Last week, during a rare occasion when all three of my kids were napping at the same time, I finished up some Christmas shopping for my kids. I bounced between browser tabs, scrolling through Amazon and Facebook simultaneously. One minute, I was searching for toys; the next, I was reading a story about the conflict in Aleppo.
I ordered a third toy for my daughter. Then I read about children dying without their parents, and civilians being gunned down while they tried to flee their country. And I was overcome with guilt.
I wondered what every parent probably wonders, at one point or another: How is it that my children and other American children will have so much this Christmas, when so many have so little? I know other moms feel this way, because they're confessing just how much they hate the materialism the holiday brings out in them, and their kids.
Last year, for instance, mom Kristen Mae wrote for the Huffington Post about the judgement she experienced for going all out during Christmas, after her sister posted a Facebook photo of all the presents underneath her family's Christmas tree.
"Many condemn parents who buy their kids a lot of toys, saying they ought to be ashamed of themselves, that they’re teaching their kids to be materialistic — or even that they are terrible parents," Mae wrote. "But the thing is, it’s really nobody’s business how parents choose to celebrate Christmas, or any other holiday, with their children." And while Mae is obviously right to a large degree, I can't help but feel guilty about buying my kids so many toys this Christmas, when there is so much tragedy and violence taking place on the other side of the world.
There's no real reason why I should feel so anxious about this. I have a beautiful newborn and two hilarious toddlers. My husband and I are enjoying our work. We aren’t rolling in it, but we have plenty to give our children thoughtful gifts and to celebrate with a good meal. Still, even though we are pretty conservative gift-givers, sticking with a couple toys, a new outfit, a book and a small stocking for each kid, I'm constantly dealing with this parental guilt, wondering if we’ve overdone it this year or if we could have spent our money more wisely.
Surely there must be a way to do both, to live generously and to enjoy the things we have at the same time.
Enjoying all of these things feels so wrong, knowing the money I spent on toys and treats could be the meal someone wasn’t sure they were going to get. I know that's a simplistic way to think about it, and that global hunger is bigger than the presents under my kids' tree. Sometimes, a gift is just a gift, not a sign of greed or excessive materialism. We try to be generous with our money, but right now, it never seems like enough. There is so much need in our world, and there are so many struggling to obtain the basic necessities needed to stay alive.
So, what’s next? Do I pack the gifts up, return them to the store and donate the money I’ve spent to various causes? I know better than to even consider mentioning that to my family, when I've created a certain expectation of what they will get or how we will celebrate each year. And honestly, when I really think about it, that impulse would be more than a little bit self-serving. I would only be doing it to appease my guilt, as embarrassing as that is to admit. And I don’t think guilt is what should motivate generosity — instead, it should be compassion and a genuine desire to help. Surely there must be a way to do both, to live generously and to enjoy the things we have at the same time.
Ultimately, I think it is possible to hold onto these two things at the same time, to mourn the pain in the world and celebrate all of the goodness in my life, but it is so damn hard. I don’t want this to just be a Christmas thing. I don’t want to simply get caught up in my Christmas-induced parental guilt and then move on to thoughtless spending, or being selfish with my money. Most importantly, perhaps, I don’t want this to be just about assuaging my guilt. I want to raise kids who think of others regularly, and who give because they want to be part of a better world.
Maybe that is what I am supposed to learn from this overwhelming, Christmas-induced guilt. Instead of obsessing about my concern and letting it ruin our holidays, maybe I can introduce a sustainable change into my life, one that transforms the way I parent and how I spend my money all year long. So, instead of adopting a more radical approach to Christmas giving over the holidays, we can start working together to find an organization to support every month of the year.
It’s not a perfect solution. I’m sure I’ll still feel guilt and sadness on Christmas day, and I don’t think it's healthy to live in denial of others’ pain. I know I won’t be solving any of the world’s problems with my small changes, like funneling an extra $20 a month to organizations providing food for Syrian refugees. But I do know that giving what I can will make a difference for someone. And maybe refocusing my feelings of guilt on year-round, actionable tasks will teach my three kids to be the type of people who make a difference in the world. That would be the greatest Christmas gift of all.
To help the people of Syria, you can donate to organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which provides support for dozens of healthcare facilities run by Syrian doctors in war-torn areas. You can also donate to Save the Children to help provide Syrian children with clean water, food, and shelter.