Even before I started transitioning to minimalism I had problems with gifts. I gave “needs” that were practical when my husband and family were hoping for “wants,” and nothing would stress me out more than opening presents in front of other people. This custom still baffles me. Anxiety has been an ever-present guest star in my daily life for as long as I can remember, but the more I delve into the anxious community the more I realize my “normal” is absolutely abnormal (you mean not everyone sees their kids dying tragically every time they close their eyes?!). Performative gift opening is a small taste of my usual hysteria.
My first Christmas with my in-laws was awkward because I was the most awkward any person had ever been at a holiday function, and I could only have made it worse by getting hammered and talking about politics, which thankfully I forgot to do. We had been married five months and I had never been away from my family at Christmas or on my birthday, which is Christmas Eve and thus a family affair. I was hideously ill and had lost my job after repeatedly puking in the office bathroom and being deemed a risk to the other employees. I had an undiagnosed autoimmune disease and wasn’t contagious, but I wouldn’t know that until the day before Christmas, when I was finally given a label for my symptoms. To say I was emotional would be like saying WWII was a catty tiff. New family, new disease, new birthday traditions, and no job.
To make up for all the crying fits and blank stares, I threw myself into my gift-opening reactions. Because everyone was gathered for the holiday, the whole family watched me open my birthday presents, and I must have seemed deranged. These lovely people were tasked with guessing what a stranger wanted for her birthday and fitting her festivities into their already jam-packed holiday schedule. Every gift I opened got a hysterical wide smile, effusive thanks, and detailed explanation of how this item would dramatically improve my life. By Christmas morning I was completely unmoored. I swear I could feel them exchanging glances that very clearly said “how much coffee did she have?” or “is this maybe a symptom of her new disease?” but I couldn’t stop myself. I’m also fairly sure I burst into tears halfway through.
I’d like to tell you that I got better at all this over time, but I had three baby showers in one month before my first kid was born and it was much the same, plus a heavy dose of hormones. I want desperately to make it clear that the gift-giver has gotten my tastes and desires spot on and I truly appreciate the gesture, because I know how hard it is to select a gift for someone. I am terrible at gift giving. Like, abysmal. I care very deeply for my husband and both families, but I don’t know how to show it other than feeding them, and you can’t just roast someone a chicken for their birthday, or at least not more than once before it gets super weird. As much anxiety as I feel receiving gifts, I experience at least that much when giving gifts, especially now that I know I’m unskilled in the area. Just when I think I’ve finally found a Christmas present that will express my sincere feelings for a person I adore, I’ll realize I missed the mark and it will take me six months to recover and try and get the birthday present right. I hate the whole cycle.
My husband is a cheater. He doesn’t see other women, but when I tell him we should skip the gifts for an upcoming event he always gets me something. Often multiple somethings. I am trying to project an easy-going, low maintenance attitude of a wife who only wants his love, but he doesn’t except that. He is a maximalist and gifts are his love language. He is someone who values the thought and time that goes into a good gift, so he is an excellent gift giver. Throughout the year he gets ideas for presents to give to me or the kids and keeps a list so he always has something amazing to offer at the drop of a hat. It’s really pretty unfair for him to be so ridiculously thoughtful and attentive when I am such a hot mess in the same area.
We got married when I was twenty-two and he was twenty-three. We registered for gifts on the maximal side and even making a list of things I wanted for our new life was stressful because people would call and suggest I change items, add or delete things, or give me stuff I didn’t ask for and how could they know what I needed better than I did? Surprise! I got a set of metal mixing bowls and massive set of Corningware I didn’t register for and I use all of that stuff frequently, but the silver chargers I *needed* have never, ever been used. It turns out a twenty-two year old newlywed without kids doesn’t actually know everything. I know, I was shocked as well. The longer I live in a house that we own, the more I learn and grow into my own likes and dislikes, and I become sure of what works for me and what doesn’t. For example, any jewelry that is advertised for Valentine’s Day is going straight back to the store. If it’s heart shaped, it does not appeal to my heart. Commercials and ads tell me that my décor and wardrobe might need a pop of color, but after donating those “pops” year after year I can attest that I do not care for many colors. My husband, in turn, has adapted to my fussy gift-getting by honing his craft even further.
My husband’s birthday is Valentine’s Day, so we don’t really do much in the way of Valentines. I’m completely worn out after the Christmas season and my daughter’s birthday earlier in February that I see absolutely no need to force another occasion. After all, I love my husband every day of the year and frequently roast chickens to display that love, so we don’t need an extra set of greeting cards to mark the day. This year, after becoming more vocal about my preference for minimal gift giving, my husband totally nailed it. He got me — drumroll please — incredibly fancy vanilla extract! Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure this is what Ina Garten is talking about when she says, “use good vanilla.” I wouldn’t buy it for myself because it’s expensive, but I will use it to make food for my loved ones as it is my favorite kind of gift: a perishable present. Like flowers or tickets to an event (remember events?), it’s not something I need to find a long term space for in my home, but an item I can enjoy and let go of when the time comes.
My husband has learned to make a specific list of gifts he would like for birthdays and Christmas because, electronically speaking, we don’t run in the same circles. I have a Kindle Paperwhite because the Fire was too complicated, and I use my laptop to write and pay bills. I think I got him computer storage for Christmas, but I’m not entirely sure. He tried to explain that the flim flams and bleep blorps make it run faster or hold more games or whatever, but I just try to stick to his list at this point. I got him one thing that wasn’t on his list for his birthday this year and now I gather a heated back massager is not a want so much as a medicinal device. The kids like to use him as a trampoline so he will probably use it, but should you have to use a birthday gift for pain relief? Sigh, probably not. And of course, I didn’t get him anything for Valentine’s Day because I said we should absolutely skip it this year and he agreed, but then got me the perfect gift anyway. You see? He’s such a problem.