My Sun-Filled Sigh: This Is Not a Zero-Sum Game
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An ESME Essay Showcase Award submission
Sacrifice. Don’t we hear that word a lot? We sacrifice to do our best for our children. We sacrifice our own time, our own freedom, our own selves for our kids. We sacrifice our rainy-day fund so we can pay for preschool. We sacrifice our girls-only weekend so we can go to Disneyland. We sacrifice our bodies to nurture and grow our babies. We sacrifice our visions of ourselves to look in the mirror at the worn-out face of a sole provider. “How do you do it?” they ask. “It’s a sacrifice,” we say. Really? Is parenting supposed to be a zero-sum game?
My academic background is in economics. I tend to see the world in graphs of supply and demand, theories about utility, the balance between risk and reward. The prisoner’s dilemma and the teachings of Adam Smith. Scarcity and zero-sum games.
The zero-sum game takes root in the idea that in situations of scarcity, for one party to gain something, the other must give it up. That there are only so many cookies in the jar, and that if I eat one more cookie, that means you would have to make due with one less. Here’s the Wikipedia definition if you want to get a bit more technical. Basically, the parties playing are adversaries in a world with limited resources. We can see this very real theory in play all around the world: in order for one to win, the other must lose—must sacrifice something.
So, is that how we want to see single parenting? As a series of sacrifices? As an adversarial game? I admit, I often fall into the trap. I have at best only 30 minutes to myself on Saturdays, and if my son wakes up 10 minutes earlier than expected, he has taken a third of that coveted half hour away from my meditative coffee time. And believe me, time is a limited resource when you are a single parent.
Is that how I really want to shape my attitude toward my precious son, the one I love the most, my one and only?
Last weekend, I took my son on a hike with my mom, brother, and nephew. I try to get out with my son as often as I can for some good old-fashioned “walk him until he drops” nature education, experiential awe and respect for our earth and its beings. It takes a certain determination and effort, with the prepacking and snacking, the constant eye on my little mud puddle–splasher, the sprinting after him to catch him right before he tips into a creek or tears the bark off a tree, and the patience as he feels the need to backtrack half a mile because he has turned into one of the three little pigs and needs to hide from the big, bad wolf (true story, of course). I usually end up just as exhausted as he does.
This weekend was the first time, though, that I took my son all the way up my favorite hiking hill. It was mid-April, after one of Oregon’s wettest winters. The splat, squish, slurp of our boots in the mud for a 90-minute-long climb burst through the trills of the birds and the muted chatter of the apple blossoms as we got closer to the top of the hill, a rhythm of slippery navigation through the mud. A four-year-old boy’s paradise. Wow. What we do for our kids, right?
Except—I loved it. I loved the extra pull on my legs to break the suction of my boots in the mud. I loved the constant zigzag of avoiding the deeper holes. I loved watching my son’s near misses as he balanced and steadied all on his own. I loved the mud. I loved where we were heading. A piece of my soul opened back up as I soaked in the brown and gooey moments.
We reached the top—I had not been up there in about 10 years—and blue sky and white clouds were waiting. The bench under the oak tree was still resting under the shade. The wildflowers cascaded down the backside of the peak as they had a decade earlier. As my son wrestled his way up and down the surrounding boulders and my soul sighed in the sun, it was a confirmation: as a single parent, I do sacrifice for my son. I have sacrificed my own home, my social life, my Netflix account, my ego, even parts of my history. But each and every sacrifice is not something lost. It is something gained—more moments, more smiles, more games and trails and boot prints in the mud. More family, more favorite places, more blue skies, more pride, more sun-filled sighs. The chance for exhilaration instead of exhaustion.
Love is not a zero-sum game. Time may be limited. Money may be limited. The cookie jar may not hold more cookies. But hearts and love are infinite. We have the chance to shape our narrative in a way that shares and amplifies our moments. As single parents, we are blessed and privileged to choose activities and experiences that are for us, too. Love is the oven that bakes more cookies, and the heart is the magical cookie jar that somehow is never empty.
Donna is a single mother to a beautiful son, residing in her native Pacific Northwest. She is an assistant director of career development at a small, private liberal arts college, where she helps students pursue their career paths. Combining her experiences living and working abroad, loving and losing, and raising a multiracial son, she speaks to the world about her views through her writing.