mother. She just looked on idly, offering only slaps when her son begged for cuddles. Watching that scene, it seemed to go against everything we, or certainly I, consider maternal love. I don’t even think of it as a choice – not necessarily at least. It’s an instinct – a mother’s instinct – a biological imperative to nuture, love and protect; to nurse, soothe and embrace – an axis on which the earth turns.

What I saw today, although I suppose not horrific in the grand scheme of things, still forced me to question that certainty. And so I was reminded of the poem, ‘Morning Song’ and in particular it’s third stanza:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Plath, who would not long after writing this commit suicide with her two children in the next room, writes that she is no more the mother of her son than a cloud which dropping its pregnant store of rain leaves a puddle upon the ground. A puddle which, in turn, reflects within its clear, unbroken surface that same cloud’s slow and inevitable erasure. Plath takes the traditional, warm, hearth-fire cosy notion of maternity and dashes it into cold waters. In these three lines the gift of giving birth, of giving life becomes a curse. Motherhood numbs. It innures and robs women of their very womanhood.

In the rest of the poem Plath is left frumpy and clumping. She is no longer the active agent in her life, but an emptied vessel not acting, but only acted upon. Sounds play upon her in a muffle, as though heard through cotton. Plath feels she has given birth to something (and it really is that – a something) which serves only to remind her of her own demise. New life confirms inevitable death.

And I think back to that mother on the train, her look of passivity, her ease at seeing her son so distressed and bleary-eyed. Unmoving. Imperturbable. And again I try to remember that in the grand scheme of things what I saw was…very little ~ I can hardly say trival. And who, afterall, can say what goes on behind the closed doors of her home, perhaps it’s better, perhaps she is more loving, more attentive, more…dare I say it…motherly? But then, there is always a chance – a strong one – that it could be worse.

I was wrong before…these lines do haunt me. They haunt me helplessly.

MORNING SONG
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
 
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
 
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
 
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
 
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
 
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons
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