“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.

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.

The Perils of Pregnant Purchasing

“Are you going to have a baby shower?” my friend Deborah asked.

“No, you don’t really do it for the second one,” I said.

“But don’t you need stuff?” she asked.

“Not really. The only things we need are a double stroller, dual-room monitors, and some blue blankets. We’re exchanging baby clothes with a friend who’s having a girl, so clothes are covered, and everything else is unisex. He’ll drink from pink bottles. He’s a man of the millennium.”

I’ve heard of showers for the second, third and even fourth baby, but I don’t see the need. I’ve always been very practical, and after experiencing the torrent of stuff that comes with a baby, I’ve decided that I want to be able walk through the house without having to clear a path. Rose was born the day after Thanksgiving. Before she was born, I worried that she’d come in December, thereby cheating herself out of separate birthday and Christmas presents. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have crossed my legs and held out another month. As it stands, she gets legions of dolls, litters of stuffed animals, and assorted toys consisting of roughly three million parts for her birthday, and then a month later, several refrigerator-sized crates full of toys arrive on our doorstep. This phenomenon stems from two sources: the distance between us and Matt’s family and my sister-in-law’s shopping compulsion. At least if Rose had had a different birthday, she might have some time to grow out of the first wave of gifts before she got the second, but this is our destiny.

To top it off, when Rose was born, we lived in an apartment. It was a big apartment, but baby gear and apartment walls soon find themselves at odds. We bought our house right before her first birthday, the same week Matt’s firm announced a huge layoff. Spooked, we almost backed out of the deal, but we looked around at all of our stuff, stroked the bruises we’d collected from bumping into the furniture, and signed the contract.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for my innate practicality and my anti-clutter conviction. Aside from producing a vulnerability to any magazine headline that screams “Organize Your Life,” (thanks, Real Simple!) it’s saved us from a materialistic focus and the dust devils that come with it.

So when I flipped through The Bump, a mini-magazine at the doctor’s office, the ads and product recommendations read like the jokes in Reader’s Digest (magazines say the darndest things). And boy was I thankful for my status as a seasoned mom. First-time moms are so much more vulnerable to the siren song of unnecessary accoutrements.

My favorite product in The Bump has got to be “BabyPlus.” “BabyPlus” calls itself “a developmentally appropriate prenatal curriculum designed to strengthen your baby’s learning capabilities.” It’s a strap-on speaker that advertises sounds “similar to a maternal heartbeat.” Lord, where do I begin? First of all, what’s an “appropriate prenatal curriculum?” It’s a fetus, for God’s sake. It doesn’t even know how to crap yet. Who sits on the Board of Prenatal Education composing syllabi for a “developmentally appropriate prenatal curriculum?” I was cool with playing classical music (Trans Siberian Orchestra, once) for Rose in utero, and I read to her (“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to coax her out), but a prenatal curriculum? What kind of educational Nazi do you have to be to buy into that? And this curriculum is composed of sounds “similar to a maternal heartbeat?” I got news for ya, new moms. If baby isn’t already hearing actual sounds of a maternal heartbeat, you’ve got much bigger problems than choosing an appropriate prenatal curriculum.

My second favorite item as seen in The Bump has go to be the “IntelliGender” gender prediction test. This product calls itself “the world’s only in-home gender prediction test,” promising “a fun way to learn your baby’s gender as early as 10 weeks.” Ok, I admit this one’s a desirable product – if it works. But if it did, wouldn’t it appear on the cover of the Journal of the American Medical Association and not as a paid advertisement in “The Bump?” I mentioned it to my doctor. She said, “If it worked, we’d be using it.” And by the way, it’s not “the world’s only in-home” gender test. Those gypsy women who’d dangle your wedding ring over your baby belly have been making house calls for thousands of years.

Another belly laugh came from reading about “push presents.” Apparently there’s a new trend among parents with too much money. A “push present” is a token presented to the new mom in appreciation for all of the pushing she did to give birth. Ok, nice concept in theory: You brought my baby into the world. I love you. Here’s a diamond tennis bracelet. Unnecessary and ridiculous in practice. While I’d love a token of appreciation for popping out a pup – and I get one every Mother’s Day – more timely, and trust me, better appreciated gifts from dad include diaper changes, midnight feeding shifts, babysitting, laundry and ordering/cooking dinner. Got it, dads? If your wife expects a diamond trinket for pushing, congratulations on your trophy, you old coot; and good luck teaching that kid some values.

“Who buys this stuff?” You’re asking. Well, look no further than the “Glow Q&A” column, which features the following reader question: “I can’t seem to find a diaper bag. If it looks nice, it isn’t functional, and the more utilitarian ones are too childish.” Honey, let me set you straight. You need a diaper bag that holds all of your stuff, doesn’t hurt your back, is washable and repels the stench of sour milk. That’s all. Even if you find one that does all this and looks nice, in two weeks it will sport scratches, old vomit, milk stains and pee. And if the reader question wasn’t illustrative enough, the tagline on this page says, “Submit your own pressing fashion and style queries at thebump.com/look.” The only reason an expectant mother should have “pressing” fashion and style queries is if she works for Vogue. And if she does, she’d be surrounded by fashion and style experts with no need to consult a pregnancy magazine. As most of us know, when you’re pregnant, there aren’t a lot of fashion choices and few of them flatter. You make yourself presentable and you take what you can get. That’s how it works.

Well, if there’s a sucker born every minute, then there’s a sucker mom carrying one for the preceding nine months. And new moms are vulnerable to this kind of marketing – moreso if conception was difficult. Many new moms view pregnancy as a beautiful time in their lives to be cherished and commemorated. The rest of us just try to survive morning sickness. Seriously, pregnancy is wonderful, miraculous, it makes babies, we glow, etc. But focusing on the pregnancy instead of bringing up baby is like focusing on the wedding instead of the marriage – transposed priorities. Once you have the baby, its well-being becomes your top priority — at least it should. Once you become a parent, you remember your childhood and you realize how far-reaching your actions can be. It’s up to you to give that kid the foundation for a well-adjusted, productive life. It’s not about the right gear or instituting a prenatal education. It’s about doing your best to raise a good person. And that’s a lot more complicated than picking the perfect diaper bag.

Marriage and the Scientific Method

I remember in sixth grade, our scientific focus turned away from absorbing information and toward testing ideas. That’s when we learned the Scientific Method. According to my research, the semantics of the Method have changed over the years but in sixth grade, its first step was “Define the Problem.” Now it’s “Make an Observation,” followed by “Ask a Question,” which, if you ask me, is the same thing as “Define the Problem.” I guess they had to dumb it down because some children got left behind.

Through making observations and asking questions (thus defining problems), I’ve learned that the Scientific Method applies not only to discovering the best way to grow mold but also to romantic relationships. That’s right, relationships. We (well, women anyway) hear and read so much relationship analysis that characterizes so many of our differences as unknowable, we begin to think fights happen because “men are impossible” or “women are so hormonal.” And truthfully, some fights do stem from the differences between the sexes. Some really are irresolvable. But what I’ve realized, using the Scientific Method, is that some fights have nothing to do with our behavior or our hormonal state. With the right solutions, some fights just go away.

The key is to define the right problem. My husband, Matt, and I used to fight at least twice a week because we didn’t have clean forks. Dishes were Matt’s job and if he hadn’t done them, I’d look in the drawer for a fork to say, beat some eggs, and the only thing in the fork slot would be crumbs. Blood would flood my face, my head felt as if it would explode and I’d yell, “WE’RE OUT OF FORKS SO I CAN’T COOK! HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO COOK WITHOUT FORKS?” And then Matt would say, “I was gonna do the dishes tonight.” And I would say, “Well we need dishes NOW!” and we would argue until he did the dishes or I resentfully washed one fork and wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

When we first moved to Seattle, we were at Wal-Mart shopping for the new apartment when we stumbled upon the flatware displays. Matt said, “Do you want to get a new set now?” For ages, we’d said that we would buy an additional set of silverware but the opportunity never presented itself. Now here we were. So we bought a new set. We brought it home and no matter how long Matt dragged his ass on doing dishes, we never ran out of forks again. Boom. No more fight.

So let’s define the problem. I thought it was, “Matt drags his ass on doing dishes so I never have the right tools to cook.” Matt thought it was “Maria would rather bitch than wash a freakin’ fork.” The problem really was: We don’t have enough forks. It’s not like we didn’t know that. Like I said, we’d been intending to buy more silverware for a long time. It’s just that we got so mired in our own definitions that it never occurred to us that if we instituted this one little fix, we’d solve the whole problem. Instead I thought Matt needed to stay on top of the dishes and he thought I should just shut up and wash what I needed. Both of us were too stubborn to cave, so if we hadn’t supplemented our silverware, we’d still be having that fight.

Here’s another problem we couldn’t correctly define. Since the start of this pregnancy, I’ve been sleeping poorly. The kid wakes me up between 3 and 5 a.m. Between the natural pregnancy insomnia and Matt snoring I can’t get back to sleep. Once I slept so poorly I couldn’t function the next day so I asked Matt to work at home and watch Rose so I could go back to bed. Anytime I interfere with his work, he gets really mad. He stayed home that day but he insisted I call the doctor and see what she could do about the insomnia. I knew there was nothing she could do because insomnia’s a normal symptom of pregnancy and you can’t take aspirin, for God’s sake. It’s not like you can take sleeping pills. But he continued to rant that day that he wasn’t sleeping well either because the woman who was carrying his second child was getting up too many times during the night to pee.

It’s not like sleeping was a sea of bliss for us in the first place. I go to bed before Matt because I can’t fall asleep while he’s next to me. He dozes; he jerks, he dozes; he jerks. Then when he falls asleep, he snores. For the record, I snore too, but he can sleep through mine, whereas I cannot sleep through his. So additional sleep issues just stirred the pot. Plus, losing sleep makes us irritable, so that exacerbated the marital unrest.

I was telling my best friend about the sleep issues and she said, “Just get a new bed! You’ve been talking about getting a king-sized bed forever anyway. What’s $3,000 compared to saving your marriage?” The marriage was never in trouble, but who knows what would have transpired had we kept losing sleep and fighting about it? Plus, she’s never steered me wrong so I said, “You’re right. We should buy a new bed as soon as possible.”

We raided our savings and got a really good deal on a bed at our buying club, so with a good chunk of cash and some wee-hour Benadryl we solved our sleep problem. We got a foam bed, so I don’t feel Matt jerk when he dozes anymore, and he doesn’t awaken when I get up to pee because he can’t feel me move either. We still snore, but I wear earplugs when he’s snoring now.

So the problem was not, “Matt is impossible to sleep next to and now he’s even more of a pain in the ass,” like I thought it was. And it was not, “I never should have knocked up my wife because the bitch wakes me up five times a night now,” as I imagine he thought. It was: We have inadequate sleeping accoutrements.

Although each problem ultimately involved making a purchase, I want to emphasize that retail therapy is not the answer to all marital problems. And even the Scientific Method, in all of its glory, doesn’t fix everything. But for some fights, especially the ones we believe would be resolved if our partner could just CHANGE, maybe we’re focusing on finding fault where we really should be finding a solution. If we focus on the problem itself and not our partner’s role in it, maybe we can see clear to a simple fix that will make us wonder why we didn’t just do that in the first place.

Great Gift for Dad!

Ah, Christmas shopping season. Ubiquitous crowds, carols and credit cards. Creative gift-giving ideas – would Chia Pet have survived without Christmas? Parking rage. Creative budgeting. The most wonderful time of the year.

 This year I’m ready. I composed my shopping list two weeks before Thanksgiving, and since then have been checking prices, arranging and rearranging each group of items by store and deal, signing on to the computer and shopping until my fingers ache.

 There’s one person on my list who doesn’t get a gift from the store: my father. He’s an extremely frugal guy, doesn’t buy anything, has nothing, so you’d think he’d be easy to shop for. And I used to shop for him. When my mother got sick, he cared for her and I knew he didn’t cook, so I ordered frozen gourmet meals from A La Zing. I sent them Christmases and birthdays and Father’s Days until he told me to stop. “Don’t get us that food. We don’t need it,” he told me.

The next year I visited his house. He had papers stacked everywhere. If I wanted to sit at the dining room table, I had to move a stack off of the chair before I could sit down. A thin layer of gray coated the kitchen. Pebbles the poodle, blind by then, would find old piddle spots on the rug and refresh them periodically. Dust bunnies reached out to each other to form cobwebs between gaps in the chair backs. My father would scrub and scrub the vinyl tablecloth, only to wear the color off of it in one spot. It still looked dirty.

 A maid! I thought. I’d get the house cleaned for him. So I looked up cleaning companies in New York and arranged for a service to call him for an appointment. So far, so good. He made the appointment. Excellent. But the day came and someone called in sick, the service called to reschedule, and my father said no, he wanted “his” money back. He called me to complain, “They didn’t show up. I don’t need a maid anyway. I just told them to send me the money.” I seethed.

So the next Christmas or birthday or Father’s Day, I asked him what he wanted. “I like those sweatshirts they have at Wal-Mart,” he said. So I bought him a pile of sweatshirts. He thanked me for the gift.

One September, he called me to complain, “Don’t get any of that food or maid service or anything for me. I don’t like that stuff.” Pissed about all the effort I’d wasted thinking of gifts, I thought: Fine, you know what? I’ll just send him money from now on. That’s what he sends me, and, that’s what he always gave my mother for birthdays and anniversaries, come to think of it. Fine.

 So the next Christmas, I sent him a check for fifty dollars. For the first time in my adult life, he sounded genuinely happy when he thanked me for the gift.  Then it hit me. He LOVES money. He loves it so much, he won’t even spend it. He brings home Wendy’s salad dressing packets so he won’t have to buy dressing at the supermarket. He buys cars with odometers in the hundred thousands and keeps them for ten years. When I was younger, he’d scour the woods in the winter for felled trees to burn in the wood stove so we wouldn’t burn oil.  His whole life has been about hoarding money. Of course! How did I not think of this before? All these years, I wasted my creative energy on finding the perfect gift and all I had to do was open my checkbook. Unbelievable. 

Now on every gift giving occasion, I send my father fifty dollars. And he is genuinely happy. No more trying to please him only to hear complaints. And I have one less stressor during the holidays. Oddly enough, I can apply this lesson to the other people on my gift list. Instead of getting them what I think they need, I think about who they are at the very core. What themes have come up in conversation? One mom friend takes care of her kid by herself twelve hours a day, so I’ll babysit for her. One friend loves to go out to dinner but it’s never in her budget, so I’ll buy her a restaurant gift card. Another mentioned needing a massage, so that’s what she’ll get. The method’s not foolproof, because I don’t always nail the need, but it works pretty well. And if it doesn’t, at least I know my friends appreciate that I tried.

I hope that everyone on your list always enjoys your gifts, but if you do have someone who’s hard to please, maybe this will help. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll know you tried. Happy holidays and fruitful shopping!