Last spring my daughter brought home The Little Red Hen from school. This is the story about the hen who plants the wheat, grows the wheat, cuts the wheat, grinds it into flour, makes it into bread, all without her lazy friends’ help. When the bread is fresh from the oven, the hen asks who will help her eat it. Her lazy friends say they will, but the hen says no and eats it herself.
“That’s not nice,” my daughter said, the first time we read it.
I had forgotten this story and was as surprised as she was by the moral. “Well, her friends didn’t help her make the bread,” I ventured.
My daughter was skeptical. She has been taught that sharing is important. We moved on to another book.
It’s hard to explain the ending of The Little Red Hen. It does seem unnatural for the hen to eat the bread herself. Some people, mostly women and people of color, have been socialized their whole lives to manage the feelings of people around them, to intuit needs and address them before they can be voiced. The hen does not have this problem, apparently.
I’ve started going to the chiropractor again. There is a knot that has settled into the right side of my lower back, hardened there as my daughter has gotten heavier but still asks to be carried. My mom is a nurse and my grandpa is a doctor; I was raised in a family that mistrusted chiropractors.
I don’t believe in chiropractors either, but they work. Seeing a chiropractor is the opposite of having faith, nothing is asked of me, not even a suspension of my own disbelief. The knot in my back loosens and I remain as faithless as ever.
Every slick corporate feminist website or Instagram page talks about the importance of setting boundaries. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In champions boundaries as the cure to many workplace ills, which are presented as a woman’s responsibility to hurdle through sheer force of will.
Meanwhile, the boundary between work and everything else has thinned. The average work week for a full-time employee in America is now 47 hours. Forty-five percent of Americans have side hustles. Despite massive increases in worker productivity, real wages (accounting for inflation) haven’t budged in 40 years.
I have this thought sometimes, in medical situations, of what things might look like from the perspective of an alien. A doctor asks me to breathe deeply while listening to my lungs, and I picture an alien in a spaceship somewhere, observing. To the alien, the doctor and I look like two monkeys engaged in a complicated dance.
The monkey in a white coat gently moves the stethoscope over the other monkey’s back, apologizes for the cold metal when the other monkey flinches. The white coat monkey presses gently on the other monkey’s stomach. From the alien’s vantage point we look like those pictures that go viral sometimes, of two lions hugging or a dog feeding a goat a bottle. The alien thinks, “These monkeys love each other.”
I don’t love my doctor, or my chiropractor, but I am overwhelmed sometimes by their care. There are so many things wrong with modern medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, and health insurance. But the core of it, the bare fact of one person assisting another, is good. If they exist, I want aliens to watch doctors’ appointments over and over. Let them believe that helping each other is what humans do.
You cannot let people walk all over you. You must establish boundaries between the people you know and care about, between your personal life and work, between you and the world. If you do not do this, you deserve the fate that befalls you. Is that the lesson of The Little Red Hen? Is that the lesson of Lean In?
Recently, I was sitting with people who were discussing launching a program aimed at helping impoverished people. There are many programs working to alleviate poverty here in Springfield, and yet our poverty rate has increased fifteen percent over the past two decades. Still, these are vital programs, and the people I was with have the best intentions.
The discussion turned to the importance of self reliance, and the need for people in poverty to help themselves. “This program will be a hand up, not a handout,” someone said, and the group nodded solemnly.
Something has shifted in me recently. Sitting there, I wondered what in the world could be wrong with a handout. I am tired of self reliance. Why can’t we provide handouts to whoever needs them, keep providing handouts for as long as we can until we can provide no more?
I said something like this to the group. It felt important, even if doesn’t change anything about the way this group or any other approaches poverty. Somewhere in space, the alien goes about his day.
My industry, higher education, increasingly saddles students with crippling student loan debt. The reasons are complicated, but one factor is that the number of non-faculty staff positions have doubled in the past twenty-five years. I am a non-faculty staff person. I need this non-faculty staff job, in part because I myself have student loan debt, which has felt crippling to me for a long time.
When my daughter was an infant, I had a hacking cough that lasted for several months. My daughter would wake up in the night often back then, sometimes a half a dozen times or more. I would nurse or rock her back to sleep, holding my breath for fear of coughing. If I coughed she would cry and wake up again. When I finally laid her sleeping in her crib, I would run from her room, through my bedroom, through the living room, and into the small front room where the cough would explode from my mouth. I would cough for a long time.
In my memories of coughing in the front room, there is always a full moon. The moon shines brightly through the front windows, puddling moonlight onto the wood floor, which my husband and I refinished together, back before our daughter was born.
Of course there wasn’t really a full moon every night. Just across the street from our house was a packaging plant with several tall floodlights in its parking lot. Those lights have infused all of my nighttime memories from that era, made them moonlit and romantic in a way that I know is false, even if it doesn’t feel that way in my heart. In memories, at least, giving myself to my daughter feels as holy as the moon.
What is the lesson of The Little Red Hen? Is it: set boundaries? Or is it: share bread with the right people? I want the lesson to be the latter. I want to be in situations in which it is fair for people extract from me what they need. I want to work myself to exhaustion for worthy causes. I want the people who walk all over me to be people I love. I want the alien to see me loving people.