Me and Edvard Munch:
The year is 1979. My friend Linda and I are sitting at an outdoor cafe having lunch and talking about babies.
“Your problem,” says Linda, “is you have a choice.”
I’m 31, and have been thinking, if I want babies it’s time to get on with it.
Linda is 52 and has three grown kids.
“When I got married babies just happened” she continues, “but now there’s the pill–you get to choose. Poor you.”
Linda was absolutely right. We thought we were liberated, but damn.
Michael and I had been trying to decide for years. I hate that word try. You either decide or you don’t. It all seemed so complicated–I had one baby foot in a television career and the learning curve was all consuming. We talked about it often with no results. “Do you want kids?” I’d ask. “Do you?” he’d answer.
One spring morning my friend Mary Lou and I went to see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. It was a blockbuster show of 240 paintings. I knew Munch from THE SCREAM and not much else.
The exhibition notes were chilling: “For several years I was almost mad…” Munch said, “You know my picture, ‘The Scream’?’’ I was stretched to the limit–nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”
I learned Munch was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown in 1908 and lived what could only be described as a miserable life.
For the next two mesmerized hours I went through the exhibit twice. What really struck me were the self-portraits, none of them graced by happiness. There were at least a dozen in the show and in each one Munch looked increasingly tortured.
I’d never seen anything like it. This man was brutally honest. The show was in chronological order and each self-portrait showed an increasingly depressed man. I knew this because I had worked at a psychiatric hospital and was taught the physical signs of clinical depression. A depressed person’s face has a furrowed brow and lips that turn down at the corners. The classic example is Richard Nixon on the day he resigned.
Every one of Munch’s self portraits were textbook illustrations. Decade by decade you could see his depression grow worse…
I can’t imagine Munch knew what he was painting–what did he know about the symptoms of clinical depression? He just looked in the mirror and painted what he saw. Unflinchingly. The man had every opportunity to cheat a little, make himself look less haunted, but he didn’t.
Had I ever been that brutally honest with myself? I slunk to a bench on the mall, sat in the sunshine and decided to give it a try. Ok, babies. What to do about babies? Let’s think it through.
I had just finished reading a biography about one of my heroes, the groundbreaking anthropologist Margaret Mead, and was bummed to find out she was a terrible mother and a lousy wife. (Mead scholars may say I got it all wrong, but this is how it seemed to me.) Even worse, her groundbreaking fieldwork was now being disputed. It was clear she did a less than perfect job at all three.
Hmmm… Did I know anyone who was doing better? I knew women who were terrific mothers, I knew women who had great marriages and I knew women who had major careers. But all three? No, I didn’t. I could think of a handful that were successful at two out of three.
Maybe it’s different now, but in 1979 we who considered ourselves liberated were on a tear. Wearing power suits with polyester bows and lugging briefcases, each of us was determined to break the damn glass ceiling. I imagined it as the second highest floor of a skyscraper and filled with light from above–sort of like heaven. I never quite knew what we were supposed to use–our heads? An ax?
In 1979, I was still in the television sub-basement and a-tingle to be working 70 hour weeks doing the scut work for men with big egos who felt threatened. (I know you are thinking surely there were men with small egos but don’t forget this was broadcast television.) Television is sort of a meritocracy though and so I was sent to Tahiti on a moment’s notice to produce a story about plastic surgery. I called Michael and took off. No time to stash a baby, that’s for sure.
Sitting on my bench, once again endlessly mulling over my options, it dawned on me that I had been constant in my self-analysis–ruminating for years now on how to pull off marriage, motherhood and a real career. But, I hadn’t been merciless.
I knew I was incredibly lucky to have a marriage with a capital M. Not a slam dunk by any means, but so far we were making it happen. Couldn’t let that slip.
My television career was just taking off. I was consumed with moving up and was in hot pursuit of a career with a capital C.
And I wasn’t about to be a mother unless I could be a damn good one–much better than my own. Mother with a capital M.
Just like that it was totally obvious to me–all this time I’d been asking the wrong question. I was frozen because I assumed like many of my friends that I was expected to do all three equally well. But using my brand new Munch mirror…Well, I wasn’t nearly up to it. I knew in my marrow I couldn’t pull off all three roles with anything approaching joy. It was silly to even try. More than silly, stupid.
And so I watched tourists stroll by while I sat in the sunshine and picked two out of three. Clearly and irrevocably. In my life, at least, babies were out of the question.
Phyllis Ward began her television career as a producer, director, and writer in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and London. After starting her own production company Ward traveled the world for 25 years making films for just about every network out there – and meeting lots of incredible people along the way.
Of her three dozen journalism awards, Ward is most proud of winning a Dupont-Columbia for a documentary she produced on the baby boom generation and its continuing effects on American life. This award is the television equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
Ward lives with her husband on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, selling real estate, dabbling in personal films and writing snippets.
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ESSAYS – Me and Edvard Munch