Guest Post Written by Anna Doroghazi

I had been in the toy store for over an hour. The time had expired on my parking meter. I had picked up and put down at least half of the items on the shelves and reassured the sales associate (twice) that I didn’t need any help. I might have whimpered loud enough to frighten a toddler.

It wasn’t always like this.

Five years ago, my Christmas shopping list included my parents, two siblings, one sister-in-law, one grandmother, and my boyfriend. I could thoughtfully consider the wants and needs of my loved ones and make purchases accordingly. Then my brother and sister-in-law had a baby, and I was thrilled to add my adorable niece to the list. Then I married my boyfriend and added his mother, grandfather, brother, sister-in-law, two sisters, the sisters’ two boyfriends, and one of the sister’s boyfriend’s son to the list. Nine amazing in-laws! And then my brother and sister-in-law had a second baby. Two adorable nieces on the list! And then my brother and sister-in-law had a third baby, and my husband’s siblings started to have babies, and the number of family members on my shopping list swelled to twenty-one, and I had a meltdown in a toy store.

I paid for the strange assortment of items in my basket (one stuffed dinosaur, three educational placemats, and one indescribable plastic thingy involving bright colors and a pony) and walked back to my car, trying to figure out why I felt so overwhelmed. Maybe it was the length of my list and the cost associated with twenty-one presents. Maybe my holiday cheer was defunct. Maybe my little Grinch heart was three sizes too small.

I thought through the questions that plagued me in the toy store: How big does an object have to be before it ceases to be a choking hazard? Does Oldest Niece still like Hello Kitty? Do I love Oldest Niece more than I hate Hello Kitty? Does New Baby already have that little giraffe chew toy that seems popular with the infants these days? Do people use “chew toy” and “teething ring” interchangeably?

And then it occurred to me. I am clueless when it comes to children. I haven’t mastered that fine line between a fun gift and an accident waiting to happen. I don’t know when kids start to walk or talk or read books. More specifically, I feel clueless about my own family. Those twenty-one names on my list — those people who mean the world to me — live in five different states. Three different time zones. I’ve only met about half of my nieces and nephews, and trying to buy them presents is like trying to buy a Secret Santa gift for a total stranger whose only known interests are breastfeeding and crying.

I don’t want to clutter my family’s lives with items they don’t need — I want to be part of their lives. I want to know their interests and to build relationships, and while I try to do that as much as possible, I worry that the reality of distance and busy lives will make it hard for me to be the sort of daughter, sister, and aunt that I want to be. That worry is what makes me want to find the perfect present to serve as a proxy and to hold my place in the family when I can’t be there on Christmas morning.

A few days after my experience at the toy store, I got a phone call from my brother. He cut to the chase. “Hey. We’re not buying you any Christmas presents this year, and we don’t need anything from you. It’s just too expensive to shop for the kids and for the rest of the family.”

We talked for a while about our jobs and our holiday plans and interesting things we’ve been reading. Then he handed the phone to my two-and-a-half year-old niece, and she told me in her precious little voice that she loves her baby brother and she made a picture and she was dancing in the living room. And I felt the comfort of knowing that whatever presents I decided to send or not send this Christmas, there will still be enough love to hold my place.

Anna Doroghazi lives in Hartford and is the policy and communications director for a statewide nonprofit organization. She and her husband do not have any children, but they haven’t killed a houseplant in years, and this gives them hope for their hypothetical future offspring.

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