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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

“The Enabling Tree” Doesn’t Have The Same Ring

Written by Aujie Baker

Being home for winter break came just in time this year. After a hectic and demanding Fall semester, I needed the comfort of old, yellow-painted bedroom walls and my matching sheets to irradiate my seasonal gloom. I've grown to appreciate the overstated sunniness of it all much more since being away at CSU. I will also courteously disclose that I was concurrently mulling over the residual emotions of deciding to halt a long-term, less-than healthy relationship. I was eager to soak my roots in “Self,” if you know what I mean.

Cuddled up in a family book corner featuring some of my childhood favorites, I stumbled upon Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” Recalling it as a cherished sentiment of my mom’s and a classic classroom read-aloud for most U.S. elementary school teachers, I was prompted to revisit the book after many estranged years. I ended up finishing the last page with complete and utter bamboozlement. Similarly to the Giving Tree at the end of Silverstein’s parable, who pledges herself away to the base of her trunk in the name of love, I, too, felt stumped. And not in the sense of bewilderment, but maybe in the sense of betrayal. That harrowing realization that my innocent naive childhood takeaway to share in abundance, even if I’m net-losing in the process, was truly a Trojan horse of cautionary tales — now more obvious to me than ever. 

“The Giving Tree” is a children’s book, first published in 1964 and usually accompanied by simplistic black-and-white illustrations. It depicts a not-so-subtly maternal-leaning Tree who “loved a little boy” from his playful youth all the way through to his jaded dotage. The Boy openly adores the Tree in his junior years: he’s shown napping in her shade and using her leaves to craft crowns — and the Tree is “happy.” However, as the boy ages to young adulthood, his priorities begin to drift. From falling in love and wanting wealth, to requesting a house for his family to own and a boat to sail away in, the boy only comes around to see the Tree when he needs something — and the Tree enthusiastically provides. Gifting away her apples for his money, her branches for his home and her trunk for his boat, the Tree is left as a lonely stump, until the Boy reaches an age where he finally needs her as a spot to sit and rest

— and the Tree is, once again, happy.

The antagonist of this tale is made elementarily clear. We are persuaded to resent the Boy for his selfish behaviors and sympathize with the Tree for her gracious mercy and powerlessness in the matter. She is an immobile tree, after all. Somehow, despite this story being heartbreakingly astute, it has become somewhat of a national treasure to share with children during their most impressionable years as a … lesson of appreciation for the unconditional generosity of motherhood? And don’t get me wrong, I definitely retained that messaging the most as a kid. Still, as I sat in my present state, reading the complacency of a figure clearly being taken advantage of and enabling it, I couldn’t help but feel it was a full-circle calling to reinforce why boundaries and awareness in a relationship are so fundamentally important. 

I know I am not alone in my resonance with the Tree in this story. Hell, I’m sure, at times, I’ve fallen into the egotistical role of the Boy. Many of us in any sort of relationship dynamic, may at some point find ourselves experiencing a sense of imbalance: an adversity where one person is putting in more effort/resources/consideration than their counterpart. It is human nature for partners to see a consistent ebb and flow between who exerts more energy at any given moment in a relationship. However, a rapport truly based in love and support will rarely, if ever, provoke you to exert yourself to the extent of your own detriment in its honor. That is to say, if you are noticeably giving up a majority of your needs to suit the needs of your partner — something is amiss! 

Relationships are complex: far more complex than a single journalist could detail in the span of one article. Even when certain negative behaviors are made apparent, it can still be difficult not to get entangled in the expectations and dopamine and whatnot of relationships’ nuance. In 2024, thankfully, far more resources are accessible to us than ever before when it comes to educating ourselves on and navigating the intricacies of relationship dynamics. From the attachment styles theory introduced by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, dissecting the ways our upbringing influences our romantic bonds, to “The Five Love Languages” detailed by Dr. Gary Chapman, research has found valuable and verified insights for recognizing, addressing and working through the complications of a one-sided dynamic. Even if there are signs of one-sided toxicity in your relationship, that doesn’t mean it cannot be resolved.

"...if you are noticeably giving up a majority of your needs to suit the needs of your partner — something is amiss!"

While it’s clear that there is contempt for the Boy’s entitled behavior in Silverstein’s book, do not be illusioned by the sanctity of the “Giving” Tree. Noting the context of the story’s undertones, one could argue that the extent of the Tree’s selflessness was hyperbolically appropriate in depicting the sacrifices of a mother. Even so, in motherhood, just as in any relationship dynamic, establishing and asserting boundaries is nary an act of spite nor negligence. Rather, it’s a necessary code of conduct, a harmony amongst two, whole parties, allowing one another to flourish in the many ways they require. This harmony is righteously attainable through open communication, active listening, and intentional practice. We all have needs and they deserve to be met, not compromised on.

There’s a limit to sharing and providing for your partner. This should feel equitable. Admitting there’s an issue is the first, and sometimes, the hardest step. It’s important to understand that these things can be fixed, but you should never have to compromise your well-being for a romantic partner — or anyone. Some relationships are easier to set boundaries in than others. Nonetheless, as you continue to grow into yourself, check in. If you’re finding yourself stumped and could benefit from some solo sunshine, just know that support, resources and community are out there to give you strength and care when you’re moving through the changes. Oh — and don’t forget to prioritize loving yOak-self!


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