I’m going to hone straight in on sentimental objects in this next installment on minimalism and decluttering, because without a doubt it is the area that trips more people up than perhaps all other categories combined, and also because it turns out a lot of the people who read Mama Needs Coffee are moms (hi, moms!) and moms get a lot of stuff given to them for their precious ones, everything from Christmas gifts to hand me downs from the neighbor kids.
Moms, lean in close today, because I’m going to unload some heavy artillery in the form of what I hope will prove, ultimately, to be self love: you don’t have to keep anything in your house that you don’t like/ doesn’t serve your family.
(insert disclaimer about toddler underwear and your husband’s whatever collection here)
A toy that is super annoying and makes your kids fight like animals: get rid of it.
A dress your best friend in college gifted you in your early twenties (and which fit in your early twenties): bye!
A decorative engraved flask with your husband’s college nickname on it he got as a groomsman gift … in 2007: see ya. (Obviously ask him first. But it couldn’t hurt to gently inquire when the last time he sipped from said flask was.)
A hulking, dark wood bookshelf that doesn’t match your home, is totally not your style, and is mostly just a clutter magnet …but your now-deceased grandmother left it to you when she died? Oy. Tough one, right? But still, goodbye. Before I delve into my explanation for being so hard hearted, I want to take a minute to unpack the meaning of gift giving.
When somebody gives you a gift, there are a couple mechanisms at work. At a fundamental level, a person gives a gift in order to express some kind of affection, appreciation, or commitment.
We give wedding rings on our wedding day to symbolize the covenant we make with our spouse. We give a beautiful necklace or a bouquet of flowers to our moms once a year to commemorate their motherhood. We slip Starbucks gift cards into our teacher’s hands at Christmas time to express our gratitude.
These are all good, beautiful reasons to give gifts.
We give smaller, less significant gifts too, all the time. A scarf for a birthday present. A rosary from a meaningful pilgrimage somewhere, a book you think someone will love, etc. What is really highlighted in these more common gifting occurrences is the intention: you’re essentially saying to someone, “hey, I was thinking of you!” or “I missed you while I was on this trip” or maybe “I hope this helps you take your mind off the difficulty you’re enduring right now.”
Gifts are transactional in nature, at least for human beings.
We give to express some kind of emotion, and in return, we’re usually hoping for joy, a smile during the unwrapping, a warm hug or, at the least, a heartfelt thank you. Even if the gift is given with no strings attached, rare is the giver who isn’t hoping to elicit pleasure from the receiver.
When my mom, for example, gives a gift to one of my children, she is giving them a tangible expression of her love. And that’s what makes it so hard to part with grandma toys, right?
Wrong! Hear me out. That tangible expression of love? It actually happens the moment she hands the gift over. It helps to think of a gift the way you might think of a hug or a kiss: offered, accepted, received, over.
What happens to the item itself after we’ve gone home and assessed whether we have room for it in our life is actually kind of beside the point; my mom was able to communicate her love to her grandchild, and her grandchild, hopefully, acted appropriately grateful in return.
This is an especially important realization to come to when you have someone in your life whose love language is gift giving. I’ve found far more success with graciously accepting the gift and then deciding after the fact whether or not it fits in my life than in trying to reprogram the giver to switch to giving ballet lessons or zoo passes.
You can definitely make those suggestion! Don’t get me wrong. But know that they may not stick, especially if the person you’re dealing with is an avid and enthusiastic shopper.
One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about minimalism is that it’s impossible to maintain with the constant influx of gifts. My first thought is wow, how loved are we to have gifts coming in constantly?! My second thought is (and this is NOT a critique of someone who genuinely expresses love through gift giving) what an incredibly materialistic and consumer-driven society we live in, that people are constantly giving and receiving gifts year round.
Graduation? There’s a gift for that. Wedding season? Off to Bed, Bath and Beyond. New baby? New blanket. Moving houses? I’ve got a vase for you. Made up holiday? Here’s an appropriately themed trinket. And so on.
One super easy way to break the cycle in your family or circle of friends is to start giving only consumable gifts, with rare exception. You’d be hard pressed to name an occasion that can’t be improved upon with a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers.
Think of it this way: we’ve all got probably too many coffee mugs in our cupboards and scarves in our closets. Many of us are struggling to find balance and peace in a cluttered house, as evidenced by the massive market for all things minimalist.
And then there’s this: lots of people are struggling to balance their finances, especially around Christmas time, and may actually find it pretty taxing to buy gifts not only for their immediate family, but also for a widening circle of friends and acquaintances.
Giving begets giving, and that’s not always a good thing. Make a pact with like minded friends or family members that you’re letting each other off the hook next year, and make plans to go see a movie or go out for drinks together instead.
Finally, it might be helpful to think like this: the perfect gift is a unicorn. Rarely, if ever, will someone’s vision for what you’d love/appreciate/need/wear/etc line up with the reality of what you actually love/appreciate/need/wear. I have a friend who is uncannily good at picking out earrings for me. I own maybe a dozen pair of earrings total. 3 of the 12 were gifts from her.
My husband, on the other hand, whom I deeply love, has given me exactly zero pairs of earrings which I both love and wear. And that’s not to say he hasn’t tried to give me earrings (love you honey), but just that his taste and mine are imperfectly matched.
I think that’s probably more typical than nailing it, every time. You’re not going to give – or receive – the perfect gift more often than not. Rare are the opportunities when your tastes, budget, and selection match perfectly with the recipient’s interests and style. Don’t expect to find a unicorn every time! And don’t feel bad when you don’t. They’re rare for a reason.
Where I’m going with this is, you only have room in your house for unicorns. If something in your house, a gift or not, is not a unicorn, set it free! No guilt. (And hey, it might be someone else’s unicorn, and how thrilled are they going to be to find it for half price at the Arc?)
So accept gifts graciously, donate or repurpose gifts thoughtfully, and give gifts mindfully.
With this knowledge in mind, remember that a perfect gift that ticks all the boxes is exceedingly rare, and feel new freedom in being able to assess the things you have been given as gifts with clear eyes. Because they have already performed their fundamental purpose, whether or not you actually like or use them. What a relief.
If you do end up giving away something that was a gift, say a little prayer for the person who gave it to you as you bag it up. Think fondly of a memory you have with them, something that you can hang onto long after the gift itself is faded or useless, and release yourself from the unnecessary burden of hanging onto it – or to any guilt.