Saturday, September 06, 2008

The (mis)Giving Tree

Shel Silverstein's children's classic, The Giving Tree, came to mind as we worked our way through the move to college. It's also mentioned in the book, Between Mothers and Sonsby Evelyn Bassoff, which I mentioned in the previous post. The idea that the familiar, protective, generous tree was always there for the boy - whenever he needed her - appealed to me as I helped my oldest move away.

I loved reading that book to the boys when they were younger. It tells the story of a boy who grows up literally under the shade and protection of a fruit tree that just keeps on giving. The generous tree gives everything from her leaves to her fruit to her trunk to the boy over the years, to help him achieve his dreams and deal with whatever he faced in life. At the end of the story, when the tree is nothing but a stump and the boy is an old man who has very little energy or interest in any new pursuits, they resume their mutually satisfying relationship, when the boy sits down to rest on the stump, and the tree is once again providing something for the boy.

It's a lovely story, and according to the flap notes, it's a "moving parable for readers of all ages that offers an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and the serene acceptance of another's capacity to love in return."

That it is. But if you also accept Evelyn Bassoff's interpretation, it's a little troubling. The tree literally sacrifices its abilities (like its leaves, fruit, branches and trunk) and its very life to benefit the growth of the boy she loves so much. The boy loves the tree, too, but seems to have little conflict with his decisions to continue to take from her throughout his life.

I don't quite know how I feel about this. Supporting a child's dreams is something that most parents embrace without objection. The challenge, I guess, is figuring out when you've moved past that embrace into a stranglehold. Or how you separate that support from literally sacrificing yourself for the cause.

Over the past year or so, I've talked with parents - mothers mostly - who seemed very far down that "sacrifice all" road for the sake of their child. If I think as objectively as I can about my "career" as a mother, I think I'm pretty far from the Giving Tree model. In fact, I remember telling Trevor that I couldn't be the mom who was always there, always pitching in, always the first to volunteer and become a fixture at the school. I promised to do what I could but I had other interests and obligations that required my time.

He was fine with that.

The present-day equivalent of The Giving Tree is the helicopter parent who hovers just above the child, and maneuvers just close enough to manage every move that child makes. They sacrifice just as much as the tree, but somehow have lost that sense of generosity and humility that endears the tree to readers. They're replaced it with smugness and hubris.

I've enjoyed the various bits of success each of my children have experienced over the years because they were just that: their own success, not mine.

I hope they know they can always turn to me - or return to me as the case may be - for the support and love and hugs and nurturing they may need from time to time. But I also hope they know that sometimes I'll be the one who needs exactly the same from them. We can be a whole little grove of giving trees, thriving right beside each other.

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