Merry Materialism

We are drowning in stuff, and we know Santa Claus isn’t real. 

The alarm goes off, the baby cries, the toddler is yelling for milk, the school kids need help brushing their hair. I steal a couple moments between helping everyone who instantly needs me, and I throw on whatever clean clothes made it onto hangers this week. I sneak out to the porch for coffee and think of all the things I could do today.

I need to write. I want to work. I want to be creative. I want to help people. I want to tell stories. I want to do more with my time. I want to enjoy what I do.

I want to spend my weekends cuddled on the couch with our children, who all have trimmed fingernails and clean pajamas. I want to sit through an entire movie instead of matching socks at the same time, and nuzzle the sweet smelling hair of our toddler who isn’t covered in lollipop stickiness. I want to cheerfully agree to read books at bedtime, in beds with clean sheets and a couple of stuffed animals, and put the books back on shelves where they belong. I want to cook healthy meals for our family, and sit down after a day of rewarding work to real plates and real silverware and not a single component of our meal previously frozen. I want to turn off the kitchen lights after the kids go to bed, with the dishwasher swishing and clean coffee cups set out for the morning. I want to spend time with my love by the tree, all dazzling with lights that we pulled out of red and green storage boxes and strung across the branches without a bit of stress.

I want to enjoy the holidays. I want to enjoy winter. I want our children to grow up with memories of late night snowfalls and early morning hot chocolate and nothing but giggles.

//I want my children to appreciate the value of presence more than the value of presents. 

And the honest truth? I am never present.

I can’t be, because I am the manager of stuff. I am the keeper of stuff, and the organizer of stuff. I am the sorter of stuff, and the fixer of stuff. I open the stuff, I assemble the stuff. I put the stuff away. I pick the stuff up. I clean the stuff. I evaluate how much we need the stuff. I find a place for the stuff. I donate the extra stuff. I read the tags and labels on stuff and decide whether the stuff will work for us. I even buy some stuff. But mostly, I am just drowning in stuff.

We are a culture obsessed with stuff. This stuff is going to be on sale. This stuff is wrapped in pretty bows. This stuff will make kids smile. This stuff will fit in our budget. What kind of stuff should we get for our extended family members? I wonder what kind of stuff they will get for us. Oh look, more stuff. This aisle is full of clearance stuff, and I could really use this stuff. This stuff is so pretty. This stuff is a limited time offer. This stuff needs to come home with us. This stuff will express how much I care about someone when I give it to them.

We gift each other stuff, and we watch our bank accounts drain, and we open the stuff, and we smile politely about the stuff. Maybe we get genuinely excited about the stuff, and we watch the children’s eyes light up when they open their stuff.

What kind of ungrateful parent would complain about free stuff when it’s so hard to raise four kids anyway? Who the hell does she think she is, not letting her poor children enjoy a few more new toys? What kind of mother is she anyway?

//I am that mother. We are drowning in stuff, and we know Santa Claus isn’t real. 

We are not religious. Maybe because I am not a regular church goer, or maybe because I have common sense, but I fail to understand the connection between the birth of a savior and waiting in line for a good deal on a new 59″ tv. I can’t comprehend the point. And I certainly don’t understand how it’s benefitting my children to believe a fat bearded man in a suit is bringing the gifts we work hard to buy for them.

This year, we told our kids that the Easter bunny doesn’t exist. Within a couple of weeks, they will not believe in Santa either. Because I am going to tell them he isn’t real. Because he isn’t.

If my children are disappointed and enjoy the holidays less, then I will know that they had the wrong idea of what we are celebrating in the first place. I will reinforce the importance of family and rejoicing in the change of seasons.

//So this is my plea. 

First, I am asking you to understand we are not ungrateful. In fact, I am begging you to evaluate what it means to you to be thankful, and ask yourself what you believe the best way to instill that thankfulness in the younger generations.

How do we teach our children to be grateful?

Last year, I moved across the country with my three children and a car load of belongings. A truck followed us with our keepsake boxes and necessary furniture. We kept our favorite toys and clothes. We had very little. But for an entire month my children played outside in the fall leaves instead of on their iPads.

Everyone was so excited to buy them gifts for their first year in my hometown. Add to that everyone’s good intentions to give what they could since we had been in such a disadvantaged situation. The aftermath of our holiday season culminated in a pile of toys that literally swallowed our living room. It took us countless hours, and several emotional meltdowns, to dig our way out.

Nevermind the fact that this took us until April to get around to, in a house that I already wanted to find time to redecorate. We lived for months in clutter, unable to play with most things buried and lost in the noise, unable to paint or put in new flooring or renovate anything without first decluttering, unable to enjoy our home.

Half of the toys we donated were unopened. Not because I didn’t let them play with things. Not because I am a control freak that demands things are minimal and clean all day every day. But because there is simply not enough time or space for the amount of stuff in our life and home. 

I know I am not alone in this. Even if you teach your children to believe in Santa and you fully embrace Christmas with religious meaning or not, I know that everyone is overcome with stress and guilt during the holiday season. I know that many struggle wondering where the money will come from to give their children a good Christmas. Because how can they go to school and listen to their friends talk about the mountains of gifts they unwrapped, feeling like they have less? We tell them to be good all year, and they will be rewarded with gifts.

If they receive less presents than their classmates, does that mean they aren’t good enough?

If we give them less presents and spend less money, does that mean we aren’t good enough?

//We are sending the wrong message. 

The point of playing with toys is to develop skills and encourage creativity, so that children can better navigate their world as they grow. They are items of comfort or joy that children can rely on to entertain and occupy them. How can toys serve their purpose when they are overflowing from boxes, and children are too overwhelmed by the volume of stuff to choose which toy to play with? They don’t. They get neglected, and children become blind to the clutter, so they instantly gravitate towards screens that will instantly stimulate them without fail.

So do we buy a bigger house to comfortably contain all the toys our children are lucky enough to own? Spend a few more Saturdays installing extra shelves to house the gifts we receive?

There has to be a better answer. It wasn’t always like thisI am tired of wasting my life on stuff. 

Do you know what I really want for Christmas? I want time.

I want time with my children. I want time to enjoy my passions and pursue my dreams, that doesn’t get pushed back because I had to do the dishes that didn’t get done the day before because I was searching for school clothes before bedtime in a rush because I didn’t have time to do laundry because I was trying to clean the house and couldn’t find a place to put everything because I haven’t found time to sort through clothes and get winter wardrobes ready. [breath]

I want time to myself when I should have it. I want to not spend hours of my days each week running extra stuff that doesn’t fit or isn’t played with to goodwill. I have a folding table set up in my kitchen right now that’s loaded up with eight bags of baby clothes that need to be sorted into drawers, but those drawers first need to be emptied and the clothes in the drawers need to be sorted by size and keepsake and hand-me-downs. And I can’t even think about doing any of that until I finish tracking down all the stray candy wrappers left over from the overconsumption that was Halloween.

I want time to sit and play in the kids rooms each day without the pickup game of goldfish crumbs mixed into toy trains and blocks and that missing shoe that made us late out the door this morning. I want to not feel constantly behind, like surely there are other people out there who have things more together. If I could just organize a little neater, if I could just discipline the kids and keep up with a chore chart, if I could just have a little more childcare, if I just use paper plates, if I just tried a little harder. If I just had more hours in the day, if I just had more energy.

It’s taken me awhile to pinpoint why I am never caught up. Why it feels like I just finally got the house in order and a day later it’s chaos. Why there is a looming stress of knowing the next month needs to be spent purging old toys and clothes to make room for new stuff, buying new stuff for others, and then in the spring, reevaluating which new stuff needs to stay before we do it all again.

And I’ve realized it’s not me. And if you’re relating to everything I just wrote, then please know – it’s not you either. It’s not our fault.

We just have too much. Our culture is obsessed with consumerism and it dominates our days. I don’t want the holidays to be like this. I don’t want our every day life to be like this.

I want to not be the manager of stuff. I want to not be drowning in stuff. I want the kids to appreciate what we work hard for, and I want them to be content. I want them to be genuinely thankful for thoughtful gifts.

I want, like most people I believe, to enjoy winter more and stress less.

I want to be present. 

//A new guide to gift giving.

What if we looked forward to the holiday season with excitement and cheer? What if we anxiously awaited the upcoming days where we load our cars full of children and covered dishes, leaving each celebration with a sense of peace and love rather than a trunk full of new toys and an exhaustion that won’t be cured until January? What if we could catch up on the stuff in our house every day, rather than constantly picking up and washing and sorting and finding a place for stuff under the bed or in the garage?

None of this is fun anymore. Nobody looks forward to mediocre ham and pie with relatives when our bank accounts are drained and we are numb from the past two months of listening to Jingle Bells in Walmart, trying to pick out a $10 boxed gift set for everyone on your list without looking cheap or thoughtless. Children are overwhelmed by piles of wrapping paper and flashing lights and noises on toys they will play with for a day or two at most. Roads are jammed with traffic and malls are open late and Thanksgiving dinners are cut short so that we can buy even more stuff.

Can we just stop? I understand that what I’m saying may anger some, and I am not trying to kill the excitement of grandparents and extended relatives and friends who love wrapping dozens of presents with pretty ribbons and showering little ones they don’t see too often. I am not suggesting we end gift giving altogether. I am writing this not because I want to sound ungrateful or because I want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s just that I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, more and more every year. As a mother, I want to enjoy the holidays, instilling a deeper meaning of thankfulness in my babies. I want to enjoy the smiles on their faces without knowing my next week will be spent breaking down cardboard boxes and tripping over piles of gifts that there simply isn’t enough time or space to fully appreciate.

So if you are buying a gift, please ask yourself a few things.

  • Will it add meaningful value to this person’s life? Will it truly make this child happy, or is it just temporarily making me feel good to be able to give it to them?
  • Will it be something that encourages creativity and education?
  • Will it allow the family to bond? Will it be a time intensive activity requiring full involvement of  the parent whose time is already stretched thin?
  • Will it be worth the money you worked hard for to save and spend? Will the child remember this gift in 5 years?

Depending on your answers, please think before you purchase something. Understand that at least on a personal note, our family will not be offended if you do not buy the children gifts. We do not expect them, and in fact, we really kind of don’t want them. We might just donate them actually, and feel absolutely guilty when it happens because we never had the time or space to enjoy what you gave us.

Can we please just avoid all that and enjoy some time together while you save your money and I save my time? Can we collectively teach our young humans to value people over things?

//Think outside the box. 

If you’d still like to buy a gift, here are some ideas that reinvigorate the holiday spirit without driving parents batshit crazy.

  • Memberships or passes. Local zoos, children’s museums, science museums, nature clubs, water parks, family gyms. All of these things offer annual or seasonal passes that can be gifts families are able to enjoy together.
  • Books and media gift cards. I do not believe you can have too many books. A trip to the bookstore or being able to download a family movie is far more enjoyable than cleaning up colored sand art from a child’s floor. Even $5 to pick out their own book or to save to put towards a bigger purchase is a gift that allows for a fun experience and educational entertainment.
  • Gift cards in general. A gift card to a movie theater, which is a splurge that a lot of parents often can’t justify, allows a child to have a fun time and create a memory. There’s no rush to use gift cards right away, so parents (and kids) aren’t overwhelmed by the amount of exciting gifts they received all at once. They might not use a gift card until March, and they will still be appreciative of your thoughtfulness months later when they do.
  • Subscriptions. Whether it’s a magazine (NatGeo Kids, Highlights For Children, TIME for kids, Kids Discover) or a monthly subscription box, this will be a gift that a child can enjoy all year long. Also, have you ever seen how excited a kid gets when they receive mail? Seriously.
  • Practical gifts. I know, these aren’t fun. But only in comparison to bright shiny new toys under the tree. In any other situation, kids can and do get excited about having new bedsheets or shoes or clothes. Just make sure you’re asking the parents what they need and respecting that they may like to pick out their own style of things. Even a cute, personalized bath towel is a functional gift that kids will love and parents will already have a place for.
  • Chip in for a big surprise. Get together with 10 family members and friends and put $250 towards a summer camp the child really wants to go to, or a play swing set they could have in their backyard, instead of shelling out $25 each on toys that won’t last.
  • Bake. Do you remember being 10 years old? Did anyone ever give you a tin of cookies with only your name on them? Do you have a favorite memory baking with a family member? I guarantee if you let a child bake whatever kind of sweets they want and wrap them in a pretty box, they will be more excited than opening a toy. Snap a picture of the two of you in aprons, print it out and attach it to the cookie tin, instant cherished memory.
  • Make a date. Give the child a “coupon” to come stay at your house for a fun weekend sleepover, or buy tickets to an upcoming event that you’ll enjoy with them one on one.
  • Buy quality toys. I don’t mean you have to spend more money. I just mean that if you do buy toys, please try to value quality over quantity. Make it meaningful. If a child enjoys art, get them one really nice set of colored pencils instead of three different make-your-own-sequin-glitter-styrofoam-animal craft “art” kits.
  • Charity. I know your inner-child is asking “Is she serious? No fun.” but hear me out. Children learn how to measure their worth and what value to place on things from us, even moreso during the holiday season. Donating to a family in need on behalf of a child can make them feel special. You’d be surprised how appreciative and generous most children can be if you explain how lucky they are to have what they do, and teach them to give their abundances to others. Look at it as gifting them a life lesson, one that can’t be bought in the pop up holiday store at the mall.

All of these ideas are equally applicable for adults in your life and can become meaningful gifts that feel good for both the giver and the receiver.

What if we could end the dread that creeps up your throat when you see the ornaments and stockings start popping up in stores each year? What if we took back the holiday season and bought only what is truly beautiful, useful, or loved?

What more could I accomplish without the never-ending responsibility of all the stuff in our life? What if we only gave gifts that sparked wonder and nurtured creativity, leaving lasting memories and a sense of connectedness vs. consumerism? What if I could spend my holiday break the way I want, enjoying my time with the children, rather than swimming upstream through a sea of stuff that invokes guilt and stress and honestly more work?

Could you give me that this year? Could my plea for change be heard so that I can have what I want for Christmas? Could everyone please think twice before they spend so much of their time buying useless, empty stuff that clutters our homes and minds and hearts?

Or, you know, I could just shut up and smile and spend the majority of December like everyone else, hustling from store to store to make sure everyone is checked off my list without breaking the budget just in time to exchange all our last-minute gifts and go home exhausted. Which is probably what will happen, whether I spent this entire post bitching or not.

Because, stuff. And so it begins.

Merry materialism 2016. 

 

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