Gifts, giddiness and gratefulness
If you haven’t read my previous blog about birthday party craziness, it would be helpful to do so before you dive into this post.
I left off with the transition from the cake-cutting chaos to the gift opening. My feelings about gift opening, though, start with my uneasiness about gifts in general.
I’m sure most of you have experienced finding and buying the most perfect gift for someone – so perfect that you find it super difficult to wait until the birthday, holiday or special occasion for which the gift was purchased. I love that feeling of giddiness upon presenting the receiver with the most perfect of gifts. I lean in and have the goofiest look on my face, I’m sure.
I’ve had the opposite experience, too, though – when I have no clue what to buy, haphazardly purchase a lame gift and cringe as the receiver opens it. I make it well known that I saved the receipt in case the gift really does suck, and I wish I could’ve bestowed “The Gift of Nothing.”
I find that gift giving can be difficult no matter the age of the person for whom I’m buying. And since I consider myself to be a mediocre gift-giver, I figure there are others who feel the same way about themselves.
So what do we do at children’s birthday parties? We have the birthday girl or boy open gifts on a stage, and anyone who wants to watch does. And it’s all “Ooooo, wow!” and “That’s cool!” and “Let’s read the card first!” and “Clothes are nice, too. Let’s look at these.”
During Cecilia’s recent birthday party, she handled all the hoopla exceptionally well, especially for a 2-year-old. She actually enjoys being the center of attention. (She is my extroverted child. So far.) And really, I don’t think she even realized lots of people were watching. She was just happy to see new toys and books and shoes. She loves shoes.
The great thing about 2-year-olds is that they live in the moment. Open a toy; play with it. Receive new shoes; put them on. Get a new book; read it right now.
At that point during the birthday party, I was feeling done. Tired, yet full. Full of ham and cheesy potatoes and Diet Dr. Pepper and cake. Full from conversation and laughter. So Mike and I sang the “No-we’ll-play-with-that-later” chorus. “Keep opening gifts until we get through them all,” we chanted. And the audience started to dwindle as C.C. opened their particular gifts. But I kept feeling the eyes of the people who were still watching, staring at us. Were they interested or obligated?
Finally, we made it through all the gifts bags. By the way, if we have to go to a little girl’s birthday party within the next five years, we’re set on gift bags.
I looked at C.C., who was sitting on her Daddy’s lap, screaming for someone to release her new Cookie Monster plush from the dreaded plastic ties and packaging. Then I glanced to my right and saw my sweet friend Betsy, who had carefully kept all the gifts organized with the cards in the appropriate bags, making it easier for me to do thank you notes. In theory, that is. If I can ever buy the darn thank you notes and write them.
I sighed again and felt relief that all of the necessary birthday party activities were finished. But I kept looking at the gift bags, thinking about all the stuff that was in them. Most of it was clothes and shoes, and Cecilia truly did need some clothes and shoes for warm weather. But of course, she got more than she needed. Way more.
And so it feels like a vicious cycle. “Here, open these gifts! But don’t go too slowly because Mama’s tired and everyone wants to watch you, yet it feels like they’re watching me.”
After all the festivities ended, later in the evening when the kids were in bed, Mike and I discussed the gift opening mayhem. I told him how uncomfortable all of it felt to me – the excess, the staring, the hurrying. He said something that serves as what inspired me to write this post: “When our kids are little like C.C., we end up hurrying them through the gift opening because everyone’s watching. So what happens when they get older like Elliot is that we tell them to slow down and not to rip through all their presents because it seems ungrateful.”
It was one of those moments when what he said should’ve been obvious to me. But it struck me. It gave me much pause. I went into my writer’s zone and started crafting this very narrative.
“I see your wheels turning,” Mike said, snapping me out of my writer’s world. “There’s going to be a blog about this, isn’t there?”
I didn’t respond verbally. Only smiled and went back into my sacred writer’s silence, weaving this story. Too bad it’s taken me two weeks to actually sit down and complete it.
A couple years ago when Elliot had his first friend birthday party, we wrote on the invitations, “No gifts, please.” We did it again last year. I explained to Elliot that he had plenty of toys at home, that the party would still be fun, that he would get to play with all his friends. That was the most important part – to celebrate in the company of his friends and family. It has gone over surprisingly well, and I love this approach, especially for friend parties, because it focuses on “the gift of nothing.”
Maybe other moms and dads are better at savoring the gift opening process, at letting their children take as long as they want, at not feeling as though those watching are shooting daggers with their eyes.
For me – and I’m writing about only me here, especially as Elliot’s birthday is quickly approaching at the end of this month – I’m hoping I can still consider birthdays special but celebrate them with less stress, less stuff. “No gifts, please” may not always be the answer. But “Less gifts, please” has got to be a step in a better, more balanced direction.
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