The gift of the grandparents

Don’t look now but we are actually in the holiday season. Love it. Curse it. Get white-knuckled trying to keep yourself from hiding under a rock… It’s here, my lovelies.

Actually, I think the holidays are sort of like a corporate-ninjas — soundlessly moving the dial back a little more each year. If my calculations are correct, “The Holidays” now start at exactly 12:01:01 am on October 1. Because retailers want to get the full effect of the all-important fourth quarter bump that puts many “in the black.” (That’s why Black Friday is, well, black, my friends.) And if you think this is the only way that corporations have contrived your Christmas experience, it’s best not to think about how, “according to legend the Santa Claus at Macy’s in New York City is often said to be the real Santa Claus.” Or how “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was penned by a Montgomery Ward copywriter. And while Coca Cola might not have invented our culture’s modern-day Santa, it is indelibly linked with creating his modern image.

I am pretty uncomfortable with the year-end, mass-consumer orgy ritual. Don’t get me wrong. I have grown to love Christmas as I watch it through the eyes of my toddler. And I have always loved holiday lights, holiday cards, and many delicious holiday foods (and drinks). I’m not all Scrooge. I’m just not down with worshiping at the altar of materialism and excess. I think it’s vulgar. It’s dehumanizing (to many low-wage workers and to the many who line up for hours to stampede into sales). And the longer we escalate to Christmas the more stress — about money, making “perfect” holiday memories for our kids, and so on — we’re piling on ourselves. You can’t sustain level 11 for 16 straight weeks. No wonder everybody is sick!

But it’s not all bad… right?

Okay, it’s actually not all bad. And I do enjoy many aspects of the holidays, like charity, getting together with family and friends, and enjoying simple things like walking through the Ethel M Cactus Garden glittering with lights. It’s free and it’s delightful! And seeing my daughter’s chocolate-smeared smiling face at the end was pretty great. Now that kind of holiday fun I can get behind all day long!

But the holidays are not a restaurant where you can order ala carte. The holidays are a cultural institution. So much so that Americans feel at liberty to publicly shun those who don’t participate, whether it is for religious reasons, monetary reasons, or philosophical differences. This is America. Act in unison or face The Wrath, you communist, Jewish/Muslim, hippie, Satan-worshippers! Duh!

Right, so… How do well-intentioned people navigate the holidays? Or, more importantly to Tired Feminist reader, Jessica:

Now that we are moving into holiday season, I’d love see a post about talking to family members and grandparents in particular about gifts. I’m not sure how to approach the importance of what I want my daughter to receive or not as far as toys go without coming across as a complete ass to well intentioned grandparents. I’m hoping you may have some good ideas.

Oh, is that all, Jessica? Holy crap!

I mean, sure, Jessica. Let’s talk about that… right now. Here I go… (Is this a trap?) … ahem… Yes, this is a tricky one. But let’s just dive in. No need to be terrified!

Right off the bat, I feel like I should come clean here. When it comes to this issue with my own daughter, we have gotten off fairly easy. For one, my family (both in-law and biological) is pretty respectful and cooperative for the most part. And two, I don’t live within 1,000 miles of my family. So, a lot of pressure is off for me in the gift-giving game. Often, I can preview what is being given to my daughter because I have to open up a postal package to get to the actual gift inside for her. So far, the only things we’ve had to strategically put away are items that were not age-appropriate, yet. (They come out when the time is right later on, so it’s no biggie.) I miss my family all the time, but especially during the holidays. But I have to admit, when it comes to worrying about any sort of un-intentional gifting gaffe, I get something of a pass because of the distance.

But what if you live around the corner or across town from your child’s grandparents? Or, like one of my friends, across town from your adopted children’s grandparents whom they only see once a year? I don’t know if I can think of a more difficult scenario than that! These particular grandparents are well-intentioned, I am sure. But imagine the guilt-shopping that happens in this dynamic. You want to express a loss and a love through gobs and gobs of presents! These are not only grandchildren they never get to see, but also grandchildren who are being raised by a stranger because your own child was unfit. Needless to say, this resulted in not only an avalanche of unneeded and not altogether desirable gifts, but a real parenting conundrum for my friend.

In my friend’s situation, he took a two-pronged approach:

  1. Establish what your family values are, regardless of what gifts are received. If someone gives your child a sexist toy, try to do your best to use it as a teaching opportunity (after the gifter is gone, is probably preferable). I am already plotting strategies for how to deal with Disney princesses… because I will not be able to isolate my daughter from them forever. No, this might not dissuade your child from enjoying that toy/movie/whatever in the moment, but don’t discount that the lesson may still permeate.
  2. When all else fails, take the path of least resistance. After countless conversations trying to persuade the grandparents to cool it, my friend finally had to just accept that the gift avalanche was going to happen. It actually became a teachable moment between him and his kids as they got older and became uncomfortable with it on their own terms (see… the lessons can permeate).

In thinking about this and other grandparent gifting dilemmas, I have thought of some more tips that may help:

  • Have the talk. I know this is really hard to do. I have talked with both my in-laws and my own family. Sometimes they listen to me and sometimes they nod their head and think to themselves, “Yeah, right.” One thing I have learned is to not be overly dramatic or demanding about it. For instance, I keep the don’ts to one or two really important things. Not a whole list of don’ts. I offer a short and (I hope) meaningful explanation of why they are don’ts and then I move on.
  • Steer the shopping. While I don’t really worry about my family going crazy. My dad is very stereotypical in that he never knows what to buy people. You could talk about how you love the Smurfs all day long for six months straight and he’d still come to you later on and go, “Hey, do you like the Smurfs?” My dad not only likes direction, it makes him feel very satisfied to know he’s gotten someone something they really want. Don’t assume that everyone in your family is picking up what seems obvious to you. Help them out and send them an Amazon wishlist with items you pick out for your kid(s). Those suggestions could go a long way. And if you live nearby, offer to go shopping with the grandparent(s). If they pick up something you would rather not see under the tree, gently steer them to a better choice. “Joe doesn’t really go for action figures. He’s really into trucks and cars…”
  • Take the opportunity to get rid of other less-desirable items. We have a philosophy that when you bring something new in, something old should leave. It keeps our house from turning into a hoarders’ den and it also matches our values that stuff is not what is important. People are what is important. But nobody said this endeavor has to be entirely altruistic. Maybe you can’t get rid of this year’s offending gift, but you can certainly get rid of last year’s annoying gift (that is now not that interesting).
  • If the grandparents live in town, you could consider having place-specific stuff. This is something I learned about the hard way because my parents are divorced. Toys and clothes at one house did not travel to another house. Same for grandparents (and since each of my parent re-married, that was a total of four sets of grandparents). In the divorced-child scenario this becomes about the parents fighting. But in a functional family dynamic, this can just mean that some toys are for Grandma’s house and some toys are at-home toys and some toys are car-toys… etc. My daughter already has this just with Mommy’s car and Daddy’s car. Although you don’t have to be a huge stickler about it (no need to traumatize), if you can end up limiting your kid’s exposure to the offending gift by limiting their time with it, that could be a kind of win.
  • Lose the batteries. Shrink the dress. Sometimes accidents happen. Not all parenting moments are proud ones, but sometimes they are sanity-saving.
  • You can ban certain items. But do it judiciously and be prepared to explain why to both your kid(s) and the grandparents involved. Probably more than once. This is probably best reserved as a nuclear option.

My final piece of advice is to remember that grandparents are having a holiday experience here, too. No matter how off-the-mark the gift may be, the intention is love. And as much as I am greedy about having my holiday memories and experiences as a mother with my daughter, grandparents are looking for that same fix but on the grandparent scale. Sometimes it is an act of love to go with the flow and just let them have their moment. They get their memories for later and you get to be your kid’s parent for the rest of her/his life.

This always reminds me of how when I was a kid my grandmother used to buy me M&Ms. I was sort of luke-warm about M&Ms as candies go. But she would always bring them for me as I was her “M&M Kid” because of the two Ms in my name. And I had to eat at least a few (and once the bag is open, you just end up eating them all anyway) so she could see me enjoy them. Sometimes I didn’t feel like it. But when I ate the candy and she would hug me and call me her M&M Kid, she would also be so happy and smiling. It was something special she did just for me. I was her only grandchild who was the M&M Kid. She had other grandkids and I’m sure they each had special things, too. But this was the one that was just for me. It was how I started to learn that gifts are not just given, they are received.

I hope that somewhere in all this, I have been able to offer a little help to you, Jessica. And to all of you readers out there. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but if you send me questions, I’ll do my best.

Here’s hoping you have a happy and sane holiday season!

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