The Ninety-First Letter: Birthdays Are Not the Most Important Thing


Dear Daughters,

Flashback to the morning of the eldest’s birthday:

Bean: My birthday is the best day of the whole year.

Me: What about Christmas?

Bean: Jesus was born.

Me: What about Easter?

Bean: Jesus rose from the dead.

Me: Yeah, so I think you won’t be getting your birthday into the top two days of the year any time soon. Sorry.

And then you told me that your dad had basically said the exact same thing to you last night.

So he and I are on the same page. #parentingwin

Girls, you’ve both had birthdays in the last few weeks. I love that you have them less than two weeks apart. And they’re bookended by birthdays of one of your grandpas and one of your grandmas. It makes it feel like this is “birthday season,” in addition to the Kentucky Derby, the college graduation, your piano recital, Mothers Day… sigh. So. Many. Things.

We didn’t have a party, but I did try to go out of my way to make sure you felt special, because I know we don’t do a lot of gifts. (Intentionally so, but more on that later.)

You got to drink chocolate milk in the morning, which is unusual for house, even though I’m pretty sure you know other kids get it regularly. You got to pick your birthday dinners and the colors of your birthday cake—hotdogs and macaroni and cheese and grapes and a purple cake with pink icing; pancakes and egg casserole followed by vanilla cake with white icing—and we had our sweet friends over to share it with us. We had small presents for you both—plastic dinosaurs and playdoh; artsy science books and a nature journal—and our friends made themed birthday hats for us related to your interests of dinosaurs and birds. In fact, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there is still a giant dinosaur helium balloon floating around the ceiling on the first floor that your crazy aunts brought us. Also, we did a family trip to a local animal reserve on the weekend between your birthdays; on the eldest’s actual birthday, we met some friends at the local orchard.

My point is this: we do celebrate birthdays. I feel like we celebrate them and celebrate you a lot. Just not in the presents and party sort of way that has unfortunately become the norm. (I’m not talking just in a social media out in the wide world kind of norm, but in our very own community kind of way.)

And so also this point: birthdays are not the most important thing, and if I’m going to fault on the side of anything, it’s going to be under-celebrating, rather than over-celebrating.

Not all of my mom friends agree with me. In fact, I’m pretty sure they think I’m weird on this thing.

Recently the eldest announced matter-of-factly, “Some people get hundreds of birthday presents.” It actually really bothered me that you’d said this, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I asked what you meant. You gave me the example of one of your friends’ birthday parties from a few years ago. Though there weren’t hundreds of presents at the party, it did seem excessive to me at the time, and I remember having to explain to you that there are lots of ways to celebrate birthdays. I tried to make excuses for the excess. There was an entire table of presents, a small cart of presents, presents piled under the table, and a new bicycle.

Girls, let me just clear the air: don’t ever think I’m going to let you open that many presents at one time.

That will never happen. Not on your birthday. Not on Christmases. (Okay, maybe someday if you have a baby shower or a wedding shower, but I kind of hope that I’m raising you to never want so much stuff.)

I love you very much, and your community loves you very much, and of course I’m teaching you that God loves you very much, but I promise you this: you are not that special.

In addition to being opposed to the consumerism of birthdays, the excess of the parties and gifts, I am worried about how that center-of-attention, open-all-the-presents type of party shapes children’s understanding of themselves, of how love should be expressed, and of how God calls them to live in the world among hurting people.

And I have once again crossed the line into preachiness. Sigh.

Girls, I don’t know how you’ll feel about our family traditions once you’re older. You might remember pangs of jealousy when you see others opening a ton of presents on their birthdays, when you hear how much your friends got for Christmas. (I actually look forward to being able to chat with the grown-up you about these things in the same way my parents occasionally ask me how how I used to see the world when I was a kid.)
But there’s one more thing I want to write down for posterity’s sake, so that you can get a peek into my heart.

I would actually love to buy you all the presents and give you all the presents. I see things all the time that I know you would love. They are not crappy toys made overseas by slave workers. They are learning activities, art supplies, books and books and books, solid and well-built equipment, seriously beautiful toys. When I see things I know you would love, it is hard for me not to buy it for you. But I don’t buy it for you.
I don’t buy it for you for many reasons. One, because you really have enough, and I want you to learn what it means to have enough. Two, because I truly believe that your creativity will thrive when you are free to make and do and run and design and write your own narrative. Three, because I want you to love libraries, to love playing outside, to consider the possibilities of a cardboard box, rather than read instructions on a put-together toy. Even if that toy is amazing.

What I mean is this: I love to give you gifts. Don’t ever think that it’s because I don’t like shopping that you don’t have a lot of birthday presents. (I mean, I don’t like shopping, but that’s not the reason. We do have Amazon, after all!)

And for the record, I did buy too many gifts for you this year, but after wrapping them, I decided to put them aside to save. Some of them will be given by the tooth fairy over the next year. Some of them will go with us on an upcoming trip as a special travel treat. Some of them might make it until Christmas. We’ll see. But you didn’t get them for your birthday.

So you see, I do need to keep myself in check as well. There is a tendency when you love someone to want to give them more.

Always more.

And in our world, that “more” is usually more stuff. And fancy parties.

I’m working really hard for it not to be that way in our house. It does take work. And I’m guessing you’ll have a lot of things to say about that some day.

Your Momma


The Fifth Letter: Stuff & Story

Dear Daughters,

This morning I got up early to drive my mom to the airport. Grandma prefers to be at the airport ridiculously early for her flights, so we left at 4:15 am. (I’m the same way, so I shouldn’t make fun. I do, of course, but I shouldn’t.)

In the dark of my bedroom, after already rousing to nurse the baby and then unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I turned off my alarm and grabbed a sweatshirt, socks, and a pair of easy-on sneakers before heading downstairs.

As I tied up the shoes, I remembered that I had ordered them online six years ago before your dad and I headed to Italy. We’d been saving for five years and planned to celebrate both our fifth anniversary and your dad’s finishing his doctorate at the same time. Because we intended to live out of backpacks for two weeks as we stayed in bed and breakfasts, I needed a versatile and small shoe that would be comfortable for walking and hiking. The ones I ended up buying–these–are a strange shade of burnt orange, and the eyelits are pink, but they served their purpose as we hoofed it in and out of cathedrals and museums in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Tuscany.

That’s what I was thinking about this morning during my sleepy daze at four o’clock in the morning. Italy.

Your dad and I don’t spend a lot of money on new clothing. You might resent this about us some day, but the truth is, I hope you, too, are thrifty. Because thrifty-ness in our case isn’t just about money, or about our ethical convictions about the supply chain of most mass-produced goods, but about the importance of story and permanence and valuing a narrative.

Sure, I keep these shoes because (a) I have them, (b) they fit, and (c) they’re lightweight and comfy, but I also keep these shoes because they travelled around Italy with us. For our fifth anniversary. At the time, five years felt like forever happiness. Now it seems like we were only babies ourselves.

Tying these shoes up this morning—a double knot, because the laces are slippery and somewhat short–I remembered the ridiculously long path we hiked along the Cinque Terra and how it felt to come down into one of the small, colorful seaside cities perched on the cliff, with laundry hanging out of nearly every window and the strange German tourist we saw walking around in his Speedo and white socks and sneakers.

I haven’t thought about that bizarre image in quite some time.

The socks I’m wearing are a fuzzy giraffe-print pair that your dad’s grandmother gave me for Christmas one year. I have a picture of the toddler wearing them, pulled way up to her thigh.

The T-shirt I’m wearing is a “Walk Across Texas” campaign shirt from my old job at Baylor University in Waco, eight or nine years ago. I was on a team of middle-aged women who were wearing pedometers and keeping track of their footsteps in order to win this T-shirt. There may have been more motivation than that at the time, but all I remember is the T-shirt. Which I’m wearing. Right now.

The long-sleeved T-shirt on top of that is a Hard Rock Café London shirt—where your dad and I went on our first date, second semester of college, thirteen years ago. We were spending the semester abroad with our undergraduate college’s First-Year Honors Program. We were nerds. We still are nerds. But our first date was in London, which is freaking awesome.

The navy blue sweatshirt on top of that was my stepdad’s from when I was a kid. It’s got some fraying spots along the neckline and sleeves, but it is soft and warm. And it’s kind of eighties in its style, the big and bulky size of it, but–I never believed this would happen, never–the eighties stuff is coming back in. It’s almost cool. Maybe twenty years from now, you’ll pull it out of your closet and find the same to be true.

The scarf I wore in the car this morning was a souvenir my college roommate brought me from her semester abroad our junior year. She went to Paris, and these long pashmina-style scarves hadn’t yet become commonplace here in the States.

I could probably list off similar stories and facts and tidbits about eighty percent of my wardrobe, a sure sign that I hold onto my clothing a long time and also that I have a memory for details that aren’t important in the scheme of things.

Or maybe these are the details that are truly important in the scheme of things.

Because I guess what I am trying to say with this catalog of my clothing’s history is this:

Live as if everything has a story, girls.

Because it does.

Your Momma