Why the Giving Tree is Such a Terrible Book (and Facebook and Pinterest have issues as well)

There isn’t a single mom that I see in treatment that doesn’t work really hard to care for her baby, her children, the house, the schedule, the partner, the older generation and the outside-the-house and/or volunteer work .  And yet, there still isn’t a single mom who hasn’t struggled with guilt about doing enough, being enough.  Given how hard everyone is working, what the devil is going on?

Well, some of it is socialization.  Women have been culturally trained to be the nurturers, the caregivers. We take pride in this role, soothing the hurt knee, bringing down the fever, reading that book on dinosaurs again and again and again.  We love our children and feel good about keeping our family loved and safe.  And even if the laundry is often in a perpetual state of happening and there is more clutter in the house than there used to be, we still do the vast majority of the work, keeping the house safe and clean or at least clean(ish).  Now add on top of all that the  added expectations of being busier than ever and working full-time, or half-time or in the cracks at home when the baby is sleeping, and it’s a recipe for stress.  But why guilt?  I don’t think that women could be working much harder, certainly not without breaking down or just plain old losing it.

So, here’s where the Giving Tree comes in.  We’ve been breathing in through the air and the water and the books we read and the screens we watched (Leave it to Beaver) or watch (Youtube), that we not only need to be on top of everything but do it with style, happily and with well-coifed hair and tasteful make-up.  And we need to make interesting meals and make cute projects for our children or with our child. We are trying to be good people, good mothers, but we are doing even more than that: we are trying to be perfect.  Like the beloved children’s book, The Giving Tree, we are giving away our leaves and branches until all we have left is a stump. And it’s not working.

It’s likely that many of us know this, at least on some level.  We are human beings first and foremost.  We get tired, we get cranky especially when sleep deprived. We have issues from our childhood that pop up here and there.  And typically it’s our very child that we love so dearly and wanted so badly who unintentionally trigger us.  Our thinking, rational brain knows the reality. We aren’t a tree that can happily give until there is nothing left but a stump.  But we often forget that Facebook photos are literally snapshots in time that show the best highlights of a family’s life, not when the kid is having a tantrum or when the rotovirus (think throw up) visits the house.

But even when we skewer up the courage to ask for help (which isn’t easy by the way because we’ve been socialized not to ask) and actually take some time off or off-load a responsibility, we feel guilty. The irrational side of our brain actually knows the scores, is tuned into what the world expects from us.  What now we’ve internalized to expect from ourselves.  We don’t want to be judged for the disarray of our house, or be blamed for our misbehaving children, or even for our husband being a few pounds overweight (as if we could control that anyway).  But sometimes, we actually are blamed or at least imagine that we are. One thing is sure, our internal critic is judging.

And so, we work hard and often and become exhausted, and overwhelmed, maybe even irritable or angry. It’s really an untenable situation. Because no matter how hard we try, we can’t be perfect.  And isn’t that really the goal? The perfect wife and mother in a beautiful house with the perfect, well-behaved children and trim husband because we serve appetizing, yet healthy meals.  We’ve haven’t come as far as we think we have from Leave it to Beaver. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but not as much as you’d think.

So what is a loving caring mother to do to be there for her family but also and equally for herself?  Well, I think it begins with rejecting the current paradigm.  Whether or not you get off Facebook, it’s important to see the cultural expectations as the fantasies that they really are.  If perfectionism is part of your struggle, read one of Brene Brown’s books. She talks about how perfectionism backfires.  Since there is no such thing as perfect, that is an absolute set-up for failure every single time. And no matter how we keep house, or raise our kids or go to work outside the house (or not), someone will disapprove our lifestyle anyway since there is no pleasing everyone.

The only real option is to control what we can, meaning ourselves, and to not worry about what others think.  It can start by at least taming or befriending our inner critic.  Working to transform perfectionism into merely high standards (or even low standards on things that just don’t matter).  We can start to find sanity by discovering (or rediscovering) our true selves, and actually nurturing our own inner child when she needs a break, or extra help or permission to leave a few things on the chore list until tomorrow (or perhaps forever). We can redefine what it means to be a “good mother” focusing more on kindness and patience and less on appearances of all kinds.  And we can work to find our voices, sharing our inner selves with our partners, our world, perhaps taking up just a little bit more space than we used to.  We can give up the cultural voices that demand perfectionism and a very narrow view of motherhood and womanhood, and start listening to our own definitions of these roles.

I recently started parting my hair differently.  My new part shows my grey hairs more than before but my hair stays put better because this is my hair’s natural part.  In some ways this makes me feel more vulnerable.  But on the other hand, I am no longer hiding anything and I feel like I am declaring to the world, “Here I am”.  I’ve noticed that taking this small risk has made me feel better, not worse about myself, and so far, no one has even judged me for it.  Sometimes the worst critic is the one in our heads.  So I invite you to take a small risk, one that speaks particularly to you.  Whether it is asking for more help or more respect or anything else, I bet that your life will be a little bit better than it was before for your effort.