Christmas presence

New-YorkWe snuck off to New York last month. We didn’t tell my father. We visited my birth family and best friend, but we did not visit my dad. I wasn’t trying to punish him. He did it to himself. I told him that my birth mother wanted to buy us plane tickets to visit and he said, “Don’t go taking money from her. You’re getting too involved. She wants to mother you. She has a mother complex.” read more

“Is there more?”

Christian's Christmas cache

I’ve coined a new phrase: Shower the gifts and spoil the child. I told it to the family in many different ways, before Christmas, but they must have misunderstood me. They must have thought spoiling was the objective and not the problem.

It all started Christmas day. The kids woke up, headed for the tree, and stopped to take it in. There was a treasure chest for Rose and a ride-on construction truck and a pirate ship for Christian. Rose, remembering our threats the night before when she was acting up, was really happy that Santa came at all. (We’d been using Santa as a discipline tool for months and he was losing his edge.) She opened her treasure chest and found a Princess Jasmine Barbie doll and accessories, a Disney Princess notebook and a sheet of Princess magnets.

“I didn’t even tell Santa I wanted this,” she exclaimed, holding the still-boxed doll, her eyes wide, “He knew!” She took out her notebook and magnets and examined them. She was happy. We showed Christian how to ride his toy and immediately he started pushing the buttons, making driving and construction sounds. He was happy.

I wish Christmas morning could have ended there.

We broke their reverie by telling them, “There’s more. You’ve got gifts from Yiaya.” We hadn’t put them under the tree because we wanted to distinguish each set of gifts and their sender. We also feared getting robbed – no thief would have been able to help himself if he saw how many presents we had.

So Matt went downstairs and made his way through the box and gift-bag-stuffed guest room and brought up Yiaya’s gifts. Rose opened the box of four specialty Barbies – Doctor Barbie, Ballerina Barbie, Veterinarian Barbie and some other Barbie – and waved it around. “Barbies!! Look Mommy, Barbies!!” She unwrapped three more gifts, squealing about each one, and we were done with Yiaya’s batch of toys. Christian opened his gifts and went back to his construction truck until we could get the new ones out of their plastic prisons.

Rose was happy. She asked us to free her Barbies from their plastic pods, but then we said, “There’s more.”

“More?” she said, wide-eyed as Matt went downstairs.

“These are from Grandma,” Matt said as he struggled to find the steps under a mound of boxes and bags. “I’ve got to go back down for Christian’s,” he said, as he dumped the haul in front of Rose.

Rose opened a “Little Mermaid” baby doll, at least two “My Little Ponies,” some clothes, a huge Barbie Winnebago, and others too numerous to remember, all from Grandma. Christian opened a “Little People” safari truck, an animated Cookie Monster, some clothes and a “Thomas the Tank Engine” self-propelling train, and some other stuff I can’t remember. Matt left three large toys intended for Christian downstairs so Rose wouldn’t think that he got more than she.

When Rose finished opening Grandma’s presents, she asked, “Is there more?”

My greedy little girl. “Yes there are,” Matt said, heading downstairs. When he came up he told her they were from her aunt, uncle and cousin.

My brain was so fried at this point, I don’t even remember what they got, but at the end, when Rose was surrounded by a haul even royalty would envy, she said again, “Is there more?”

“No, Sweetie, that’s it,” we said.

“Awwww!!” She said, stomping her foot.

Therein lies the problem.

Where was the little girl we were so proud of? The one who was happy with five gifts for Christmas? Where was the little girl who was grateful that Santa stopped at our house after all? Where was our sweet girl who was delighted with Jasmine? Washed away by the tsunami of Christmas gifts, that’s where.

Grandparents like to “spoil” their grandchildren, but usually spoiling just means giving/allowing something that Mom and Dad wouldn’t. They do not intend to make their grandchildren selfish, materialistic, ungrateful brats. But that is what happened at our house. Rose was happy with her Santa gifts. We should have stopped there and given the rest of the toys away. That would have been responsible parenting. But we knew how much the grandmas wanted to give the presents they sent; and we wanted to give them credit for sending them; and, more important, if we didn’t how would we handle that uncomfortable Christmas phone call?

We didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. It turns out that we spared feelings at the expense of our children. It’s true that the more you have, the more you want. Someone once told me that it’s impossible to explain appetizers and desserts to someone from the Third World. They’re just happy to have food at all.

Rose asks for dessert every night. While I don’t want my kids to know Third World poverty, I do want them to know gratitude. And if such a bounty is thrust upon them every birthday and Christmas, they’ll learn to expect it. And they won’t be grateful, they’ll keep asking for more.

I don’t fault the grandparents for wanting to “spoil” their grandchildren. It doesn’t help that they live all the way across the country, and most of the time, giving gifts is often the only grand-parenting they can do. Good-natured “spoiling” is ok, but what we see every Christmas is destructive. I’m sure they don’t want their grandchildren to become insatiable materialistic brats. And I’m sure that they want their grandchildren to learn gratitude. But what their grandmas really want them to appreciate is their grandparent relationship. And relationships are born out of love, shared experiences, and wisdom. Maybe we need to read “The Grinch” to them on Christmas Eve. Maybe the’d see that grandmas don’t come from a store, grandmas, perhaps, mean a little bit more.*

*Adapted from “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” by Dr. Seuss.

We Wish You a Stress-Free Christmas!

It may be too late to bitch about Christmas, but if I can save even one person holiday heartache now or next year, it’ll be worth it.

You either love the holiday season or you hate it, but one thing transcends your opinion. No matter your view of the holidays, you’re always busy – too busy if you ask me. You think it’s necessary but it’s not. It’s really not necessary to make yourself crazy stressed just because Christmas is coming, or Chanukah or Kwanzaa, but mostly Christmas. Let’s face it, the other holidays don’t demand half as much as Christmas does. So here’s my plan to streamline your holiday season.

Trim the fat. So many things you do during the Christmas season are unnecessary. Take Christmas cards. Do you really have to take on the task of writing and addressing cards to 52 of the friends you see daily on Facebook anyway? And it’s one thing if you write personal messages. I know someone who still does this and I admire the shit out of her – not enough that I would want to do it, but I do admire her. All but one of the cards we’ve received are addressed to us and signed by hand. That’s it. Do I really need a card to tell me that we’re still friends or family? And don’t tell me you’re thinking of me during the holidays. I know you’re really thinking, Dammit, I’ve got to get these F-ing cards out! And it’s worse for people who send holiday pictures. It’s nice to see how they’re aging and their kids are growing, but they went that extra step to get their family portrait taken. Again, I admire them but wouldn’t want to be them.

My solution for Christmas cards? Don’t bother. I know you’re thinking of me when you’re reading my Facebook status, and whenever something reminds you of me. That’s enough for me. If you really feel the need to reach out and touch someone, send an email , but not an e-card because no one trusts those anymore. It’s totally cool if you want to contact me after the holidays, when things calm down. I almost feel guilty receiving your cards because I know you worked hard on them and I’m going to throw them away after Christmas. Don’t make yourself crazy.

Another thing you don’t need to do is take Santa pictures. I expect some controversy for saying it, but do we need them? I recently found eight Santa pictures from two years ago in a desk drawer. We never sent them to anyone. Nobody ever saw them. This year we didn’t take them. I know I run the risk of hearing “Why didn’t we ever take Santa pictures?” from my kids, but unless you get in before Thanksgiving, you’re going to wait an hour or more and your kids will be cranky and you’ll buy expensive pictures that you’ll never see again. I may rethink that next year if I get in line in time but for now, who needs ‘em?

Christmas cookies. That’s right. I said it. I have heard so many people talk about the stressors of getting the cookies done in time that I’ve deemed cookies unnecessary. Buy them. They make perfectly adequate Christmas cookies and you can get them at any store. If they must be “homemade,” get the refrigerated cookie dough with the snowman and tree insets that you could never have made yourself. That cuts your time down from hours to minutes. Totally worth skipping.

Christmas events. These, in my opinion, are the fun parts of the holidays, but to some, they’re not. Simple rule. If going to holiday office parties, special concerts, or Christmas villages stresses you out, don’t do it. If you do, pick and choose, and skip the ones that happen during the last week of the Christmas rush.

There you have it. Hereditary Insanity’s stress reduction plan for the holiday season. I know it’s last-minute, but now you have all year to rethink your Christmas activities. I hope that the culmination of your holiday season brings you something – whether it’s joy or relief.

Happy Holidays!

…And a Happy New Year!

My birth mom, Rose, Christian and me (Clockwise from top)

I tried to kill myself.

Twenty-four years ago, after a shameful bout of promiscuity, drug use and my first brush with manic depression, the thing that put me over the edge was my date’s indifference at the senior prom. After he rebuffed me a few times on the boat that served as our ballroom, I went down to my cabin and took some pills. I hoped that the pills, combined with the half-gram of coke I’d snorted, would do the trick. Fortunately the pills were just cold medicine but they were strong enough to counteract the coke’s stimulant effects. I slept for a few hours and then woke up wondering what I’d done. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to live, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to die. I told one of our chaperones what I’d done and they had me at the school psychologist’s office on Monday morning.

Years later I learned that I’d performed more of a suicidal “gesture” than an “attempt,” but it felt the same to me. I just wanted things to end. I wanted to get out of waking up the next morning and having another horrible day. I didn’t see much of a future, at least one I could enjoy. I went to therapy all summer and once I got to college, away from the shame and the dysfunction at home, I quit drugs, lost weight and began to look forward to a long, happy life.

This year more than any, I’m so grateful for that “failure.” 2010 has been an amazing year for me. I got pregnant after a year of trying, a discouraging prognosis, and giving up on the whole idea. Despite my age, Christian was born healthy and normal in all aspects – and darned cute too, if I do say so myself.

This year I reunited with my birth mother and we’re building a wonderful relationship. She’s giving me the mothering I still need at 42, and I’m giving her the daughter she never had. I finally have a parenting coach. My mother could never do that for me, because her Alzheimer’s disease took her away before my daughter was born.

I just had my first phone calls with my birth father, and that’s been a great experience as well. He’s warm and welcoming, even though he endured so much heartbreak around the events of my birth. He’s my shot at a good relationship with a father figure.

This year I attended my first real writer’s conference, had three publishing professionals ask to see my work, and I got laid off from my day job so I could realize my 17-year dream of working solely as a writer. I’ve seen this blog grow from 100 readers to more than 800 each month, and I’ve received such encouraging feedback from everyone. Let me pause for a moment to say thank you. The publishing industry says I need a lot more readers to sell a memoir, but my numbers are growing so I’m confident I’ll get there, and every little bit helps.

If I had known what this year would bring, maybe I wouldn’t have tried to off myself so many years ago. Then again, I’d have had to wait 24 years for 2010, and 17-year-olds are not patient. That day I couldn’t see brighter days. I couldn’t see how my life would get better, but it did. And I didn’t have to wait 24 years for that.

Had I known how the freedom and positive environment would affect me at college, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d finish my college career in Florida, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d publish my first essay on the second try, I wouldn’t have done it. All those things were right around the corner for me back then.

My first writing job was doing obituaries at my hometown newspaper. Even though my position was the lowest of the low, I loved that job, and I was so proud that I wrote for the same newspaper that brought me the comics and Ann Landers since I was 6. One thing I learned from being the “Obitch” was that more people die during the holiday season than any other time of year. We didn’t know why. We just saw it happen year after year.

We didn’t get a lot of suicides at the obit desk, at least not that many obvious ones. But so many people get depressed during the holidays that it made us wonder. I used to think that people got depressed about the holidays and just gave up on living. The whole idea made me so sad. Maybe if they knew what was coming up for them, they would have held on.

The holidays used to depress me too. After my divorce, I spent six years as a single girl in Washington, D.C. – a place reputed to host three women for every man. I had a boyfriend during the holidays only once during that singlehood. But I started the plan to bring on better holidays back then. One year I spent 12 hours driving home for Christmas in the snow, and my parents tried to cheat me out of the New York pizza I’d been promised, and then handed me my Christmas present in a wadded-up grocery bag. (See “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for details.) I vowed never to spend Christmas with them again, and ever since I’ve chosen my Christmas “family,” without the fights, without the drama, and without the heartache that Christmas used to bring.

During those single days, I had one date for New Year’s Eve over a six-year span, yet somehow I always found someone to kiss at midnight. And every New Year’s Eve album has pictures of me dancing with a bottle or two of champagne in my hands well after midnight. I would have preferred to have had a date, but just being able to dress up and go out was enough for me.

And I spent the seventh New Year’s Eve with Matt, whom I’d started dating that August. We married three years later. He’d been divorced only nine months when we met, so if I’d met anyone sooner, I’d have missed out on the love of my life. Meeting him was a good foundation for my belief that everything happens for a reason.

The holidays are supposed to be celebrations. And they’re not celebrations unless you actually celebrate. They’re not about drama and they’re not necessarily about family. Spend them with the people you love and choose your holiday company wisely. If your real family doesn’t cut it for you, find people who do. You can always see your real family when there’s less drama and pressure. If the holidays depress you, figure out what you can change to make them better. Then do it. And never forget that you have no idea what might be around the corner. I wish you a very Happy New Year!

Too Much Stuff!

“But now times are rough
And I got too much stuff
Can’t explain the likes of me”
One Particular Harbor – Jimmy Buffett

I’m dreading Christmas this year. Not for the usual reasons – I’m not visiting family or anything like that. We’ll be here with friends we love. That part’s great. It’s Christmas morning that’ll kill me. I just dread the inevitable influx of stuff that Christmas brings.

I am so sick of stuff. Not Matt’s and my stuff so much, it’s the kids’ stuff that kills me. This year we’re enduring a quadruple whammy of gift assault. The first wham came when my mother-in-law visited at the end of August. She lives on the East Coast and only sees her grandchild(ren) once or twice a year. (She still hasn’t seen the baby.) Naturally she wants to spoil them, and she does.

This year we thought we’d try for less stuff, so we explained to Rose and Grandma that we would celebrate Rose’s birthday during Grandma’s visit. So we did. We got a cake and Grandma bought Rose a ton of presents, including “Dora the Explorer” sheets and comforter. Rose was beside herself. I was beside the big pile, shaking my head. We thought Grandma would hold back for Rose’s actual birthday, around Thanksgiving, but our brilliant plan backfired and Rose got a ton more stuff, including “Little Mermaid” sheets and a comforter.

Between Rose’s un-birthday and Thanksgiving, Rose’s new grandmother came to visit. Thrilled to be a Yaya, my newfound birth mother brought gifts and then took the kids to Toys ‘R’ Us where she stocked them up some more.

Then came Rose’s birthday. Again, more stuff, and this time it came not only from both grandmas, but friends as well. Among other things, Rose got three pillow pets. My dad sent his usual check, and for once, I considered it the most thoughtful gift of all. Toys don’t pay for college and money doesn’t take up space.

And all of this conspicuous consumption raged in the middle of a recession. There are people out there who lost their houses and can’t pay their rent, but our kids have more toys than they know what to do with. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for Rose’s grandparents and doubly grateful that they are in a position to buy gifts in such difficult times. And I’m happy that they’re doing their part to stimulate the economy, but the truth is, knowing what’s out there, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for having so much when there are so many people with nothing. I feel even worse now for complaining.

And then comes Christmas. Matt’s mom loves Christmas. Last Christmas, she sent so many gifts that Rose burned out on opening gifts halfway through the pile. Rose, then two years old, walked away from the enormous pile of Christmas gifts that stood pristine before her. We told her to come back – there was more to open, we said – but she decided she’d had enough presents and hopped on her tricycle. She just wanted to play.

So this Christmas, we’ve decided that Grandma will be Santa. We will buy Rose only one gift, and Christian gets nothing. He’s got everything he needs and he’s too young to notice. But we’re still faced with the prospect of too many gifts.

I’d love to give at least half of her gifts away. Sounds simple enough, but what happens when the Grandmas ask her how she likes them? I don’t want to lie to them when all they wanted to do is please their grandchildren. And Rose has an incredible memory for things like gifts. Once she opens a gift and sees it, it’s forged in her brain. If we furtively remove it from her pile, she’ll ask us, “Where’s my Candy Land game?” Maybe not Christmas Day, maybe not the next, but she will ask for it, soon and for the rest of her life. She’ll know she got it and that it’s gone, and that’s kind of a harsh thing to do to a three-year-old. We did it with some stuff last year, and we were able to donate the toys, but she was younger and easier to fool.

This is a great opportunity to teach her about giving, you’re saying. Teach her to give to those who are less fortunate.

Charity is a great idea in theory, but have you ever tried to get a three-year-old to give up her stuff? She’s at the age where everything is “Mine, mine, mine!” A couple of months ago I gave Rose’s bag of Craisins to a woman begging at a stoplight and she cried for two days. I explained to her that we had more Craisins at home and the woman couldn’t afford to buy her own. That argument was lost on her. She has no idea what “less fortunate” means. She just knows she doesn’t want to give up her stuff. We’ve been lucky enough, knock wood, to survive this recession so far, but we’ve been unable to make her understand that many people haven’t.

Her grandmas put a lot of thought and effort into buying gifts for the kids, and withholding gifts would hurt their feelings. We don’t want to hurt them, either. They’d understand more about giving, but they’d want to know the kids enjoyed their gifts before we gave them away.

So you see my dilemma. I can’t refuse gifts; I can’t withhold gifts; and I can’t give gifts away. I even tried to propose to Grandma that she put half of her gift money in an account for each kid, so by the time they graduate high school, they’d be able to pay for any college they want. She laughed. It wasn’t a joke.

I wish I had a solution to this “problem.” I wish we could give more where it really counts and teach our kids to appreciate what they have. Someday they’ll be old enough to understand. When they are, we’ll start a tradition of giving away one (or more) gifts every year. But for now, I’ve got to bite the bullet, clean up the wrapping paper and find a place for all of this freakin’ stuff.