PUT THE GLUE GUN DOWN: Permission For Saying No to the Holiday Arms Race

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Recently a conversation sprang up among Smarties in our super secret Facebook group, inspired by a member's question about whether she should up her Valentine game and give out swag bags, favors, or other tiny gifties with her son's Valentines. He did not particularly care. She did not particularly have time. And yet, in the face of ever-increasing ritualized holiday gifting, she was paralyzed. Should she go beyond a box of store-bought Valentines, as so many parents (I'm assuming mothers here. This does not seem to have infected the dads in my life.) seem to be doing? Or should she buy the $5.00 box at Target, have her kid write his name 28 times, and call it a day?

My answer, unequivocally, was to spend as little time and money on the project as possible. She doesn't care about it. Her son doesn't care about it. Why torture yourself into performing an action that neither you nor the child on whose behalf you perform it value?

Because that action - that constant ramping-up of public celebration - is becoming more and more normalized. Think about your childhood, your own holidays. If they were anything like mine, they were a lot smaller and simpler than they are for our children. On Valentine's Day you were lucky to get a Dum Dum taped to a paper heart, and if you REALLY hit the jackpot you might get a box of chalky conversation hearts to "enjoy." And now it is increasingly common for Valentines to include a festive holiday cellophane bag filled with heart-shaped flotsam, a punny card accompanied by candy or a toy that corresponds with the pun, or clearly parent-executed homemade crafts. These things are Pinterest-inspired and Pinterest-worthy. But are they necessarily good for children to give and receive? Are they good for parents to sweat over? Are they good for anyone?

Yes, certainly, there are those of us who love crafting and perfecting adorable treats for our kids' and our own delight. There are parents who live for creating the glitzy, hot-glued trinkets that make Pinterest perusers' eyes shine with aspiration and ambition. There are those for whom such work is a true act of love, and to those folks I offer a gold star for their dedication and a box of BandAids for their glue-gun burns.

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But then there are the rest of us. Those who sweat, bleed, and cry over such trifles out of a sense of obligation. Those, like my Smarty friend, who doubt their own Pinterest disinterest and wonder if they should want to perform Herculean effort toward seasonal cuteness and if they're abnormal for wanting to forgo this glittery labor.

And the answer is in the verb "perform," isn't it? Because the point of making and giving such goodies sometimes isn't about love or friendship, is it? It's about performing love and friendship for an audience. The objects are almost irrelevant in themselves. They're about the parent giving them and the performance of parenting. It shouldn't be, especially not on a holiday dedicated to selfless love. But sometimes it is.

I know this sounds harsh, and I know that it's true. I know this because I've done it.

When my older Smartling was in preschool and my younger Smartling was a nursing infant, I spent a lot of time up at night holding a tiny baby and surfing Pinterest on my phone. It was under those sleep-deprived conditions that I hatched the plan to make my older daughter's Valentine's Day THE BEST EVER!!!, or, at least to perform extreme Valentine celebration for any adult who could see and approve my extraordinary efforts. We bought and assembled Valentines. I did 90% of the work in making all of the teachers at her school, even those who didn't know her and had never had her as a student, homemade Valentine decorations. And, the pièce de résistance: I assembled a lunch for her consisting entirely of heart-shaped foods.

I cut strawberries into heart shapes, I cookie-cut her sandwich into a heart, and I (God help me) carved carrot rounds into heart shapes like it was my job. It was adorable. No. Scratch that. It was FUCKING adorable. I out-Pinterested Pinterest. Based on the flawless products of the one-woman Valentine sweatshop I constructed in my own home, I was Mother of the Year. I was so tired. I was so underwater and overwhelmed by my own life with 2 young kids that creating the myth of my performative parenting prowess felt like a victory.

It felt like a victory, that is, until I picked up my older Smartling from school at the end of the day. And that's when this exchange happened around the snack table.

Me: (totally fishing for compliments) [Smartling], did you notice anything special about your lunch today?

Smartling: No.

Smartling's friend, a sweet blue-eyed boy who loved the Beatles, Frozen, and my daughter: I did.

Me: (sensing an opportunity to shine) Oh yeah? What was it?

SF: Everything was shaped like hearts. (sadly, casting eyes downward) My mom didn't put any heart food in my lunch.

BOOM. Heart broken. Gut punched. Wind sucked fully from sails, I saw all of my effort for the folly it was, as well as for the pain such an over-the-top performance can unintentionally cause.

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Why hadn't that sweet boy's parents created a special heart-themed lunch for him? Because that, while adorable, is crazy. Because they didn't need to perform successful parenting in the way I needed to. Because they had jobs and lives in which they were proving themselves through providing for their family by working their asses off at pursuits that really mattered and didn't have the luxury of obsessing about heart-shaped food. Because they know that love doesn't need a stage.

Now, maybe it happens that Valentine's Day is YOUR JAM, and you like to celebrate lavishly. Or maybe it's Halloween. Or maybe it's Christmas, or Arbor Day, or Pi Day, or whatever. Maybe you LOVE going big for some occasion or every occasion. Then to you I humbly tip my hat and appreciate your passion for the joy it gives you. If you are at your happiest and best crafting elaborate Valentines or what have you, then high five. You do you, happily, beautifully, passionately.

But if such efforts are not your passion or your love, then please don't feel required to participate in any upped antes. Because at some point you are not only punishing yourself by turning what is supposed to be a simple pleasure into a chore, but you are participating in a performative, celebratory arms race in which the over-the-top becomes normalized. And when the over-the-top becomes normalized, then normal levels of engagement - those $5.00 boxes of Valentines we were perfectly happy with as kids - become a negligent cop-out. And the growth upward, particularly as it applies toward demonstrating our love for our kids through conspicuous consumption and public performance, can become frighteningly endless.

If you're perusing Pinterest and feeling bad about your longing to buy a simple box of Valentines, please don't. You are doing the world a favor by refusing to participate in a game you cannot win. Because no one really is Mother of the Year - that's not a real thing. And if it were, you surely wouldn't win it by creating professional-looking gift bags or perfectly whittled carrot hearts. You win it by loving your kids, taking excellent are of their true needs, and valuing yourself enough to take care of you just as well.

So, here, friend, have my express permission to put the glue gun down. All those Valentines, home-made or store-bought, expensive or cheap, thoughtful or afterthoughts, are all future garbage anyway. Instead of sweating over them, please pour yourself a glass of something nice and do something that you actually value and that actually brings you pleasure and satisfaction. I won't ask what it is, because it's Valentine's Day and that could get gross and awkward. Whatever it is that you do to honor yourself in place of torturing yourself with painfully high performative expectations, I wish you love, appreciation, and affection this Valentine's Day. For you. You deserve it.

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