A (modest) defense of the family gift exchange

This past year, the call to stop exchanging gifts surfaced in my husband’s family first.

“We’re all stressed and overwhelmed,” the irrefutable argument goes. (Plus, you know, PANDEMIC.) “Let’s lighten everyone’s load and just focus on getting each of the kids something.”

My family of origin, meanwhile, made the shift to kids-only presents years ago; for in the time leading up to that initial change, the holidays had essentially become — where the adults were concerned — a gift card swap, and someone pointed out that buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff was both wasteful and meaningless.

Indeed. Score yet another point against the family gift exchange.

But this year marked the first Christmas without my dad, who died suddenly in October; and as we continue deal with the complicated financial and emotional aftermath of that, my family-of-origin determined that to simplify things in this tough time, our gift ban should probably now extend to the kids, too, some of whom are grown.

These are absolutely rational adjustments. They make perfect sense. And I sympathize with and understand every reason provided.

Yet I find myself pushing back, at least a little, every time.

Not because I’m “a material girl,” or because I’m doggedly beholden to holiday traditions, but because to me, gift-giving demonstrates that you truly see, and have paid close attention to, the recipient. You’ve listened to them, and you know their tastes and values (even if you don’t share them).

And that familiarity, that sense of being understood, is what floods me with happiness when my best friend sends me a saint candle with “Queer Eye”’s Jonathan Van Ness on it for Christmas. Every time I light it (or even look at it, frankly), I’ll tap back into the joy I felt upon opening it, realizing that my gal pal “gets” me.

That’s the true gift — not the object itself, but what the thing makes you feel: that you’re worthy of someone’s attention and love, and that you matter.

For this reason, I’d propose that instead of jettisoning gift exchanges all together, we consider re-framing what “gifts” can look like. When I was in grad school, my three girlfriends and I (all of whom lived on a pretty modest stipend) got into the habit of concocting top 10 lists for each person’s birthday. We’d list 10 things we loved about her, or 10 of our favorite shared memories; and being on the receiving end of these lists, year after year, always felt like stepping into a love bath.

Similarly, when I turned 50 early last year, and I couldn’t have even a small party because of COVID-19, my husband assembled a handful of my old Michigan Marching Band friends to play “Happy Birthday” (and “The Victors”) in our driveway while shivering in the February cold. Plus, he coordinated a number of Zoom calls with old coworkers and friends. So again, gifts are not so much about the “thing,” but rather the way a gift can make someone feel understood and valued.

Of course, lots of people say, “I’m not good at buying gifts” — including an ex-boyfriend of mine who once shuttled me to a bookstore on my birthday and instructed me to pick something out. (Red flag, anyone?)

This, of course, is the exact inverse of the joy that comes from feeling seen. Nothing’s more depressing than learning that the person you spend more time with than anyone draws a blank when considering what might bring you a little happiness.

And yes, determining what kind of gift will feel meaningful to someone is often hard. But aren’t our relationships worth some occasional extra time and effort? Being thoughtful about gift selection cultivates a practice of getting quiet and tuning in to our loved ones’ frequencies once or twice a year. And if, as a compromise, your extended family draws names so everyone has to buy a gift for just one person – a compromise I’d be totally fine with, by the way – it’s all the easier to narrow your focus, poke around that person’s social media posts, and take a little time to brainstorm ideas.

I know I’m out of step in saying all this. I know we’re all supposed to eschew “stuff” and instead focus on “the reason for the season.” I’m the odd (wo)man out.

But for me, “the reason for the season” still boils down to one thing: love. And one of my favorite ways to show love is making — or, fine, buying — a thoughtful gift for someone that will make them feel special.

Gifts are my love language, whether that’s on-trend or not.

Eulogy for my father

The last time I got to see and talk to Dad, it was a quick check-in visit, just over a week ago.

I’d called, and he told me he’d been “sick as a dog” in recent days, unable to keep anything down, but that now he was doing a little better. I asked if there was something I could bring him, or anything he needed.

“Mouthwash” was the answer, since he felt like he couldn’t get the taste of sickness out of his mouth. So I bought a bottle of Listerine, got on my bike, and rode over to his apartment.

He looked weak, sitting on the couch in an undershirt and pajama pants while an old western TV show played on the TV. But he told me he’d managed to eat a couple of ice cream sandwiches for breakfast that morning, so he considered himself on the mend. (As I told Joe later, this awful-but-typical dietary choice certainly suggested he was feeling like himself again.)

But also during that short visit, I told him how sorry I was he’d been so sick, with no one around to help, and that when he wasn’t well, he needed to let us know. That that was a big reason why we’d moved him to Michigan earlier this year.

Yet the move was only one of many things we’ve helped with in recent months. It’s been hard, and it’s tested us all. But I must say that Dad at 78 was, in some ways, a pretty different man from the one I remember growing up with. 

Since our mom’s death, and after years of living alone, he’d become someone who reveled in small talk with others. He’d get teary when talking about how, while working at Ford, he told his bosses he wanted to travel as little as possible, because time with his family was his first priority. And while I still don’t think he enjoyed asking for help, he didn’t fight us when we stepped in, either. Though he felt embarrassed, he thanked us. He listened (eventually) when we advocated a course of action. He cooperated.

This surprised me. But he’d surprised me years earlier, too, when our mom was diagnosed with cancer. I was a young adult at the time, just a year or two out of college, and I’d felt a profound, angsty disconnect with him. But when, again and again, he took time off of work to accompany our mom to every doctor’s appointment, and cared for her after each chemo treatment, and even learned to give her injections (though he’d previously been queasy at the mere sight of blood), I began to be able to see him as a loyal husband and man, instead of just my father.

Even so, connecting with Dad never came easy. He wasn’t a hugger. He didn’t call for weeks at a time, leaving you to wonder if it’s because he didn’t want to burden you, or because he simply didn’t want to talk to you. And you could pour your heart out to him while looking him right in the eye, and all you might get in response is a nod. 

Plus, at times, since Mom’s death, I felt like Annie Sullivan, signing messages about how to be more human into his hand. Messages like, “You need to visit your newest granddaughter now, not when it’s convenient for you.”

But then, people aren’t necessarily who we want them to be. People just are who they are. And they’re almost always doing the best they can.

When I called Dad’s apartment complex’s office on Tuesday, the woman on the phone sounded genuinely sad to hear the news, saying, “Oh, no, we’ll miss him! He was such a sweet man. We loved having him as a tenant.”

I assumed, since the complex has hundreds of units, and Dad had only been living there for about seven months, that the woman was just being nice, but then she added, “He told us all about how his granddaughters want him to get a cat.”

Oh. Those were MY kids. They really DID know and remember Dad.

Similarly, when I relayed our sad news to the therapist that I’d nudged Dad to start seeing during this year of upheaval – again, Dad surprised me by his willingness to give therapy a try – the therapist wrote back that Dad’s years of misguided financial decisions “appeared to be a symptom of his grief from the loss of your mother, which he did not fully recover from. Last session, we had ended on an idea: deep pain comes from deep love, and it’s worth it.” 

The therapist’s email went on to say: “When given the opportunity to lead, he focused on decisions he made throughout life and retroactively confirmed he made the right decisions. Ultimately, the confirmation that his choices were good were all of you, his family. … Not one appointment went by where he did not speak with great joy about you.”

So although he struggled to find ways to express himself – other than recording a million movies on blank DVDs and mailing them to us, unasked – he did love us. 

And as difficult as the last year has been, I’m so grateful that we got more time before the end. I met up with him for lunch at restaurants; he’d come to our house for dinner, or to watch a Michigan game; he came to my 10 year old’s birthday party at the local pool; and he attended, albeit a little grudgingly, one softball game each for Neve, Lily, and Sabrina. 

Yes, he was hard to know or feel close to. But as I told Joe last night, I’ll still miss him.

I’d like to close with a Robert Hayden poem that, when I first read it in college, immediately made me think of my father, and it will likely do the same for many of you.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

My Scary Mommy essay about the struggle of being an introverted mom in a pandemic

Time to yourself – particularly if you’re a mom – has become just another casualty of COVID-19. And as the lone introvert in an extrovert family, I’m struggling.

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to steal away to do a 10 minute guided meditation in my bedroom when my nine year old barged in and settled on my bed.

“Sweetie, I just wanted to meditate for a few minutes,” I said, already seated on my floor cushion. “What do you need?”

“I wanted you to read to me, but you can meditate,” she said. “I’ll just watch.”

“But there’s nothing to watch,” I said, adjusting my AirPods. “You’ll just be watching me sit here quietly with my eyes closed.”

“That’s OK,” she cheerfully shrugged, pulling my comforter up over her legs and opening her book. “I can just read.”

Cue some very un-mindful interior screaming. READ THE REST HERE

My Scary Mommy essay about how a cursed road trip was good for my marriage

One summer Sunday afternoon in 2019, my husband — a 50 year old litigator who, on most days, wears a suit and tie — laid himself spread eagle on a gas station’s sun-warmed pavement, as did I (on the car’s other side), straining to see what was making a flapping noise beneath my Honda Fit.

“Looks like the screws might have come out of that thing,” Joe said, pointing to a large shield that hung low between my front tires.

It was a relief, actually, to be able to see what the issue was, since neither of us knows a thing about cars. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, we wouldn’t break down and find ourselves stranded in Michigan’s Deliverance country, nor would we lose any more time.

We were already cutting it close as it was.

Joe’s best friend from high school — Steve, whom we’d seen maybe twice in the last dozen years — was getting married to a young woman from the Dominican Republic, where Steve owned a bar (despite primarily living and working in Nashville).

There had been no official invitation to the nuptials. Instead, Joe had received a call from Steve a month or two earlier, asking us to come to a vineyard outside Traverse City, four hours away, on this Sunday in June.

The exact time of the ceremony seemed in question until shortly before we left. “It’s either four or four-thirty,” Steve told Joe. “I’ll check.”

Joe and I exchanged amused, bewildered glances. READ THE REST HERE

My YourTeenMag essay about what I gained by helping my tween with her math homework

The first time my 12-year-old daughter asked me about hiring a math tutor for help with middle school algebra, I said “no” because, well, I’m cheap.

Plus, I felt confident that my partner and I could field her questions when they arose.

Then, a few months later, after I’d repeatedly stayed up until 11 PM with Lily, working on pre-algebra problems, my husband re-introduced the math tutor idea.

I slapped it down once again.

This time, though, my “no” wasn’t an outgrowth of stinginess and arrogance.

This time, it was because, in this pandemic moment—when my seventh grader holes up in her room for hours each day, pulling further and further away from her family and the world outside—these late-night middle school algebra sessions have become our lifeline back to each other.

I’ve had to invest some effort, of course.

The first problems Lily brought to me triggered foggy memories of y=mx+b, but God help me if I remembered what any of it meant.

So after an initial fight-or-flight blink of panic, when I wondered if hiring a math tutor would have been the wiser course after all, I searched for a Khan Academy clip and mumbled, “Sweetie, it’s been nearly 40 years since Mommy did this. Give me a sec.” READ THE REST HERE

My Scary Mommy essay on how Facebook made my 30th high school reunion more fun and meaningful


Paula, me, and Roxanne at our informal 30th reunion.

One of my essays was featured at Scary Mommy!

Yes, we’re in the throes of a global pandemic, wearing masks and working from home, and this piece has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with that. But it might offer a fun, thoughtful read nonetheless.

Last fall, the night before Thanksgiving, some classmates of mine from high school decided to have an informal reunion at a bar.

I didn’t think I’d go. I wasn’t sure why I would want to.

But I went. And I ended up having a pretty great evening, thanks to – wait for it – Facebook.

You read that right. Now read the full essay here. And thanks for reading my work!

My Metro Parent essay about learning the truth about my aging father’s economic realities

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.59.17 PM.pngLast year, while visiting my 76-year-old father in North Carolina during the holidays, he casually mentioned that he’d taken out a reverse mortgage – which is to say, he’d taken out a loan against the value of his fully-paid-for home.

“Wait – you did?” I said, stunned.

Though I knew that money had become more of a worry for Dad in recent years – he sheepishly apologized for no longer sending checks in our birthday cards (which were, I’d noticed, those free ones you get when an organization is soliciting for donations by mail) – I hadn’t realized his finances had gotten as dire as all that.

When I asked my dad whether the mortgage was a result of health care costs, he said, “It’s just everything,” with a shrug in his voice.

He never imagined he’d be in this kind of position in his old age, and I guess I hadn’t, either. READ THE REST HERE

My Planet Detroit essay about parenting in the age of climate change

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.51.13 PM.pngNobody can hold your feet to the fire quite like an eight-year-old.

Seriously. My youngest daughter’s been pushing me on some pretty hard questions lately.

And I’m not talking about death (we covered that ground pretty thoroughly two years ago) or Santa (in whom she likes to believe, so she just doesn’t go there).

I’m talking about how, after I drove Neve to a day camp this past summer, and we heard an NPR story about a heatwave in Europe making its way to Greenland, she quietly asked from the backseat, “Is something bad happening to the earth?”

I mean, how do you, as a parent in 2019, respond to that?

You start with a lot of throat clearing. READ THE REST HERE

My Scary Mommy post about our family’s ongoing debate about when to get your child a phone

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 2.03.10 PM.pngFor the first time since my layoff in 2016, I published a personal essay on a site that wasn’t my blog.

That may have been because it’s the first time I’ve sent an essay out elsewhere, but – no matter! From here on in, I’ll be aiming to get more of my essay work out into the world.

Check out my essay (about the complicated question regarding WHEN to get your child a phone) here on Scary Mommy!

The curse of early success – in school and in softball

59660482_10156981864705801_7057403034296385536_o.jpgNeve’s in the midst of her first-ever softball season, and though she adores games of all kinds, and enjoyed her pre-season practices, she’s been struggling recently.

Which is to say: as her fourth game approached, I was just as nervous, if not more so, than she was.

Not because her performance on the field is important to me, but because it’s so damn hard to watch your almost-8 year old kid collapse, again and again, in tearful disappointment.

Ironically, the drama has been extra-heightened because in Neve’s first game, she was two-for-three at the plate, scored two runs, and earned the coaches’ post-game “Pringles Award” for her contributions.

This gave Neve a huge boost of confidence, and made her think, “Oh, I’m good at this. This is how I’ll perform in every game.”

But that’s not how things unfolded. She struck out each at-bat last game, and in game two, when she finally made contact, she was tagged at first to end the game – and Neve can’t, for the life of her, reconcile her early success with her current dry spell.

I call this “the curse of early success.”

After each failed at-bat now, Neve exits the dugout and slumps toward us, her face red with tears, her voice a weepy, pained monotone. She curls up on our laps, and we tell her all the things you’d expect: that professional players strike out all the time; that her team still needs her to get back out there and keep going; that we love her whether she gets a hit or not; that if she wants to get better at hitting, and this is important to her, we’ll work on it together; that we know she can do it, but she has to keep trying.

None of this is what she wants to hear.

She just wants to get a hit and feel that thrill of accomplishment again. And until she does, she’ll torture herself with thoughts of, “I already showed myself and everyone else that I can do this. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?” Continue reading