There’s a story my family loves to tell, about the first day of our vacation when my daughter was 13. We were staying at a rental house on an island in Maine, reachable only by boat. None of us knew how to drive a boat. My husband took an online course and rented a center console from the only place that would rent to a guy who had taken only an online course. He’d spent a good part of his childhood summers on boats. He drove a car. Putting those two things together, how hard could it be?
Shortly after we had lugged our suitcases on board and pulled away from the dock, I noticed the boat was filling with water. Like, filling with water.
“The boat is filling with water!” I shouted. “Something’s wrong.”
“Nah,” he said. “It’s normal to have water in the boat.” He explained about the waves and the wake as if I were a 4-year-old.
“It’s not that,” I said. “We need to turn around!”
“It’s fine,” he said confidently.
I beckoned over our daughter, who put together her own IKEA loft bed when she was 12. We trusted her judgment.
“Look,” I told her, gesturing toward all the water. “You need to tell Daddy something is wrong.”
“Daddy!” she called. “Mommy’s right. Something. Is. Wrongwiththeboat.”
Only then did my husband turn around and look. “Oh,” he said.
It turned out the boat guy had forgotten to put the plug back in.
It’s a funny story to us because it’s ridiculous how much we depend on our daughter.
The not-so-funny part is how quick my husband was to dismiss my concern (OK, panic).
“To be fair,” my husband says, looking back on it, “you’re kinda the boy who cried wolf.”
He’s not entirely wrong. In a court of law, he’d have plenty of evidence. In many ways, I embody the stereotype of the anxious Jewish mother. Later during that Maine trip, I screamed that we were about to hit the dock, when, in fact, there was plenty of room. On other vacations, I’ve made our family switch hotel rooms when there were signs of bedbugs. When my daughter was 11 and not in our assigned meeting place at Target, I demanded the cashier place the store on lockdown.
But in each of those cases, there might have been something wrong.
Who’s to say there weren’t bedbugs in those hotel rooms? I didn’t see any, but there were signs. As anyone who’s read a single article about the pest can tell you, you don’t have to see bedbugs to have them.
There was a chance the boat was too close to the dock. Was I supposed to wait until it was too late to say something? If you see something, say something, right?
Similarly, was I supposed to wait until there was plenty of time for an abduction to have already happened to have locked down Target?
Just because tragedy didn’t strike in those cases doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. The fact is, you just don’t know which it is at the time.
Which makes me reconsider the whole tale of the boy who cried wolf.
The original was written in Greek in Classical times. It was translated into Latin in the 15th century, and then into various versions in the Romance languages. It appears there is no “original” English version, but the broad strokes of the story are always the same: boy is bored, boy cries wolf when there is no wolf to speak of so that the villagers will come rushing to his side, boy is therefore not believed when a wolf really does come. In most versions, like the one posted by the Library of Congress (which is more innocuously titled, “The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf”), the boy comes across as downright evil, doubled up with laughter when the villagers come running. The tale is completely devoid of sympathy.
But let’s dig deep: How old is this boy? 16? 10? 7? Might he have been scared to death, waiting all alone for a savage wolf to try to eat his flock, and possibly him, too? How do we know the boy who cried wolf didn’t see a wolf and scare it off before the villagers arrived? Or maybe he thought he saw one and figured better safe than sorry.
We never really get the boy’s side of the story. Which begs the question: Who is telling this tale anyway? What do we know about this narrator and their take on life? Was he one of the villagers who exaggerated the story to make a point, to assuage his hurt feelings at having been duped?
And here’s the other thing: The boy alone was responsible for the sheep. Like we moms (or other primary caregivers) bear responsibility for our little flocks. And that makes all the difference in how quick we are to sound the alarm — especially us Jewish moms, who often have trauma in our DNA.
Your child might have ADHD. Or they might not. Your husband thinks it’s normal energetic behavior that the kid will outgrow, like he himself did when he was young. But how do you know? You get an evaluation. If it reveals there’s no problem and the kid outgrows it like your husband predicted, bam, you’re the boy who cried wolf.
Or, you listen to your husband and the mom of four at the playground and maybe even the pediatrician and don’t get an evaluation. Then your kid is older and all of a sudden it’s a Big Problem, and it is your fault the kid didn’t get services soon enough, and now their whole future is screwed unless you act fast, and yes people told you it was probably just normal boy energy but you should have known better no one knows your kid better than you where the fuck is your maternal instinct do you even have one you monster?
When the stakes are this high, is it really so bad to sound the alarm?
This is the quandary we face when we are the primary caregiver and have generations of better-safe-than-sorry mentality passed down to us.
But maybe it’s time to rewrite the story of the boy who cried wolf, like we’ve rewritten and rethought so many well-known children’s story staples, from “The Little Mermaid” to the way we think of Barbie. If we rewrite the story from a sympathetic lens, calling us the boy who cried wolf will lose its power. And when we say a mom is the boy who cried wolf, we’ll mean an entirely different — and more supportive — thing.