I bought the volume of The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton that sits beside me now in graduate school. It wasn’t for a class. I’d loaned my apartment to a friend’s sister over winter break, and when I returned, I found a $15 gift certificate to the university bookstore on my kitchen table. The book cost $14.95.
Life works like this. Poetry works like this, and writing, too – and mothering. We cannot always plan what will be important to us. We have to be open – even during the winter, even through the symbol of an empty apartment – for something lovely and life-changing to happen.
I went on to write about Anne in my dissertation, which eventually became the book, We Heal from Memory, about how poetry helps us heal from traumatic histories. Anne lives in me – as a poet, as a scholar, as a mother. As my daughter turns 13 and enters womanhood, I want to say to her the lines in “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman,” written to Anne’s daughter, Linda:
What I want to say, Linda,
is that there is nothing in your body that lies.
All that is new is telling the truth. 
But I am not Anne. I am not as fierce, and thankfully, I am not in as much pain. Because of the progress that has taken place – advances in women’s rights, feminism, and female-centered therapy – I am a happily healed poet. Anne committed suicide in 1974, a month and a half before her 46th birthday – which is exactly the age I am now – and though I remember the land of suicidal feeling, I am, right now, as the cardinal sings outside my window on a bare branch in the February cold, “Not there, not there, not there.”
And then there is Sylvia Plath. Any talk of mother-poets and suicides must include her – the lovely, courageous, and fragile poet who also attended Robert Lowell’s poetry class at Boston University with Anne. There, they became friends – or frenemies, as Sylvia’s suicide caused Anne to tell her psychiatrist, “Sylvia’s death disturbs me. Makes me want to do it. She took something that was mine, that death was mine” (Morrow 76).
The story of Plath’s suicide is well-known – the sleeping children, the bread and milk, the oven. The elements read like symbols in a poem, and indeed, Plath wrote about the even darker possibility – taking the children with her into death – in her last poem, “Edge.”
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower. 
This season of Plath’s life was beautifully rendered by Kate Moses into a novel called Wintering, which was published in 2003, when my daughter was 3. I read it, hungrily, that year, as that was, for me, the most difficult period of mothering, as the baby receded from me and left me anxious, and my desire to “be a writer” was eclipsed by rejection letters and financial worries, and my marriage moved into increasing instability as we re-negotiated our new selves as parents.
Every mother has a winter season. We don’t talk about it much anymore. We hold up Sexton and Plath as counter-examples, we say, “Oh, how much has changed!” and we rush, in the course of one day, to job, soccer, homework, yoga, PTA, shopping, and bed. We have more options now, in the outside world. But still, mothering is an inside job. It is emotional. It takes place in intimate spaces. It demands we go down into our inner worlds and then come up for air and light.
And this, if I could go back to myself in 2003, is what I would say: “Hold on. The work you are doing now – though it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like pain and rage and chaos and the house of your heart in constant earthquake – is what will pull you through to the other side. To a way of mothering that feels whole and healthy. To a writer self that is confident and flowing. To a marriage that continues to be sweet and growing. Keep going.”
And that’s exactly what I want to say to you, dear reader, birthing your own mother writer in this season of winter.
Because in 2003, Literary Mama was just being founded by my friend, Amy Hudock. And here we are, ten years later.
You do not know what is being founded right now, for you, as a mother, as a writer, that will change your life.
Because life works like this. We have to be open – even during the winter season – for something lovely and life-changing to happen. So hold on. Keep going. It is your own self you are conceiving.
I have been writing the “Birthing the Mother Writer” column since 2009, and this year I will do something a bit different. Each month of my column will focus on an aspect of the writing and publishing process, sharing my insights and connecting them to mother writers who can help you in your development as a writer.
For we are still, many of us, feeling very alone. Right now, ask yourself: How many mother writers did you study in school? How many are on your bookshelves? Whose work lives and breathes in you as models to follow?
This year, I will introduce you to the mother writers who can help you through the winter – and the spring and summer and fall. And you will have a chance to read them, write in response to them, and share your own stories of growing through the seasons.
Here’s your first chance:
I invite you to submit your writing on the themes from this month’s column. Try one of these ideas:
Read poetry by Anne Sexton and/or Sylvia Plath and write your own poem in response.
Write about the legacies of either Sexton or Plath in your own life: do they remind you of your mother or yourself? Have you struggled with similar experiences – sexual abuse, domestic violence, adultery, suicide? How did your writing help you through?
What was your “wintering” season in mothering? Looking back, what do you wish you had known? What advice would you give to other mothers living through such a season?
In the tradition of Kate Moses’ novel, Wintering, write a short story based on the life of a mother writer that you admire, or fear, or emulate, or wish you could have known.
Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by February 25th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 1” in the subject line, include a brief bio and place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email.
By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.
Moses, Kate. Wintering. Anchor, 2003.
Morrow, Lance. “Pains of the Poet and Miracles.” Time Sept. 1991: 76.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Harper Collins, 1981.
Sexton, Anne. The Complete Poems . Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Steele, Cassie Premo. We Heal from Memory. Palgrave, 1999.