My son turned one on Monday (HOW?!), and over the weekend we threw him a birthday party that, against all the advice in the world, was completely out of proportion to anything a kid his age should be made to tolerate: thirty-plus guests (mostly adults) invading his house for four hours in the middle of the day, talking loudly over rock-and-roll music and pinching his cheeks whenever he toddled within pinching radius. The poor thing weathered the celebration and adoration like a champ, though, and instead of fussing his way to an early exit, he partied hardy to an acceptable naptime of 4:30, after all the guests had gone, no harm done.
The event was a success by all accounts, but the one thing that had me wringing my hands after it was over was the pile of gifts–nice gifts, too nice–that our friends had brought for a kid who, let’s face it, barely knows the difference between a brand new toy and one we’ve just hidden from him in the closet for a few months (or worse, a toy that is really just a paper grocery sack with HANDLES OMG). I just felt a little awkward sitting there opening gift after gift in front of a rapt audience while also trying to keep the star of the show focused on the task at hand when he’d clearly rather be pinching his fingers in the mail slot again and again.
I got like this after my baby shower(s) too (and every Christmas, come to think of it), and perhaps it’s just that I’m no good at accepting gifts, but I suspect it has more to do with my hypervigilance about the difference between “want” versus “need” versus “need.” (Funny how living on a shoestring will do that do a person, huh?) Now, as I look at the new books and clothes and delightful wooden toys and cursed lights-and-sounds plastic toys, I can’t help feeling like we shouldn’t have all that–not that we don’t want it or don’t deserve it or don’t appreciate it, but that we don’t need it–especially when there are starving kids in Africa (or in Oakland, probably just a few streets over). Things like this always take me one step further down the path to selling all my worldly possessions and donating the money to something with Mother Theresa’s official stamp of approval (see also: charity bell-ringers at Christmas and homeless people beggging for change next to ATMs), but then of course I don’t because, man, I do love me some stuff. Hence the moral dilemma.
I saw this coming, though. I agonized a fair amount over what to include on the invitation regarding gifts; “No gifts, please” has been popular for years, but lately we’ve also seen some “No gifts necessary,” which, really? No gifts necessary? What am I supposed to do with that? At least with “no gifts, please,” I didn’t have to feel quite so awkward if I couldn’t afford to bring anything–I was just following instructions, after all–but “no gifts necessary”? Well, that pretty much means I have to bring a gift, doesn’t it? And even that is beside the point because I LOVE to buy gifts when I can, especially for kids, so then why do I dizzy myself in this roundabout in the first place, making a big deal out of nothing? (Or is it nothing?) In the end, I sent out our invitations with no reference to gifts at all–out of sight, out of mind…until I look at the living room floor and see it littered with new puzzles and puppets and all thins Elmo and then I think of the kids in Zimbabwe with no shoes.
I’ve read with admiration as parenting magazines profile mothers who host children’s birthday parties at which the guests bring donations to food banks or clothing drives instead of gifts–some moms even going so far as to make the entire party a charity event by taking kids to visit shelters or plant trees or pick up trash at a local park–but I never thought I was the type who could pull it off, especially considering how much I loved my own cake-and-ice-cream-and-gifts-galore parties when I was growing up. Then again, I never envisioned myself as a babywearing, cosleeping, full-time-breastfeeding, homemade baby food-making person either, so maybe this gift-shunning is just another thing motherhood has done to me (rather than something I’ve done to it, which is how I thought this whole gig worked before I found myself in the thick of it). Maybe becoming a mother has made me more sensitive to the needs of the needier. It’s definitely made me more sensitive to the needs of the mortgage bills and electric bills and grocery bills enough to drown out the more frivolous gimmes.
I imagine this issue is something that will change over time–when my son is older, I’ll be able to ask him what kind of birthday party makes him happy–but I also hope that the decisions I make when he’s younger will be a positive influence on the kind of person he becomes, i.e., that he will be concerned about the feelings and welfare of others even on days that are celebrations of him. My best-case scenario? That future birthdays will be occasions to help others and have our cake and eat it too.