Gift Anxiety: When Something has to Give

Celebrations involving gifts vary from family to family. While many opt to stick with traditional gifting customs, some don’t — no option being better than the other. Personally, my husband and I (mainly me…) have had a hard time figuring out how to handle birthdays and Christmas since becoming parents. Maybe you can relate. I actually don’t stress out when it comes to shopping for gifts; what brings me anxiety as a parent is what to do with all the gifts we receive. Please know we are extremely grateful for everything given to our family, especially to our kids, but if I’m being honest, sometimes it’s all just too much. 

“Kids come with a lot of stuff,” and many kids begin accumulating that stuff before they are even born. A lot of gifts we received prior to the birth of our son were super useful; I especially welcomed those from more experienced mom friends. After all, we don’t know what we need until it’s 3 AM and we’re way past the point of desperately needing it, right? Although organizing our son’s room and finding places for each appreciated present was a bit overwhelming, I don’t remember feeling quite as anxious back then as I do now.

Regarding Christmas, we’ve taken a minimalist approach. We get our son and daughter one “Santa present” based on their particular interests at the time (and what we hope they’ve asked for when sitting on his lap), a few stocking stuffers, and a big gift from Mommy and Daddy — one year it was a play kitchen, another an indoor trampoline, and last year both received balance bikes and helmets. Our kids are blessed with generous grandparents, aunts, and uncles, so they are not left wanting. This generosity helped us set our household expectations early, and I have yet to feel overwhelmed by Christmas present chaos.

Birthdays have been another story. Rather than looking forward to our kids’ birthdays on November 5th and 18th, I found myself worrying way too much about what should be a joyous month. As someone whose mental wellness depends on therapy and prescribed medication, I’ve grown to recognize when something needs to give, and last fall, I knew it was time for a change. After having a few birthday parties at our home, my husband and I decided to farm out party throwing duties to a local children’s gym — removing our home from the equation helped calm my nerves quite a bit. However, when it came time to actually send out invitations, the stress returned.

I was never a “No gifts, please” kind of person until I finally realized why I was apprehensive about our children’s 4th and 2nd birthdays. Presents. So many presents. Where would we put them? Would the gifts overstimulate the kids? Would they value the gifts more than the actual celebration? Would they get things they already had? Would there be gift receipts if needed? Fortunately, the gym where we held their party last year and again last month discourages opening gifts during the designated party time to allow kids maximum playtime. The perfect rationale. I inserted those three little words, clicked “send,” and hoped for the best.

When guests arrived for the party, which was both fun and much more relaxed, about half of them came bearing gifts anyway. See, I hadn’t considered how those three words would be received. Because gifts are so much a part of general birthday culture, people feel weird arriving empty-handed — heck, I used to feel weird arriving empty-handed. It’s awkward. As a guest, I’ve asked myself, “Do they really not want gifts, like really?” Well, I now understand when people say “No gifts, please” there’s probably a reason for it, so I oblige and feel much less awkward doing so. Suffice it to say, our kids enjoyed opening their presents the next day and the many toys ended up coming in handy when we were walled up inside last winter.

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This year, we tried something new. While I’d heard about “fiver” parties and chatted about them with girlfriends, I’d never actually been to one. I’ll admit I did spend a bit too much time on wording the invitation exactly right (I can be a tad neurotic), but once I clicked “send” this go round, I felt little to no anxiety. Instead, I was excited to see how the “fiver” would turn out. In case you’re wondering, here’s how our invite read: “We’re having a ‘fiver party’ in honor of [our son] turning 5 on the 5th, so if you’d like to bring a gift, though nothing is expected, please simply pop a $5 bill or two in a card for the kids — Thank you!” Whatever money is received can be put toward a bigger gift or, in our case, used by our birthday boy and girl to pick out something themselves.

Recently, our son and daughter each got a chance to spend some of their “fiver money” at a local toy store. I loved helping them narrow their selections, and when they each handed over their money to the cashier, it felt like a milestone. The process was a bit more time-consuming than I anticipated (decisions can be hard!), but the joy on their faces as they explained to their dad what they’d chosen was priceless. An unintended benefit? The kids have been playing with their birthday cards as though they were the actual birthday presents.

As the kids get older, we will most certainly let them weigh in on how we handle birthdays and Christmas. For now, our current approach seems to be working for our family. And finding what works is a gift everyone can appreciate.

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Claire made her way to Kansas City after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she met her husband Scott (a KC native and Mizzou grad). Both are high school educators; she teaches English while he often schools her in history. They live in Olathe with their two small children -- Evan 5 & Abbie 3. Claire regularly spends time advocating for early childhood education/intervention and is always looking for ways to become more civically engaged. She loves cheering on the Huskers and the Royals, date nights, reading five books at once, writing, contemplating the deeper issues of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, and listening to her kids giggle together. Catch some of those giggles on Instagram @clairebear_kc.