I don’t win at the majority of modern-day motherhood. I don’t fill lunchboxes with perfectly portioned food color groups. I don’t make lunch at all. I make a deposit into a school lunch account. Our family’s tooth fairy is notoriously forgetful, and at least once a week I take note of the black under one of my kids’ nails as they dip a Frito into processed cheese, and I say, “When was the last time you bathed?”
But with the exception of a rare schedule blowup, storytime is a motherhood classic on which I won’t budge. It wasn’t so long ago that all three in my brood would squirm to find the best real estate on both the bed and me, the crook of my arm the ultimate prize. We’d read picture books, fairy tales, and then as they grew older, short chapter books, then longer ones like Judy Blume’s, until finally graduating to Harry Potter. At present, we are on chapter five of The Prisoner of Azcaban.
Our numbers have dwindled, though. We’re down one as The Golden Boy is fourteen and finishing homework instead of begging for “one more story” as he used to. Now he asks less adorable questions like, “Hey, Mom, can I have an advance on my allowance to buy a battle pack on Apex?” or “Ma, can you make me a sandwich?” -- the latter almost always when I’m in another room on another floor in the middle of a task with cooking being the farthest possible thought from my mind.
But once upon a bedtime, he was there too, freckle-faced and full of wonder and innocence — the kind of boy who inspires a Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or a Harry Potter, or even the boy who swings from the branches of The Giving Tree.
The other day, my boy and I were making our daily trek across kingdom come to swim team, and as I rotated the radio dial to Christmas music, I stopped when I heard the following: “We all grew up thinking The Giving Tree was a sweet story, but really the kid was a real jerk and manipulated the tree.”
My boy and I exchanged irritated glances. I have certain rules that have penetrated the way my children see the world. For example, if you don’t believe in Santa, you get underwear in your stocking. And, if you mess with a classic by twisting its meaning to fit an agenda, you’re met with an eyeroll and a boot at the door. Still, I kept the interview on and listened to its entirety. Later that night, after reading aloud The Prisoner of Azcaban, I reread Shel Silverstein’s classic to myself.
Well crap, I thought. Maybe the boy was a jerk? But the tree was no less an asshat herself (or himself...anyone know the tree’s gender?) The tree gives and gives to a fault -- a mere stump at the end. Is it a story of generosity and unconditional love, or (and I truly hate to ask this) is the giving tree an enabler and a chump?
Riddle me this:
What if when the boy proposed that the tree’s branches be chopped off and made into a house, the tree was all, “The hell?! It took me years to grow these beauties!”
What if when the boy needed a boat and asked for the tree’s trunk, the tree said, “How ‘bout you get a job and buy a boat, lazy ass?”
And what if when the boy returned as an old man, the tree wasn’t a stump, but rather the strong, sturdy constant in his life -- generous in spirit, but an example of resilience and self-respect?
I mean, what would you rather? A place to sit and do nothing or a sanctuary of fruit, shade, and possibilities?
On the other hand, the tree simply adored the boy so much that his needs naturally came first. He was her entire world, much in the way my golden retriever’s life revolves around that of my middle child. That dog desperately wants to go to school with him. Every day, she sits by the back door and waits and whines until finally food, squeaky toys, and the mailman distract her enough to make it to 3:30. Then everything is glorious again. Dogs are like that. It’s in their nature to devote. I don’t know about trees (do they have feelings?), but I do know that the Giving Tree was a kind of nurturer to the boy, and nurturers often overlook the obvious: Sure, we have certain responsibilities to the ones we love, but chief among them is a healthy relationship built on empathy and respect.
On any given day, I say , “Yes”, “Sure”, “Give me two seconds”, or “I promise I’ll get to it as soon as I'm done with…” I go and go and go (give and give and give) from sunrise until my final attempt to crack open a book and read more than a chapter of a murder mystery before passing out. (Will I ever find out who done it? Maybe when I’m a stump?) But what mother doesn’t feel more like an underpaid personal assistant some days? My household doesn’t cut off my limbs, but they consistently pull me from work, exercise, delicious quiet, and that finale of The Real Housewives I’ve been trying to watch. Do I complain? Of course I do. Do I give and give anyway? Of course I do. They are enough of my world that their happiness and contentment is often my happiness and my contentment even if to a fault. But this isn’t just a mommy problem. Love is a tricky game that I’m not sure we ever perfectly master. Love is blind. We don’t always see the faults in the ones we love, but we also don’t often see that love can make us blind to the faults in ourselves.
Remember that cute, obnoxious phase of dating? The “I love you! “I love you more!” stage? I sometimes miss when romance was so newly intoxicating that nothing else mattered but all those first kisses and butterflies. Then I remember what it was really like. For me, dating was a typical case of perpetual, twitterpated puppy love. Did I have a brain? A will of my own?
Not until I realized how much more I got when I used them...
It was our first date, and my future husband sat across from me at a little French bistro on Third Avenue and 14th Street. I was eating the most delicious ragout. It was so perfectly prepared that I could have married that dish and given my life to it. (Seriously, I still salivate over it eighteen years later). And then my husband said something heartbreaking.
“Are you gonna finish that? It looks really good.”
My heart sank. I mean, I was falling in love with this ragout. Give away this?! I don’t know if it was the French wine or maybe because I was finally sitting across from someone who made me comfortable to be myself, but I blurted out, “Um, you can have a bite -- a small bite -- but this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted and I’m definitely going to finish it.”
The words came out rapidly, like shooting daggers, as if I was saying to him what I wish I’d said on all other dates when I stupidly gave away stuffed flounder, steak with béarnaise, or (and this really pains me) bread pudding soufflé with white chocolate sauce. Maybe it was the French wine or maybe he had never sat across from someone who was so honest with him, but my husband laughed. He’d finally met his match, a fellow foodie obsessed, and I’ve been pigging out with him ever since. Our relationship blossomed that night, but the real lesson here isn’t just that I was honest. Equally important is that my honesty was received by someone who believed my needs were as important as his.
Fast forward eighteen years later and what am I more at fault for today? Being selfish by not making my hungry son a sandwich because I was just about to find out who the murderer was in my book, or could it be that I’m more guilty for not teaching him to respect my time enough to ask when it would be best for me to make him a sandwich. (I could also teach my son how to make a flipping sandwich himself!) And as his mother, charged with the task of rearing him into a decent man, (one who doesn’t guilt dates into not finishing their ragout) wouldn’t it be equally generous to gift my son with not just sandwiches and advanced allowances, but also with an understanding of the importance of boundaries?
I feel like boundaries is becoming one of those overused and abused words like “journey”. (All you did was remodel your bathroom, Sheryl. Not everything's a journey.) And not everything requires a dramatic battle cry for boundaries either (not even really good ragout...maybe), but nonetheless when we find ourselves feeling so responsible for another’s happiness that it weakens our sense of identity, we have the choice to defend our needs or not. What we choose inevitably sets the pace for what will come next. For the tree, it began with apples and spiraled down until it was nothing more than a stump. For me, I may never finish a book. And you? I certainly hope it's nothing more serious than a book.
I know enough to know that Shel Silverstein probably just wanted to write a nice story about how good it feels to give. After all, “the tree was happy.” Then the fun police, including yours truly, crapped on his happy ending. Sorry, Shel. I, too, am happy when I give to others what they need, even more when it’s something they truly want. Christmas morning I’m bleary eyed and buzzing on strong coffee, but my heart brims with the euphoria that comes from giving. The ear splitting squeals of joy make the cost, time, and energy I put into the season merry. And I guess that's why generosity in its purest form often feels like it costs nothing. Depletion, on the other hand, feels hopeless. What good am I to those I love when I have nothing left to give but resentment?
The tree may have very well been happy spending its final years as a stump. Declaring authority over another author’s work is a boundary I’m not willing to push. On the other hand, The Giving Tree is literature and that means it's up to the same interpretation as The Mona Lisa. So...what’s she smiling about? Did someone say something funny, or did she finally choose not to give away her ragout?