In my Facebook newsfeed a while back, I saw a post about Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree (maybe even through one of my fellow MILPs?). The post asked whether people loved or hated the book. I was shocked at first at the slightest suggestion that the book could be hated.
My mom loved the book and read it to us often. A tree that gives and gives and gives, motivated solely by love, and never asks for anything in return. To me, that book was the purest and simplest definition of love. To be completely selfless To never question the needs of others but to always put them first. To show your love through actions and sacrifice rather than through words. To love someone so much that you completely exhaust yourself in every way.
Reading through the comments, it became clear to me why some people hate the book. The general gist of such comments was that it is unhealthy to love so blindly without reciprocity. Unhealthy to give everything you have to someone who appears completely ungrateful and indifferent to your own needs. The tree is a horrible role model for children, so say some of the commentators.
I was taken aback that one of my most beloved children's books could be viewed so negatively. I had never once considered this side of the story. But after mulling it over some more, I simply cannot agree. The focus of the book, to me, is really the love and sacrifice of the tree, not the healthiness of the relationship between the boy and the tree. In my experience as a parent, I feel this is especially true. As parents, we have no choice but to love our children. We can't just abandon the relationship we have with our kids on the basis the relationship is imperfect- that our children do not reciprocate, that our children are ungrateful or indifferent to our needs and affection.
Perhaps the negative Facebook comments hold some truth in regards to romantic relationships. But certainly not of the relationship between parent and child. This relationship is rarely equal. And as I struggle to survive day in and day out with three little boys, the truth of this fact is abundantly clear. I give so much. By the end of the day, I'm exhausted from giving. I have nothing left. After I tuck two little bodies into their beds and collapse on the couch with a third little body snuggled up under my chin, I feel drained in every way- physically, mentally, spiritually. I am empty.
The kids rarely understand the depth of my sacrifices and work. They are busy learning and growing and becoming people. They don't reciprocate the 100% mental and emotional investment I make in them each day. They keep fighting and making messes and doing things that I have repeatedly told them not to do, with little concern for my sanity. So yes, at the end of the day I'm exhausted and empty. But I'm not hollow. I'm satisfied and happy (even on those not-so-occasional days where I all I can do is ruminate over my parental shortcomings). My love for them is not dependent upon reciprocity. It is unconditional. Impenetrable. Self-sustaining.
Now that I am three weeks postpartum and slowly taking back possession of my own body, I am acutely aware of another way in which being a parent is like being the Giving Tree. Bringing three children into the world does not leave a body unscathed. And as I look into the mirror I see the stretch marks, extra skin, and softness around my waist. I can feel the separation of my abdominal muscles. I see the dark line that still runs down the middle of my belly. I see the wide incision scar that rests below my bikini line and feel the rough edges of the scar tissue lying below the surface. And when I stop nursing, my chest will transform back into two fleshy pockets of stretched-out skin.
After three kids, I struggle to find my body beautiful. But the Giving Tree reminds me of a different kind of beauty. A beauty not of physical appearance but of the heart. At the end of the book, the tree is nothing more than a stump. To any stranger, the tree might not be beautiful. It would be deformed and easily passed over. But to the boy (and the reader), who is familiar with the gifts and the sacrifice of the tree, the tree is beautiful. Not for what it looks like, but for what it has done, what it has given, and how deeply it has loved.
My body has given and nurtured life, three times over. Each time, giving up a little more of what it once was. My postpartum body may never make the cover of a magazine. My stretch marks and extra skin and incision scars may never be objectively beautiful by society's standards. But maybe it can still be beautiful and loved by those who know the extent of its sacrifice: the children to whom it has given life, and the man who it has made a father. Even if it is not beautiful for its appearance, may my body be beautiful for all it has done and for what it has given.
I see no better metaphor for a mother than as demonstrated by the Giving Tree.
And, back to the negative reflections on the book....maybe a person who loves without any thought or expectations of reciprocity is the perfect role model for the next generation (a generation of instant gratification). No child (not even the most grateful and giving child) can ever fully reciprocate a mother's love and sacrifices. And perhaps, this makes a mother's love even more pure.