“Your presence is gift enough…”

Since I didn’t have “mom friends” until I actually had children (and even then, those friends were also on their first child), I didn’t have a mentor to help guide me through the politics of motherhood (Momitics?). I had a large 1st birthday party for my oldest daughter, Emma. We rented a hall on our favorite beach, brought in catered food and a Little Mermaid cake from Konditor Meister. Emma didn’t really have a lot of friends then, so the guests were mostly our family and adult friends. Plus, my future brother-in-law who was meeting all of us for the first time (brave guy!) and proved himself useful in hanging decorations from the ceiling. The pile of gifts Emma received was overwhelming and it quickly became clear to me that we’d have to find space for all of that stuff in our tiny apartment.

Anyway, I wasn’t savvy about children’s birthday parties then.  It never dawned on me that perhaps we don’t need to invite sixty people to a first birthday.  And it never dawned on me that a child that young doesn’t need to receive a million gifts, particularly when all she really cares about is the wrapping paper.  On a side note, I also didn’t know that you aren’t supposed to open gifts in front of the other kids (not sure when that started, but maybe it’s an age thing).  That was back when we had ONE child. Now we are in the same apartment, but with two additional children. We have extremely generous family members who love to shower their grandchildren/nieces/nephews with gifts. I too enjoy buying gifts for the kids, especially at Christmas.

So, to proactively battle the inevitable clutter, I became a fan of the “no gifts, please” trend starting with Emma’s 2nd birthday.  The grandmothers didn’t like it.  Some guests ignored it.  And some people approached me, feeling bad that they did not bring a gift when others did.  Now it’s become yet another  thing to track for the multiple birthday parties we attend any given weekend:  is this a “no gift” party?  Are siblings invited?  (Seriously, we note all these things on our calendar).

The wording on the invite comes in many ways:  “no gifts, please” or “your presence is gift enough” or “no need to bring gifts; just bring yourselves.”  I am always happy to buy gifts for the kids’ friends (all 40 of them), but I always honor the parents’ request if stated.  Now that the kids are older, they always ask about it which can be quite awkward when they ask in front of other parents and their children.  At one “no gifts” party we attended this Spring, we were saying goodbye to the birthday girl and her mom when Emma asked loudly, “What did we get Jane for her present?”.  Errrrrrr, I was not sure how to respond to this, especially in front of the birthday child!  Somehow “we didn’t buy a gift because her mom asked us not to” didn’t feel appropriate.  Luckily, the birthday girl’s mom, who oozes effortless social  grace,  simply said something like, “Oh Emma, you are such a good friend to Jane; we didn’t have gifts from friends today, but Jane has many gifts to look forward to opening at home with her family.”  Good enough!

Birthday parties in the city are a big business.  Most of us don’t have apartments big enough to invite guests over, much less the whole class of 20 children, plus siblings.  Some people opt to have birthdays in the public parks, which are great but  require a gamble that the weather will cooperate.  So most of us end up using facilities – Gymboree, My Gym, the new one called Jump On In!, gymnastics and ballet studios.  The kids love these locations and the structured activities that they provide, and the parents love the convenience and extra set of helping hands, but the costs for these parties really add up.   I can only hope that the birthday party gift giving does not become like etiquette for weddings – i.e. it costs X dollars for each child to attend, therefore you should spend Y on your gift.

Fast forward to Emma’s fifth birthday.  I thought I was so on the ball by reserving the party location and sending the Evite over a month in advance.  Unfortunately, I forgot about the whole “no gifts” thing, and we received a ton of presents.  But as we were opening them, I was really touched by the thoughtfulness that went into the gifts.  Our guests selected things that they knew Emma would love:  art supplies, crafts and drawing kits, musical toys, beautiful jewelry, dress up clothes and great new books.  One thing I can say about Emma is that she is very gracious  – as she opened each gift, she said, “oh, what a nice present!  I love it!”  Now, if only she was old enough to write out all of the thank you notes!

In the end, I don’t know what the right answer is for the “no gifts” issue.  I don’t like our friends to feel pressured to buy gifts for our children, but I also don’t want them to feel awkward with a “no gift” request.  I guess that all we can do is to teach our children to be gracious and appreciative of what they receive, and hopefully keep them from becoming spoiled by expecting a tower of gifts.  No one really knows what the “right” rules are for birthday parties, so I guess we will all continue to do what’s right for our family, and hopefully not feel pressured to outdo the last party we attended or the gift we receive.

We did, however, have another Konditor Meister cake for Emma’s party (Sleeping Beauty this time).  And it was delicious!

Emma's 5th bday cake