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Why I Didn't Want Gifts for My Son's First Birthday

Should we or should we not ask for them?

Published on: October 12, 2017

Wrapped birthday gifts

There’s no easy way to get around my guest bedroom. I have to walk over a box with a baby walker, a huge child’s train set, multiple musical toys and baby balls –– all unopened. On the way, I may bump into a pile of children’s books, still unread. 

I don’t live in a children’s store, but it sure feels like one. These are gifts my son received from his first birthday party, which, full disclosure, we had in July. 

We feel incredibly lucky to have such generous loved ones in our lives. And yet, every time I walk into that bedroom, I start reflecting upon whether our family should do away with gift-giving altogether.

Of all the “First-World problems” I’ve encountered in the first year of my son’s life, none seemed more frivolous yet more pressing than how to best celebrate my son’s first birthday. Specifically, whether we should accept gifts.

In the six years we’ve been together, my husband Paras and I have eschewed “boxed” gifts to each other in lieu of spending money on experiences we’ve long anticipated — paragliding on a vacation or donating to a cause we believe in. For our wedding in 2011, we requested guests donate to UN Women — an unusual path for a traditional Indian wedding. I’m proud we did: We raised more than $25,000.

But things aren’t quite so easy when you’ve got a kid in tow.

Last July for my baby shower, I asked the organizers — my mum and sister along with two friends — to request guests donate to Mary’s Place instead of contributing to a registry. Instead, they decided to ask each guest to bring along their favorite childhood books for my baby-to-be. While different from my original plan, I loved the gesture and the stories. Paras and I quickly built giant bookshelves in our child’s nursery to accommodate the more than 50 books.

Could we reasonably deny our firstborn gifts that were rightfully his? 

With my son Veer’s first birthday this summer, we encountered a new challenge: Could we reasonably deny our firstborn gifts that were rightfully his? 

Our thought process wavered (as it has more than a few times during this whole parenting thing). On the one hand, Veer is a few years away from comprehending what birthdays and gifts mean. If there was ever a time to not ask for presents, it’s now, before he can throw a tantrum or make demands for particular toys. Also, there’s no shortage of great organizations we could help by asking loved ones to donate in honor of his birthday. It would be good karma!

On the other hand, this was a milestone birthday for him and for us. There was a deeply emotional reason for not changing things up: We didn’t want those who loved Veer to feel they couldn’t spoil him. I also anticipated some pushback from grandparents; both sides were already making gift arrangements as they wouldn’t be able to fly in for Veer’s birthday party. And while first birthdays merit a celebration in many cultures, among the Indian community where I’m from, first birthdays are a giant deal. My husband Paras’s extremely low-key parents invited more than 150 guests to celebrate his first birthday. 

I started asking friends who’d gone the no gifts route before. I was surprised by the creativity. One had created a voucher list of “experiences” for her daughter. Guests could opt to take the birthday girl to a park, host a sleepover or a picnic. A lovely idea, but so much more relevant for people who have large families who live close by. I couldn’t imagine some of my friends who had young children volunteering to take on my toddler, too! 

Another had guests volunteer at a food bank to celebrate her child’s birthday, but that seemed like a better idea for when Veer was older and could participate himself. 

Many had created donation links in lieu of gifts, but I was worried about “donation fatigue.” With so many social media asks for donations and so many worthy causes, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and fatigued with all the giving.

Eventually, we decided to say nothing as we sent out Veer’s invitations, a.k.a. the universal code for “we’re accepting gifts, but don’t feel obliged.” As for Paras and I, we decided to donate baby food to a food bank, measured out in Veer’s weight (a tradition in our family). That way, his first birthday would have a special significance, but our guests would have free reign to do what they wanted.

And while we weren’t expecting presents, it was heartening to see what our loved ones picked for Veer. One friend remembered how he loved playing with our TV remote and gave him a baby version of his own! My sister sent over a Lego set from Singapore and Veer’s uncle bought him his first train set. 

This approach felt right for his first birthday, but for as much as we have a say over future birthdays, we’ve decided to request donations in lieu of gifts going forward. Eventually, we hope to volunteer as a family on his birthday.

Ultimately, I believe there’s no right or wrong way to do this; every parent has their idea of what constitutes a celebration. As Veer grows and one day understands what a birthday means, I can’t wait to show him how many different ways there are to celebrate and give back. Plus, I’d like my guest bedroom back.

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