In my single, more ascetic life, my possessions were a few pairs of jeans, a nice guitar, some books, some pretty dishes I bought in Chinatown. My things stayed put when I cleaned. The advent of kids brought a crushing load of plastic things covered in peeling foam, grubby swings, squeaky playpens, adhesive baby-latch sticky things, Magic Erasers, Febreze, a Dustbuster, so very many kinds of wipes, Thomas trains rattling inside my beautiful Martin guitar.
When I got pregnant, the number of people who said, “Oh, you don’t need anything but onesies and diapers,” were matched only by the people who said: “Oh, you don’t need anything—except this one vibrating bouncy seat that tinkles out a midi file of ‘Life is a Highway;’ it’s the only thing that got our baby to sleep.” Or, “This egg-shaped electronic thing that swings your kid around in a parabola like the Scrambler at the county fair—it’s the only thing that got our baby to sleep.” Multiply that by 100.
And so—because who has the money for electronic baby Scramblers?—I started looking around for hand-me-downs. And hand-me-downs are great! But along with the useful hand-me-downs also came a enormous amount of crap—crap that people cleared out of their closets and didn’t want to bother to sort. I’m talking about piles of stained clothes, half a pair of pajamas, one shoe, a broken toy. It’s like people think, well, she has so much clutter in her living room anyway, why shouldn’t I pass on this deflated ball to her toddler?
© Leigh Anderson
This turns the recipient into the garbage man. The giver is giving his or her old stuff, some of which is a score, sure, but a lot of it is obviously unusable. It’s clothing that won’t fit for years or is the wrong season or is too small for the baby, or is ripped. It’s an Operation game with only the bread basket; it’s a one-armed rubbery doll that magnetically attracts dust and pubic hair and has to be regularly rinsed in the bathtub. It’s something that still smells of peanut butter. If there’s a bag of stuff and three-quarters of it is totally unusable—well, the giver is actually giving me the chore of picking through her trash. And to frame this bag of trash as a “gift” is where the disconnect comes in. (I once saw a conversation on a parenting forum where one woman complained that her friend hadn’t written a thank-you note for a bag of castoffs.)
Now, I may have my own biases here—there was a stretch of my childhood when my mother, a single parent, relied on donations from the Red Cross for our clothes. And she would sort through a box of things that were mostly unsuitable—too grubby or too worn—shaking her head about the quality of stuff that people would donate and what that said about their ostensible generosity. It was as if being needy meant that we should be content with something stained or not warm enough. At this point in my life, I am merely thrifty, not needy, but the barrage of junk when you have a baby strikes the same chord—you are no longer an individual with preferences or desires, you’re just a tangled mess of panicked need and will appreciate anything, whether it’s a bent Swiffer or a nub of Romano cheese.
(Yeah, I know—how hard is it to sort through a bag? But it’s just another one of the 11 million things mothers have to do to run a household—make the doctor appointments, remember the shoe sizes, pick up a snack for the class—and these 11 million things mean that you morph from an autonomous woman into a beleaguered roadie for a toddler rock band.) Every frugal mother I know, a few years into motherhood, has learned to say, “Oh, thanks, but we’re all set,” to most offers of castoffs (except from one or two friends who can be trusted to give a bag of clean, cute, seasonally appropriate stuff) in favor of stocking up at the thrift store.
© Leigh Anderson
A sub-category of this is not baby stuff but simply junk people don’t want to toss themselves. It’s when grandparents or aunts or uncles are cleaning out their garages and come across a chicken mask from 1985, and think, oh, I can’t bear to throw this out, maybe four-year-old Nephew will “get a kick of out of it.” And they bring it over to Nephew’s house, where Nephew is in fact, delighted (and terrified) by the chicken mask. Mother is less than enthused.
Other things (real gifts!) that fall into this category:
1. An enormous t-shirt from a family (not my family) reunion from 1994
2. 10,000 band-aids that don’t stick
3. Two trucker hats from a convention that say “partners in community”
4. A plastic ID badge from the same convention
5. An Ikea bench from your entryway, now for my entryway, which is an entryway that doesn’t exist
6. Baby clothes, shot through with black mold, newly retrieved from storage
7. an empty frame
8. Vinyl baseboards that the kid might like to “build stuff” with
9. Any free gift from a cosmetics counter
Now, I know that 80% of this gift-giving impulse is generous—you want to give your friend or family member stuff she might like. But, really, 20% is you saving yourself the trouble of carting it to the Goodwill, or the time to sell something on eBay, or the 23 emails it takes to give something away on Freecycle.
I actually think the bulk of this is environmental guilt: We don’t want to toss more stuff in the landfill, so we look at our stained baby clothes and old trucker hats and team-building t-shirts and think, “Who can use this?,” which is a fair question, if the recipient has the opportunity to say, “No thanks, I can’t use that.”
But if the recipient is blindsided by you showing up with the chicken mask—and the recipient’s kid takes a shine to it and will never let her throw the chicken mask away, because kids are hoarders—well, that’s not really a gift, is it? It’s a hot potato of trash. It’s making her do the emotional labor of throwing your shit out. You feel a certain sense of relief that it’s out of your house, but you didn’t have to deal with the actual throwing-away of anything.
A plastic ID badge is not a gift, it is something you couldn’t bring yourself to toss, and now I won’t be able to either, because children are little Grey-Gardeners: They collect all sorts of weird shit. They’ll stuff the ID badge in the free make-up kit, along with some Connect 4 pieces, guitar picks and receipts, and call it their pot of “gold.” They have radar for when you’re trying to smuggle a beakless duck to the trash and will plant their little bodies in your path; they will tear up and piteously whimper “that’s special to me” when you try to discard the broken plastic cover to a battery compartment of a long-abandoned toy.
This is on my mind because it’s almost the holidays. Women and mothers bear a lot of the actual labor of celebrations—the washing and ironing of linens, the making of menus, the polishing of silver—as well as the emotional labor of being cheerful and welcoming and festive in the midst of sometimes trying circumstances. A gift is a communication. A good gift says, “I have been paying attention to you. I know what your interests are, your hobbies, your aspirations, and this is something that will bring you joy or pleasure or in some way make your life easier.”
The communication of “I need to get rid of some stuff, maybe you can use it,” or “I didn’t remember it was Christmas until last night” is not the same communication. This is where a lot of gift-giving goes awry. It’s not that someone has to get the perfect present, every time. I’ve gotten books that didn’t thrill me or clothes that didn’t fit—but they were still good gifts because the other person took the time to consider what I might like, and I appreciated that communication.
What’s bad about bad gifts—either gifts-that-are-not-gifts, like the chicken mask, or something bizarrely off, like plastic ladybug earrings for a 42-year-old woman who doesn’t wear jewelry—is that the giver is communicating that they didn’t think about what the receiver might like. It makes the receiver feel invisible, and when so much of the labor around the holidays is invisible too, that can sting. I’m sure that someone reading this will say, “You should be grateful for any gift!” —and sure, no one has to give you anything. But the issue here is not the gift. It’s about someone considering you, an individual with desires and preferences and needs—a you that motherhood obscures. It’s about being seen.
Cover photo: cbcastro/flickr