I’m going to a baby shower tomorrow, and I actually remember what I bought off the registry. Typically, when I browse a baby registry to decide what to buy, my head starts swimming at the unfamiliar, and admittedly boring, products: bottle warmers, bottle brushes, diapers, nipple cream, butt cream, baby shampoo, drying racks, other products I could not even begin to explain if I tried, etc. This has not changed since I became pregnant. I can feel my eyes glaze over as I scroll through these items, and I vaguely dread the day I will have to make a list of my own. How do you know what you really need? This shit is hard!
Except, for the baby shower I’m attending tomorrow, there were some items that got me excited: Books. There were many fantastic ones listed, and I ended up getting The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Where the Wild Things Are. Aside from these books, I also bought one other thing. A mat or seat or tray or something that might go in a car possibly. I have forgotten already. But that is of less importance.
Seeing children’s books had me contemplating what messages these books actually convey. While I love both The Giving Tree and Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, the contents of these books differ drastically. Where The Sidewalk Ends is a collection of short, fun poems that serve as a lovely introduction to poetry for children. My own father, who writes poetry, bought me this book when I was 7 years old.
The Giving Tree is where things get a bit more complicated. It’s wonderful in terms of illustration and story telling, but I do have reservations about the message it imparts at times. I remember being 15 years old and loitering at a bookstore with my best friend (one of our favorite pastimes), when I came across this book after not having thought about it in years. She told me she loved it and that it always made her sob. “Really?” I asked incredulously, because I literally had never cried from reading a book, much less a children’s story. She must have thought me equally strange, because she looked at me like I was the weird one for being skeptical of anyone crying at this book.
“I don’t believe you,” I insisted, and I opened the book and started reading aloud to her in the middle of the bookstore. Sure enough, to my genuine surprise, by the end, she was in tears and her face was red and puffy.
“Dude, fuuuuuck you,” she said. I looked around the bookstore awkwardly and felt pretty bad.
The Giving Tree is compelling because it is a tale of unconditional love and giving on the part of a tree, over the lifetime of a boy who eventually becomes a man. The boy/man takes everything the tree has to offer, until the tree has been stripped of her fruit, her branches, and her trunk, and she has nothing else left to give. Her love is apparently unrequited, because he never gives her anything in return. Seriously, he is sort of an asshole. I don’t think the book so much as depicts him watering her or providing fertilizer or anything.
When he is old and decrepit, she is nevertheless happy to see him, but laments she no longer has anything left to give. He states he does not need much at this point, and simply wants a place to sit and rest, to which she cheerily offers the only part of her left – the stump of her trunk that remains.
The ostensible moral of this tale is one of giving love without keeping tabs, which no one can deny is a positive way to go about life. Yet, something about the story never sits quite right with me, perhaps because the cynical part of me thinks this story glorifies suffering, martyrdom, and maybe even victimhood.
We are moved to tears until our hearts ache when we read stories or watch movies about unrequited, unconditional love, whether on the part of a lover or a parent, but the way it plays out in the real world is sometimes painful and ugly. Healthy relationships cannot endure an insistence on rigidly or constantly keeping score, but I would never want my child to be on the giving end of such a one-sided relationship. It’s not a recipe for a happy or healthy relationship of any sort. Letting someone constantly take without reciprocation at some point becomes a form of emotional abuse, doesn’t it?
Of course, this does not remotely mean I won’t buy this book for my child. In fact, I probably will, because it is stories like this that make life a bit more colorful. But as far as moral lessons go, it does leave one something to think about…