As a twenty-year-old student at Smith College, Sylvia Plath insisted that "Graduate school and travel abroad are not going to be stymied by any squealing, breastfed brats" (source). Far too many women, she thought, were forced to give up any thoughts of their own life and work to take care of babies and maintain homes. Plath, determined to write and travel, found it difficult to imagine a future that adhered to the traditional roles women tended to occupy in the early 20th century.
Shortly after graduating from Smith, however, Plath received a Fulbright fellowship and travelled to Cambridge, England – where she met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Plath soon realized that she actually wanted to have children, and began a long (and agonizing) attempt to have a baby.
"Morning Song," written shortly after the birth of Plath's first child, explores both Plath's long-seated ambivalence towards motherhood and her growing love for her child. Exploring the strangeness and unnaturalness latent in the mother/infant relationship, Plath steps outside sentimental conventions. Her baby daughter isn't a lamb or a dove or any of the other cutesy little images that tend to cluster on "It's a Girl!" announcement cards. In fact, this poem doesn't just discuss the baby's birth – it addresses her child as an intellectual equal.
Although "Morning Song" was originally published in The Observer in May of 1961 (shortly after the birth of Plath's first child, Frieda), it wasn't included in a book-length collection until after her death. Ariel, the last of Plath's poetry collections, came out in 1966.
It's all too tempting to read all of Sylvia Plath's work in light of her ongoing struggle with depression and mental illness, and "Morning Song" is no exception. Such a reading, however, tends to gloss over the complicated emotions that almost any mother could feel at the thought of being suddenly responsible for a completely helpless little human being – or her recognition of the bond growing between the two.
Hey, relationships are complicated. Isn't that what your mother/brother/best friend told you the last time that you had problems with your boyfriend/girlfriend… or your teacher… or your dog? Chances are that pretty much every person you deal with on a regular basis has inspired feelings that aren't always happy and warm and fuzzy. Emotions, it seems, aren't black and white. In fact, they're usually all sorts of shades of grey.
It's exactly this sort of complicated emotional response that speaker is dealing with as she interacts with her baby for the first time. So why should this mixed response seem so shocking? Well, maybe that's because everybody is supposed to looooooove babies. After all, they're genetically designed to sucker-punch us into cooing and ooohing and aaahing over their witty-bitty fingers and toes.
But what if you're the person who has to tote this little, crying, defenseless thing around for the next eighteen years or so? After all, for centuries women's primary "job" was to be a mother. Maybe those witty-bitty toes start to seem less charming when you realize that your job description just went from "poet" or "public intellectual" to "changer of diapers." We're not saying that it's a demotion. It's just one heck of a change.
It's this complicated response that Plath works out in her poem – and it's one that helps us think through all the ways that we might have mixed feelings about the ways that our relationships shape our identities, as well. Even if they're not relationships with babies.