The Birthday Balloon

Do children need a pile of wrapped toys in order to know that their family and friends are delighted and honored that they share this lifetime with us? Somewhere in our consumer culture, we have confused material items with expressions of love.
Girl with balloons, photo by Scarleth White

Birthdays are opportunities to celebrate the life and development of a person.

Photo by Scarleth White.

My youngest daughter, Ula, and I have birthdays one week apart. Thus, the cusp of February and March contain a lot of conversations about cakes and special birthday plans. As we cozied into bed a few nights ago, we marveled about how she was turning three. I asked her what she would like for her birthday. Apparently she had been waiting for this question, because her answer came very quickly:

“Eggnog and a candy cane.”

“Anything else?” She gave the question a little more consideration, and thought of her two best friends.

“Ania and Katherine.” Smiling, I told her I would make that all happen.

I was reminded of my other daughter, Saoirse, when she was about that age. Her request had been a pink balloon. I thought that was perfectly reasonable, but apparently it caused a stir. Saoirse has an August birthday, and around that time three years ago, I was being interviewed by a parenting magazine for a story they were running on eco-parenting. The reporter had learned about my work on Radical Homemaking, and had called for an interview. She outlined the premise of the piece to me, explaining that she was examining the added financial burdens parents faced when they chose to raise their children in an ecologically responsible way—as examples, she mentioned chlorine-free diapers, bisphenol and phthalate-free baby bottles, organic baby foods and clothing, and all-natural, fair-trade, and zero-impact toys.

Ula was a mobile baby at the time, and as the reporter spoke, I watched her approach her favorite all-natural toy, the family laundry basket. She dumped over the folded clothes, then rifled through until she found a pair of underpants, pulled them over her head, and paused to watch me as I listened to the reporter. Taking a cue from my daughter, I interrupted the conversation. “I’m sorry, but that’s not what eco-parenting means to me. It isn’t about going out and buying ecologically-produced versions of products I think I may need. It’s about discovering what I don’t need.”

“What do you mean?”

I cannot concur that a birthday, properly celebrated, needs to be a cultivation of and pandering to materialistic desires.

I presented some  examples: We never bought a single jar of pre-made baby food, organic or otherwise. My babies ate ground-up versions of whatever Bob and I ate. Children don’t need a lot of toys in order to grow, develop and be happy. And they don’t need to be new, and they don’t even need to technically be toys. Illustrating the point, Ula demonstrated the versatility of her undie hat by converting it first to a facemask, and then to an undie necklace. Re-focusing on the phone conversation, I argued that ecologically sensitive parenting, at least from a Radical Homemaker perspective, was not about adding expenses to the family budget. It was about taking them away. The reporter concluded the conversation and hung up the phone. I assumed she was satisfied.

Apparently, her editors were not. I received another phone call. Under her editor’s direction, the reporter was to present a series of more “hard-hitting” questions about Radical Homemaking. To my surprise, one of the first questions on the list was about birthdays. I mentioned Saoirse’s wish for a pink balloon, and my intention to make her wish come true. We moved on and worked our way through the second interview. I assumed we had covered everything the reporter now needed for her story.

Shannon Hayes with her daughter, UlaCan Money Buy Education?
Shannon Hayes taught her daughter that their family doesn't buy things they can make or grow at home. She then had to wonder: Does that include higher education?

But apparently the pink balloon was still hanging in the air, because the editor sent the reporter back for a third interview. She explained the editorial concern with my comment. To paraphrase, her editor felt that because Saoirse was young and innocent, I was just getting away with a cheap birthday present. Things would inevitably change as Saoirse grew up in our culture and adopted more materialistic desires. 

I concur that Saoirse may not have an enduring interest in balloons (although three years later, she still thinks they’re fascinating), but I cannot concur that a birthday, properly celebrated, needs to be a cultivation of and pandering to materialistic desires. What is a birthday? It is an opportunity to celebrate the life and the development of a person. Do my children need to see a table covered with a pile of wrapped toys in order to know that their family and friends are delighted and honored that they share this lifetime with us? Somewhere in our consumer culture, we have confused “presents,” material items, with expressions of love and gratitude. 

For certain, Bob and I enjoy finding a new toy or two to add a fun dimension to the day. And yes, they are often of the all-natural and fair-trade ilk, and yes, they do cost more. They are easily affordable when only one or two are needed. But the present is a marginal part of the celebration. At ages of (nearly) three and six, I have yet to hear from my children “can I have ‘thus and such a toy’ for my birthday?” Instead, my children focus on what we will do, how we will feast, and who we will share the day with. Last year, Saoirse wanted to have a dress-up tea party with her friends and family (we enforce a strict no-presents policy, so there was no gift table). The year before, we made homemade pizzas and took them out to the farm pond for a picnic, where we swam and lounged for the afternoon. For Ula, the family canceled all labors for the day and sat around the kitchen table finger-painting from breakfast (with birthday crepes) until nap time. 

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My own birthday was just a few days ago. It came and went in the middle of a snow emergency, where four feet of the white stuff was dumped on our house. My birthday celebration was canceled. Bob and I spent much of the day with shovels in hand, watching as the snow banks towered well above Bob’s six-foot height. While we worked, Saoirse fashioned little dolls for me out of toothpicks, wine corks, and clothespins. When we came in to rest, Ula would climb onto my lap and sing Happy Birthday. Throughout the day, my friends called to wish me a happy day, and my mother called, despairing that she wouldn’t be able to bake me a cake.  

Around sunset, Phil, our plow truck driver, stopped outside the house. Knowing he’d been on duty nearly 24 hours, I rushed out with a cup of coffee and some chocolate chip cookies. I found him making a repair under the truck. “Happy birthday, Shannon,” he called as he climbed out from underneath and took the coffee. “Your neighbors at the bottom of the hill were sorry they couldn’t get up to see you. They wanted to make sure you knew they were thinking of you.”

I was smiling as I came inside. Bob handed me a birthday cocktail, then apologized that he was unable to make me anything special to celebrate. I smiled as I thought of all the love I’d felt that day—from my husband, my kids, my friends, my parents and neighbors, even the plow truck driver. “I had a fantastic birthday,” I said, and we toasted. Three years after that pink balloon interview series, I repeatedly think about those phone conversations, warning me that my blissful, naive ideas about birthday wishes will all change someday. After thirty-six years, they still seem to hold true for me. And now it is time for me to go make some eggnog. We’ve got a party coming up.


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