We’re not great gift givers.
When it’s my birthday, I tell D exactly what I want. And I ask him to go get it. At some point during this conversation, whether over weeks or a few minutes, we argue about it. D doesn’t like to be told what to get for me, but my goal is to remind him to go get me something, and that it doesn’t need to be a big deal. “Just get flowers!” I have said over and over.
This year, D said he was going to go get me a cake. I quizzed him on where he was going to get it, and when, then said “I don’t like that place, I’ll make a cake.”
That’s how I ended up making my own bday cake.
When D’s bday rolled around, he said “I don’t want anything.” And so I made him a cake, too.
One Christmas we agreed not to get each other anything, but then I got him something, and he ran out on Christmas Eve to find a gift for me, at the video store, which was the only place open. I still treasure that copy of Annie Hall.
It happened again a few years later, and from that I got a pair of leather gloves, the seams of which I have stitched and restitched.
Our trouble with gift giving and gift getting is not entirely our fault.
When I was a kid there was a Christmas one time where my step mom wouldn’t open the gifts I had bought for her. She told me I didn’t deserve to have her open my gifts. At the time this felt like a knife in my chest. I was really hurt by it, even while I was thinking “I’m pretty sure that’s not great parenting.”
I thought about what she’d said about not deserving it. Is that how gift giving works, I wondered? Is gift giving an earned privilege? Despite knowing that this was an absurd thing to say to a kid on Christmas morning, a kid who was graduating from gift getter to gift giver, I barely ever gave gifts after that, and when I did give them, they were not on holidays.
I wanted to avoid the transactional element of gifting entirely. I didn’t see my brother N much, and rarely on holidays or his bday, so I started giving him gifts randomly, whenever I saw him was an opportunity for a little gift. When I met my sister, and it turned out I’d missed a million years of gift giving occasions, I took her shopping whenever we spent time together and let her pick out whatever she wanted. The nice thing about this, I realize now, is that if you give a gift to someone who isn’t expecting it, there’s no time for them to reject it. First impulse with a gift is to take it, unwrap it, and say thank you.
I didn’t come up with the idea for random gift giving on my own. My mom is notorious for haphazard gift giving. Every year around Christmas she calls and says she’s not getting anybody anything, and I basically say “okay mom, you do you.” And then she’ll grand gesture a big beautiful trip Italy, or Grandma summer camp for our son C, or be like “hey, can I buy you a new bed?” One thing I like about my mom’s gift giving style is that it’s always honest. She doesn’t buy a gift for someone unless that gift demands giving, and then she goes out of her way to make sure it happens.
D has had equally odd childhood gift giving/getting experiences, but since he’s internet famous these days, I’ll leave him to divulge his own secrets, or not… probably he won’t do that.
There’s an anxiety that’s alleviated when you take your gifts into your own hands. For one, you know you will like it. For two, you know you will get something, you will not be forgotten. And for three, you know you will not reject your best efforts.
Enter my son. I thought about the whole gift giving nightmare and was hoping that if I just act natural, the whole enterprise would feel less fraught, or perhaps would not feel fraught at all. In this, it appears I have failed. C is very concerned with gifts, both getting and giving.
When it is some holiday, whether religious (Christmas), or fictitious (Arbor Day), or family (birthdays), C is right there ready to make something to give. He’s made ornaments, cards, and little toys, and he’s terrible at waiting to give the gift until whatever the appropriate, allocated time is supposed to be. Mothers’ Day cards are given as soon as they are completed, and my job (I think) is to be very excited about these works and display them in a prominent place, which I do.
The other day, however, C gave me a straw that he had formed into the shape of an M, for Mommy, and I was in the middle of a million things and, well, I did not treasure this M shaped straw. What happened was that he got upset, chucked the straw, and looked at me with eyes that said I’d destroyed every semblance of self-confidence that I’ve been trying so hard to instill. We were both crushed, all because of a straw that, once chucked, was only a bent out of shape straw. I didn’t know he’d be so upset.
I know that kids give what they are able, and that the gift is coming from a place of kindness and wanting to share, and in my defense I save all the gifts, all the cards and stickers and little things. I know he gives what he has to give, and I respect, appreciate, and treasure that impulse. Even so, the amount he had invested in this straw– well, it looked like a parental failure for sure.
C’s birthday is coming up. We went to visit his Ellen (my aunt, but he calls her “My Ellen,” which come on that’s the best), and she let him pick out a gift from her toy shop. He asked if she could wrap it, and they picked out the paper and ribbon together. When we got home, a two plus hour drive, he asked me to put it aside so he could open it on his birthday, over a week away. To be clear, this was a gift he had picked out for himself, and helped wrap, and he wants to save it to open on his birthday.
I fear that someday he’s going to find himself making his own cake.