Reflections From Post-Toy Parenthood

I never used to be a dog-earer of books.

Books, it seemed to me, were *this close* to being sacrosanct, and as such, were things that one shouldn’t mark up, mar, or mutilate in any way, shape or form.

But lately, I find myself so moved by what I’m reading that — not content to merely pass by truisms that speak to me — I’m needing to mark them.

Here’s one such truth I recently came across, from Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive:

If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.

The only thing I would add to his words would be the qualifier, And during the holiday season, when seemingly *everyone* (except you) is hohoho-ing, this loneliness will be magnified ten-fold.

So … where the heck have I been since mid-November?

Stuck in my cranky head, I’m afraid.

I knew, when I happened across this scene in my local big box home improvement store on October 5th (OCTOBER 5th!) —

— that it was going to be a grumbly kind of a fall.

The words “going to be” are inaccurate, of course; my grumbly-ness is a humming continuum that began who-knows-when, but was last mentioned in this post, in which I reported that I had spent the last part of August in high dudgeon, flinging open cupboards, hunting and purging as though my life depended on it.

Well, what I didn’t mention in that post was the fact that my 12-year-old son was going through a similar phase:  “I feel like my room is too full of stuff,” he told me one scorching August day.

So, with my help, we embarked on a major clean-out of his room. We went through his closet, his desk, and his bedside table, and we got rid of a heckuva lot of crap.

(I feel it’s important to note that what I consider to be a heckuva lot of crap is probably minuscule by other people’s standards.)

Because I am a see-er of all the stuff, a noticer of everything, it was interesting to observe him as he went through the process of deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. He is the least sentimental of my three children, and as such, he had a fairly easy time making his decisions. The thing that pulled him up short, though, and caused him a bit of angst, was the actual fact of disposal. After making sure to recycle anything that could be recycled, and after setting aside those items we deemed were ok to donate to Goodwill, he was still left with a pile of items. And as he looked at those non-recyclable, non-donate-able items, as he picked up each one individually and turned it over in his hands, several observations came flowing from my deep-thinking boy:

  • Why do I have this?
  • This can never be unmade, can it?
  • We came in LAST…why would they think it’s necessary to give us trophies?
  • I guess I can get rid of all these medals because they’re meaningless, but they all came from China, didn’t they?

My son’s exercise in purging reminded me of a show I watched just after we moved back to Canada seven years ago.

Now, I should explain that our family has had three major moves over the past twenty-one years, and although they’ve all come with their unique challenges, this last move was the one that nearly did me in.

With little to choose from, we naively bought a fixer-upper, a house brimming with “potential”. My husband moved here six weeks ahead of the kids and me and began his new job, spending his lonely evenings stripping wallpaper, and hiring a contractor who began gutting the laundry room. When we joined my husband the house was in a state of upheaval.

And when our moving van arrived and deposited all our stuff into the midst of that?

Total overwhelm.

In an effort to make myself feel better, I did two things:

First, I set gratitude mantras on replay in my head:

  • we have a roof over our heads
  • it’s winter and we have heat
  • all the faucets deliver clean, safe drinking water
  • we have sufficient food
  • we’re not living in a war zone
  • the kids are safe and healthy and beginning to adjust to their new schools

And secondly, I also began (in my evening downtime, when I wasn’t scrubbing wallpaper paste or mudding-and-sanding damaged drywall or cursing the original owners to hell-and-back for (evidently) allowing wallpaper to be applied to unprimed walls) to watch Hoarders and what was probably a little-known show on HGTV-Canada called Consumed.

If you’ve ever watched Hoarders you’ll know it’s an utterly painful and pitiful watch. But Consumed (which could be termed Hoarders-lite), was somehow less disturbing. The show featured “normal” families whose homes were (somehow, someway) overrun with stuff.

This was the way the show worked: after allowing the families to select a set number of items to keep, the remaining contents of the house were boxed and carted off to a warehouse. The family then spent a month living in their bare-minimum house, and after enjoying the freedom of living in an uncluttered environment (because yes, they all *did* seem to enjoy the experience), they trooped to the warehouse where they were forced — under the pressure of time — to sort through the entirety of their possessions in order to determine what to keep and what to toss.

Moral objections aside —

(it’s doubtful that this sort of ripping-off-the-bandage approach to hoarding is therapeutic or helpful in the long run)

— this show added one more item to my gratitude list: however overwhelming our living situation was at that moment, however resentful I felt at becoming Chief Shuffler Of Stuff, however angry I was that I had somehow allowed my life to be taken over by a house … things were at least NOT AS BAD as they could be; obsessive squirreling of sentimental items aside, I was at least not (quite that much of) a hoarder.

Now, although it’s been at least five years since I’ve watched this program there’s one clip from one particular episode that still runs through my brain, as it did that day in August as I was helping my son to clean out his room, and as it did this December, when I went to the mall, feeling the weight of holiday expectations and the pressure to provide *something* in the way of Christmas presents:

There’s a girl, blonde, about 14 years old. She’s standing in a warehouse, and she’s surrounded on all sides by boxes upon boxes upon boxes — some closed, some opened, some unpacked, the detritus on display for all to see.

This is ALL her family’s stuff, and she and her family are working against a ticking clock, a TV camera documenting the painful indecision that marks each and every decision. And suddenly, after working for hours, this girl has had it, and she upends a huge box of plastic toys directly into a large garbage bin.

Over-thinker that I am, that scene never fails to elicit the following grumbly questions:

What was it all for anyway? Why were those crap toys made in the first place? For five minutes of fun? And then, once the *actual* fun was over, what were they good for then? To sit on a shelf, on display? To gather dust? To be crammed into a drawer? To clutter up this girl’s life, to make her room — and her house — so fucking full she and her family required an intervention?

I realized something this December, when I looked at my 12-year-old son’s Christmas wish list and saw that he hadn’t even asked for a LEGO Architecture set:  I am now on the POST-TOY side of parenthood.

The hard truth that I’ve come to over the years is that so much of what gets brought into our children’s lives constitutes junk, and while there may be small hits of pleasure at the moments of receiving and the moments of giving, the net cumulative effect isn’t a positive one; I think it’s actually damaging — to them, to us, to our relationships, to the environment.

  • We stuff our kids’ rooms and then get angry at them when they can’t keep their spaces clean.
  • We fill their Easter baskets and their Christmas stockings with cheap trinkets and then wonder why they’re ungrateful.
  • We buy them toys with little-to-no play value and then complain that they can’t settle to one thing.
  • We give them prizes for *everything* — for doing the very things they’re supposed to do, for merely showing up, for coming in last — and then call them entitled.

It’s worth noting that even when we ourselves actively try to set limits, even when we completely buy into the truisms of less is more, quality over quantity, expectations are best kept low and reasonable, even when we ourselves are refraining from stuffing and filling and buying and giving —

(even when that refraining is still — after years of practice — accompanied by a panicked notion of not-enough that sneaks insidiously in and threatens to derail it all on the 23rd)

— the stuff STILL seeps in.

It comes from well-meaning grandparents, from teachers rewarding good behaviour, from school fundraisers, from fast food restaurants, from informational giveaways, from sports organizations, from birthday parties … it enters our children’s lives and sits there, until — at the age of 12 (or 14, or 18, or whenever they’ve said why the heck do I even have this) — it gets swept ignominiously into garbage bags and set out on curbs and trucked out of our sight.

At which point, the over-thinking grumblers among us may reflect, What was it all for anyway? Why do we do* this?

I think we do it because it’s fun, because it’s expected, because everyone else is doing it, because it was simply there — on sale! and so irresistible! — in Wal-Mart.

I think we do it because we worry about our children’s self-esteem, because we don’t want to disappoint them, because we ourselves felt deprived as children.

I think we do it because although we recognize monetary costs we still don’t understand (or we refuse to see) the connections between the things we consume and the raw materials and energy it takes to create them.

I think we do it because enough is a concept we continually struggle with.

I think we do it because saying yes is easier than the thought that we will be perceived as a crank.

Of course, this fear of being perceived a crank is really what this post — and my silence since November — is all about.

But I suppose, if I want others to speak their truths, then I have to be brave enough to speak mine, even if I come off as a crank.

/hits publish after three months of revisions/

*”We” refers to both me and the royal we-as-a-society; the active verb “do” is equally interchangeable with a passive how the heck did we allow this to happen?


10 thoughts on “Reflections From Post-Toy Parenthood

  1. As we have a small dumpster sitting in our driveway right now, your post is timely.

    I will say that my husband’s family talked about not doing gifts for the adults this year, and while I don’t care about GETTING gifts, I pushed back. 1) I had already finished knitting a few of them and 2) I enjoy gift giving.

    My favorite to receive this year was a box filled with jars of my MIL’s homemade raspberry jam.

    As someone with the accumulated Lego of 5 childhoods – I can say that the stuff accumulated in a childhood IS overwhelming when you look at all the materials and labor that go into making things that eventually get outgrown.

    I’m sure it is frustrating to be someone who keeps those tallies in a society fueled by consumerism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for wading into this with me, Kate — I knew it was going to be a post that touched some nerves…
      I’ll start by saying both my sons have quite a lot of LEGO in their closets, and that when my 12-year-old was clearing out his room, there wasn’t a single piece of LEGO that was removed. LEGO was one of the toys that I enjoyed playing with as a child, and it was also something that was regularly gifted to each of my three kids. When I look at their accumulated collection (now), I AM overwhelmed by how much there is — but I also know that they DID get a lot of play value from those sets, and that THEY believe their LEGO is something worth keeping. My beef isn’t with good quality toys that are thoughtfully given, but rather with junky toys that are given with no thought…

      I don’t know for sure, of course, but I suspect you’re a very thoughtful gift-giver, Kate. I think you probably put a lot of effort into choosing the right pattern/yarn/colour for the knitted gifts that you made this year (just as I did, when I knit mittens for my daughter, for her BF, and for my son’s GF). I think when presents are thoughtfully chosen, gift-giving can be a wonderful thing. (I too, would have loved a box of homemade jam. And I DID love the gifts my kids (thoughtfully) chose for me: a really good book, locally-made art, hand lotion, although I would have been just as happy had there been NOTHING under the tree for me). My experience in general, though, is that thoughtful gift-givers are few and far between, and that gift-giving is all-too-often seen/approached as an obligation-to-be-fulfilled. I think when that happens, it becomes a burden to both parties and it’s a relief when it’s stopped. I confess I was ECSTATIC when we stopped exchanging gifts for adults in my extended family.

      On keeping tallies in a consumeristic society…
      I am a constant tally-er, always consciously aware of “stuff” and numbers and impact. This is something that (unfortunately) never leaves me. But while this is something I experience on a conscious level, I think there’s evidence that, really, we’re ALL seeing all this stuff, we’re all keeping track of the things in our environment, and even if it’s only our brains doing this on a sub-conscious level, it still affects us and can cause us to feel anxious and overwhelmed and even depressed.

      May your time with a dumpster-on-your-driveway be shorter than ours was, Kate 🙂 .


      1. I agree that we all feel the effects of too much stuff, whether on a conscious level or not. According to my husband, I’m a bit of a weirdo in that I don’t like stuff, I don’t keep stuff, and quite regularly don’t buy stuff. And I’m one of the rare family members that doesn’t have holiday/seasonal decorations except for Christmas and I do put out a ceramic duck and egg my mom painted when I was a child for spring/Easter.

        I also agree that a no gift policy is a good one. Gifts given out of obligation defeat the purpose. I bet your knitted gifts were lovely!! I have one more to send out yet (couldn’t manage to get it done by the cut off) and then I’m taking a break. Though I promised Jesse a sweater in 2018.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Our husbands should get together and compare notes 🙂 . My husband comes from a family of conspicuous consumers, and it took him *forever* to finally understand that I don’t like stuff. This was the actual conversation, YEARS into our marriage: “…so other women SAY they don’t want stuff, but then get hurt when you don’t get them stuff…but you ACTUALLY DON’T WANT STUFF!” “YES! Oh, thank goodness you FINALLY understand!”

        When we lived in Minnesota I noticed that the Americans I met decorated for EVERY possible occasion! This floored me, as it wasn’t how I grew up, nor did it seem to be the way my friends’ mums operated either. Needless to say, Christmas is the only occasion for which I decorate, and it’s pretty minimalistic to boot.

        (Speaking of regional differences, I *have* to share this with you… I wandered over from your site to The Spectacled Bean a while ago, and happened to read her post about houses which “got sold” and then read your comment about Wisconsinites who use the word borrow rather than the word loan. I was too late to comment (and too shy, tbh) but I just had to tell you that Minnesotans do this as well! “Can you borrow her a pencil?” the teacher would ask a student, as I was helping in the classroom. It. Drove. Me. Up. A. Creek!!)


  2. Ah Marian, thank you for writing this, and publishing it. I agree with every word. I laid down the law against ‘plastic crap’ a few years ago which made the piles of Christmas gifts considerably smaller but, I hope, more meaningful. This year, Small Girl received a family of fabric mice in matchbox beds and seemed happy enough. Unfortunately, my pleas for minimal gifting between extended family and my carefully compiled book lists were largely ignored and the influx of pure shite was delivered, wrapped and bow-bedecked. Sigh.
    I’m not perfect. The urge to buy unnecessary stuff is, occasionally, irresistible. It all comes down to satisfaction. We have to learn it, get a grasp of it somehow, or something has got to give.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lynda — I confess I’m relieved to be amongst understanding company 🙂 !
      Oh, I would LOVE to have a peek at the fabric mice in their matchbox beds! (Please put that on Instagram!)
      It is SO disheartening/maddening when our gift-receiving wishes are ignored, most especially when you’ve taken the time (which I know from personal experience can be considerable!) to make a list of suitable gifts that will *actually* be desired by the recipients. This was the first year that all three of my children received only money from my in-laws, and I am very happy to finally be at that stage. My in-laws could always be counted upon to choose from whatever book or LEGO ideas I sent them, which I very much appreciated, but they would also send along quite a bit of other stuff too, very hit-and-miss, but mostly, unfortunately, miss…(and of course, all wrapped and ribboned, which is another of my grumpy pet peeves!).
      The fact that this is an uphill battle is undeniable. If even I — someone who utterly hates stuff, someone who entirely recognizes the ramifications of consumerism — can STILL find myself standing paralyzed in the bookstore, having to deliver myself a stern talking-to about some notebooks that my daughter and my son’s GF DO NOT NEED, and probably DO NOT WANT … if I STILL find myself conducting a panicked, closed-door discussion with my husband about whether or not I have *enough* to put under the tree … well, that, unfortunately, speaks volumes about how pernicious all this is 😦 .


  3. As usual, I’m late. (But was so excited to see a post from you in my blog reader at lunch just now!)

    I have so many thoughts on this, but only a few minutes to write.

    This year, both of my children are living on the east coast, while I live on the west coast. They do not want to have to haul crap from my coast to theirs on an airplane. They spent Thanksgiving together on the east coast, while I remained on the west. I sent them money I would typically spend on Christmas, and they went shopping together for themselves on Black Friday. (Oh, how I have loved to hate BF–but I now understand that such a position is one of privilege. My daughter is on a very tight income, and she was able to get things that day she couldn’t otherwise afford by shopping on that day.)

    This would seem to be a win all around–I didn’t have to shop (which I hate), they didn’t have to haul stuff from coast to coast, they were able to maximize an economic opportunity, they got things they needed–and it was stuff they wanted because they chose it. And yet: I do like what gift-giving is. Like Kate, I don’t care much about receiving gifts, but I like to give them.

    So, I got them little stuff for Christmas. They were mostly practical things. It was more that I wanted something to keep that part of Christmas tradition alive. Still, I regret one of my purchases–which did involved a plastic toy and was a nod to their childhood and was a total waste of money and resources and caused a conflict between them. (For real. Even though they are nearly 20.)

    All of which is to say:
    1. You’re not the only one who gets really cranky about all of this.
    2. I think these are great questions we should all be wrestling with.
    3. There are no easy/simple answers.
    4. I understand why I always feel such a sense of relief/release when Easter is over and I realize we have about a 6-month reprieve from the holiday crap train. (Sorry–that’s two “craps” in one comment. This topic brings it out in me.)

    Your son sounds like a thoughtful, reflective person. I’m guessing I know where he gets that from. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rita 🙂 … there is no such thing as “late” around here! (And also no need for apologies for overuse of the word crap, which could actually be my most frequently used word.) I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who’s cranky about all of this, and who feels relieved when it’s all over.

      I can think of one more win that came out of your children shopping together on Black Friday — they did it TOGETHER! My two older kids are at the same university, 2+ hours drive from here, and whenever I hear that they’ve gotten together (which they don’t do an awful lot, so when they DO, it’s notable, such as the time they went to Value Village to shop for Halloween costumes) my heart goes all melty — even though my kids are grown and are far from me, at least they’re — for the moment — together, which never fails to make me feel warm inside! Maybe you can relate?

      I do understand where you’re coming from when you say hating-on or boycotting Black Friday is a privilege. I have quite often, in conversations about BF, told people that I would rather pay more for an item than go through the shitstorm that that day has become. Which is most definitely — if one really does NEED an item — a privileged position to hold. I’m glad you got to avoid shopping! (Says a fellow hater-of-shopping.)

      So I confess that I laughed over the conflict over the plastic toy, because I can totally see that sort of thing happening between my older two as well. They, like their 12-year-old brother, are very thoughtful and reflective people…except perhaps when it comes to their relationship with each other 😦 . (Thank you so much for the kind words about my youngest, btw. He most definitely is. But as we’ve discussed before, there are pros and cons to being this way…)


      1. Forgot to say, I’m 100% with you on gifting practical stuff, even if only to keep the tradition alive. A friend, years ago, told me she wrapped up toilet paper and put it under the tree. (Really!) And while I don’t think I will ever be wrapping toilet paper, I do stuff the kids’ stockings with socks and underwear, and put consumables like coffee under the tree. And if I’m positive the things will be useful I don’t *entirely* hate shopping for them (I don’t think I could ever say, like you and Kate do, that I LIKE gift-giving, but maybe not-entirely-hating it makes me just a smidgeon less of a grinch than I claim to be… 😉 ).


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