Christmas is coming. I have made my Christmas puddings and there is a big credit card bill awaiting my attention, but apart from that I am not really ready for the Big Day. It is usually around this time of year when I start suffering from a mild form of panic as I, a reasonably seasoned mother of three, survey all the jobs I have yet to do. All the writing of yearly catch-up letters, queueing in post offices, wrapping of parcels, making of pastry… And, as is my wont, I usually, at around this time of year, suffer from some form of rebellion, generally focussed on conspicuous consumption. Or more particularly, on the number of toys belonging to my children.
In an attempt to reduce the amount of stuff, I have been acting, for several years now, under a policy of only buying things for them (except when things like shoes and clothes are grown out of or damaged beyond repair) for Christmas and birthdays. The problem is, though, that I become tired of constantly saying, ’No’. Once in a while, I would like to say,‘Yes’. Actually, I did this in the summer holidays (can’t think what came over me), and the kids nearly keeled over in shock. It was worth it just to see the looks on their faces.
There have been years when I have looked at the display of presents on Christmas morning and felt slightly sick. I have wondered if we have gone a little overboard and have had to remind myself that I have three children, and that three children do indeed generate a hell of a lot of gifts. It’s not so much that we, the doting parents, buy them a huge amount, just that they have relatives who also buy for them and it all adds up.
When Sam was a baby, I like many new mums, suffered from an overly strong desire to control the toys that he played with. I would have liked to restrain them to only the nicest of wooden toys, the kind that make a beautiful display on the window sill or mantel shelf – you know the sort I mean, the ones that make you seem as if you are living in a lifestyle magazine, but this was not to be. My focus was shifted by the diagnosis of Down’s and from that moment on, instead, every toy had to have some sort of educational value. Hand-eye co-ordination, doing and undoing, putting in, taking out, putting lids on and off, posting through slots of different shapes and sizes, same and different, colours, in, on, under – if there was a skill, there was a toy to help.
In the early days I had in mind a very specific idea of what I thought people should buy for my beloved firstborn, but did a single one of my wider family and friends take a blind bit of notice? No. They did not. I have a lovely friend who issues a list to her relatives and they mildly comply. I have no idea how she does it, because mine are a rebellious bunch and consistently do their own thing, regardless of what I might say.
Despite my, on many occasions, doing down huge numbers of different types of toys for being too plastic, too cheap and nasty, too expensive, too gendered, too everything, no-one has taken the hint. They joyfully fill my house up with stacks of gifts I have not chosen, and I, well brought up child that I am, do not dare to say anything for fear of looking the dreaded gift horse in the mouth.
I can’t even bring myself to quietly get rid of the stuff-what-I-have-not-asked-for. It feels wrong to dispose of gifts bought to please my children because they don’t always please me. I’d love to be one of those organised mums who box up all the toys and then bring them out at different times of the year. I always had the good intentions, but I never seemed to be able to find the time.
I know that they would be just as happy with half as much. I know that they don’t need to have the latest, or the best of everything. I know that they are just as happy playing with the box that the latest thing came in, just as my sister and I were, back when we were kids. I can see the stacks of toys that go un-played with and dusty in the corner, while they return, again and again, to the old favourites. But someone spent good money on them. Someone took the time to think about what the children might like, they wrapped them up and delivered them to the house. I can’t bear to throw away someone else’s love gift.
So I might allow myself the luxury of believing that the children of today have far too many material possessions. I might agree that my sister and I had just as much fun with our cardboard boxes and lack of wall-to-wall tech. But I also agree that other people are allowed to bless my children. Other people are allowed to love them and be loved in return. Other people, who could never afford to bless their own children, because they, like me, haven’t got enough money to get them the very thing we know they would love more than anything else. I understand that the joy of gifts lies not just with the recipient but with he or she who gives. And I’m not going to put a stop to that.