Archive for December, 2009

Fighting Christmas Depression

December 12, 2009

Used under license from FreeFoto.com

I wrote this on December 21, 2008.  A lot has changed in a year.

Everyone always says that Christmas is not — or shouldn’t be — about giving, but receiving. Over the years, people have offered me wonderful, well-meaning suggestions for raising children who want to spend Christmas serving others instead of being served, children who are more excited about giving than they are about receiving.

I have not met the children of these well-meaning folks. I am sure their children are terrific. But in my experience, young children are terrifically selfish and self-centered. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them not to want stuff. A lot of it.

I tried out a few of those suggestions on Cami. Earlier today, I said, “Hey, how about next year, we stay home for Christmas and serve at a soup kitchen?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m not kidding. Why would I kid about something like that?”

“Ummm . . . then no.”

“Why not?”

“Because – eww – I don’t want to spend my Christmas serving at a soup kitchen! Christmas is MY day! Christmas break is the longest break of the year. I don’t want to spend it serving other people. Let other people serve other people.”

“Well, Cami, if everyone said let someone else do it, then no one would do it.”

She looked at me. “Seriously, Mom, you don’t want to go to a soup kitchen, either. Where is this coming from, anyway?”

I knew better than to ask Randy.

My children are not, at this stage in their lives and development, interested in giving. They don’t even buy me a gift for Christmas. My children want stuff. A lot of it. And they’re not shy about demanding it.

I also wanted stuff at Christmastime when I was a kid, but I knew not to expect it. My father was a Ford auto worker. My mother worked only occasionally outside the home, typically in low-paying service jobs. And I am the youngest of six. Even in years where there were no worries about union strikes or company layoffs, big Christmases simply weren’t an option. I would study the JC Penney and Sears catalogs like I used to study our encyclopedias, and a trip to Hudson’s was like a trip to Heaven, but I wasn’t silly enough to actually think I was getting much of anything.

I make just enough money, I guess, to delude my children into thinking that they should have presents under a tree somewhere. Indeed, that there should be a tree somewhere, with presents for them under it. I suppose I have no one to blame for that but myself.

When I was married, my ex-husband and I shopped separately for the kids. As with everything else, we couldn’t agree on what to buy or how much to spend. While I was buying robots from Sharper Image and globes from Imaginarium and educational software and books from Barnes & Noble and magnetic building toys from Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz, he would be at some down-market toy store in or outside Philadelphia, buying up every marked-down, leftover, on sale toy he could find.

The net result was that the kids always had a lot of gifts under the tree. They treated each group of toys with equal disdain. They would ignore my educational toys until there was nothing, absolutely nothing, else to do. The stuff he bought would be played with, broken, and in the garbage by New Year’s Day. Yet, every year, they expected more, and we obliged.

The first year of my separation, I had no energy for Christmas. I couldn’t imagine trimming a tree and cooking and shopping and wrapping and baking and creating this wonderful special Christmas all by myself. I wasn’t feeling wonderful and I wasn’t feeling special. I was feeling broke. The divorce was nasty, contentious and expensive, and took place during a down economic cycle. I had just taken a job paying about 40% of what I used to earn as a law firm partner, and I watched legal bills, on top of day-to-day living expenses, eat through the rest of my savings like cartoon termites.

In desperation, I turned to my good friend Claire, who loves my children and Christmas seemingly in equal measure. Her own children are now adults, and she missed having little people at home baking cookies for Santa, decorating the tree, singing Christmas carols, and running downstairs at break-neck speed on Christmas morning to tear open wrapper after wrapper and squeal in delight. So I brought her my kids for Christmas. My mother loaned me some money to buy the kids a few presents – and Claire supplied the rest.

Going to Auntie Claire’s for Christmas has now become a tradition of sorts for us, if four years can make a tradition. My financial situation is more stable now, so I try to bring more than just greedy kids to Virginia. Despite my baking phobia, I even bake cookies at Claire’s – chocolate chip ones, following the recipe on the back of the Nestle’s chips. I’m told they’re good, and whether they actually are or not, someone always eats them. Thanks to Claire and her family, my kids get that wonderful, special Christmas experience that I couldn’t and still can’t provide them on my own.

But the kids’ Christmas gift expectations haven’t changed since the divorce, even though their father hasn’t participated in the spending frenzy in over three years. I still feel a certain amount of pressure every year to make sure that, in addition to tree-trimming and cookies for Santa and a fantastic Christmas feast, they also have a decent number of gifts under the tree.

It wears me out.

This year, Cami told me, “Oh, I only want two things for Christmas this year – a laptop and a pair of UGGs.”

“Oh, so only $2000, and I’m done with you?”

“You wouldn’t have to get such an expensive laptop,” she offered as a compromise.

Later, she added a Blackberry to the mix, in place of the iPhone requested previously. I have never, ever, in my entire life, received a $2000 Christmas gift. From anyone. Not even myself. The package is an easy no. Other than the Blackberry, which is patently ridiculous, the components are harder.

Cami makes a convincing argument for needing a laptop. She uses the computer a lot for school. She has a school e-mail account, which is supposed to be used to email assignments and communicate with teachers and peers about assignments. Of course, it is also used for gossip, chat, uploading songs and music videos, and other non-academic purposes. I wouldn’t mind the extra activity, except my daughter cannot multi-task. Excess socializing, at school and online, led to poor grades and placed her on academic probation for the first grading period. Her grades have improved recently, but I have decided she’s not mature enough to handle the responsibility of having a laptop in the privacy of her room. That’s part of the story – the part I tell her whenever she renews the laptop discussion.

The rest of the story is financial, because if I could afford a laptop, I’d buy one and figure out a way to enforce responsible use. The real reason I’m not buying Cami a laptop, even though it almost rises to the level of a “need,” is that I do not want to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas presents right now, with the economy in such bad shape. Watching friends get laid off from high six-figure Wall Street jobs serves as a reminder that my job is not guaranteed. It would be illogical to deplete the emergency fund so the kids can have a fabulous Christmas, and with tax season just around the corner and summer camp payments coming due right after that, Christmas needs to be a low-key affair this year.

I feel badly about always having to say no. I know many, if not most, of her friends at school have laptops. The layout of my apartment requires that the desktop computer remain in my room. She can use the computer in my room for homework, but after a while, I get tired of having her in my room, and I start demanding that she “get on with it.” I tell myself that I’m keeping her from wasting time and teaching her to be efficient, but mostly I’m just being a nag, and I know it.

And as for the UGGs – no, they’re not definitely not a need, any more than the Blackberry. Yet I remember ogling pearl-button angora sweaters at Hudson’s the same way she ogles the UGGs in my Bloomingdale’s catalogs. I would love to get her at least one thing she doesn’t need but just wants. In light of the tough economy and looming bills, I can’t justify buying the UGGs, either. It may be irrational, but that bothers me.

Then there’s my son. I thought he would be easy. When we first started talking about Santa lists, he mentioned only a Bakugan toy costing about $20 at Toys R Us. I guess he must have then spoken to Cami, because the next time we talked, his list had expanded to include a new Nintendo DS, a Wii, and a lot of new games. He still believes in Santa, so I told him that since a lot of mommies and daddies lost their jobs this year, Santa was not giving anyone a lot of Christmas gifts this year, and was instead helping the mommies and daddies with some of the things they need, too.

 He was fine with that explanation, but yesterday, I made the mistake of reminding Cami, in front of him, that “I’m not buying a lot of stuff this year.” He caught on.

“So, Mom, it’s you? Santa isn’t real?”

Cami immediately jumped up from the computer to whisper in my ear that they’d just had a discussion in her Philosophy class about the morality of perpetuating the Santa myth. I wasn’t interested in philosophy in that moment. I told her to shut up and sit down.

“Randy,” I said, “will it make a difference to you one way or the other?”

He didn’t hesitate. “I want Santa to be real.”

“Well, Randy,” Cami piped up, the weight of Kant behind her, “I have some bad news.”

I hissed at her the way our cat used to hiss at the dog we no longer have, the way I now hiss at the cat when she’s on my furniture. He already isn’t getting 75% of the items on his Christmas list. If Santa is still important to him, why take it away?

Cami often misses non-verbal clues, but between that hiss and the look on my face, she stopped cold.

“Well, then,” I told Randy, daring my daughter to contradict me, “if that’s what you want to believe, that’s what it is.”

He was momentarily satisfied, although he’s made a few doubting references to Santa since then.

I know it’s silly for me to be even slightly depressed about not being able to spend a lot of money on Christmas presents this year. I know – it’s meaningless, they won’t remember the presents but they’ll remember the great times with friends and family for a lifetime – yada yada yada.

And bull.

I don’t remember the presents I actually did receive, the few Christmases when we did get presents, but boy do I remember, even today, the stuff I wanted and didn’t get. Not all of it, of course, but a lot of it. I don’t yet know what I’m getting them, but they will have presents under the tree. Not everything they wanted, and some things – like clothing – that they don’t want, but definitely need.

I know we’ll have a great time at Claire’s, and the kids will be happy with whatever they get. I just hope, by Christmas morning, I manage to get over my own disappointment at not being able to do more.

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