Real Stories of Parenthood, Part 5: Materialism Gone Mad

Quick note from the team here at Baby2Body: we know this post is coming to you in the midst of our holiday gift guides, which can feel a bit like… mixed messages. But it’s important to us to be present and proactive in the sustainability conversation — so, discussing things like materialism, especially this time of year, is necessary. This week’s post from Molly brings a refreshing honesty and reflection to the topic and we’re guessing it will resonate…. OK Molly, all yours. 

This year I was priding myself on the fact that I was going to do a better, greener, more restrained version of Christmas. 

I read with increasing concern the stats about Christmas waste; to cite but a few:

  • 41% of all presents end up in the bin by March
  • over Christmas we generate an additional 30% of waste (25% in the US)
  • In the UK alone, we eat 10 million turkeys over the Christmas period >> that’s 3,000 tonnes of turkey packaging
  • 125,000 tonnes of festive food wrapping goes straight to landfill.

I could go on, and on, and on.  It’s a shameful, first world problem, and I would no longer, I promised myself, be complicit.

So, I wrote Christmas lists for my key others months in advance.  Plenty of ideas for responsibly sourced, sustainable gifts. Experiences mainly, things that would not cost the earth (in the most literal of senses).   I also resolved to cook a less over the top, more sustainable, mostly vegan version of Christmas dinner (well, apart from the turkey anyway, and perhaps, come to think of it, a good old dollop of goose fat for the potatoes). I’d use only recyclable wrapping paper and biodegradable sellotape — not the easiest materials to source, it turns out.

“Greeaat idea!”, Bert said when I suggested we get the kids only (only?!) three presents each this year.  He has long lamented “our” over-consumption (meaning, really, mine).

I hammer home the point to my family.

Telling Bert off when he has the audacity to suggest buying multi-packs of Christmas cards (“but they’re not recyclable and come wrapped in film!”).  I chastise Mary for a series of minor eco-infringements committed before breakfast one morning this week (“you really mustn’t throw paper in the normal bin!  It goes in the recycling, missy!)”.

And then the moment I get back from the school run I’m sitting down to do a quick bit of armchair shopping. Just ten minutes before starting work…

Forty-five minutes, two Christmas-y dresses and some new gloves later, I sit down to write this post, and pause.  With two weeks to go, how is my plan for a responsible, eco-friendly (but still fun) Christmas going?   

A brief audit.  I’ll start with… gifts. 

Because whatever we’d like to think about the importance of family time, gifts have become a central part of Christmas for most of us.

Peering into my ‘secret’ present cubby hole, it’s evident that an originally modest stash of gifts has now been forced to annex a shoe rack and an underwear drawer as overflow areas.  Over the floor are small mounds of boxes of various shapes and sizes. “It’s starting to look like the Rockies in there,” Bert muttered one evening last week. I’d rolled my eyes – nag nag nag – but now, I have to accept, he might have had a point. I tiptoe through various small foothills towards the twin peaks that are our daughters’ gift piles.   “There seem to be rather more than three things here!”, the voice of Bert (aka my conscience) mutters.

Fab Foil Art and Connecta Straws, Glitter boards, times two.  Not. Very. Eco.

Glider planes, foam and paper.  Recyclable?  I study the box.  Unclear.

Puzzles (a six in one compendium AND battleships?!). Chalk sticks AND two types of paints for the little one.  

I glance down. Standing forlorn and unused a beautiful handmade wooden advent calendar. I cast my mind to the two cheap chocolate versions sitting in pride of place on the kitchen counter downstairs, and feel a little melancholy.

The doorbell rings.  I open the door. A courier.  “Hi again, Azid”, I say. “Same time again tomorrow!”, he cheerily quips, handing me two more parcels.  A wave of something like embarrassment, stronger now, passes over. I started with such good intentions.  Yet, here I am, two weeks to go, about to be an eco-hypocrite.

What’s going wrong, and how, in the fortnight left, can I make it right? 

Did I buy too early, I wonder?  Perhaps. Last year I left it all too late.  So this year for the first time ever I was one of those smug 40% of us who start our Christmas shopping before November.  Look at me, I thought! How organised I am. 

But perhaps now I realise that what I did was  buy too early, and research too late. There are now a myriad of helpful hints  all over the internet about making Christmas more eco.  You can find eco bubbles, eco glitter or even a cool selection of ever changing toys, and it’s clear that kids eco-gifts have become mainstream.  Ditto on recyclable wrapping paper.  This would have been so useful, I think, had I not already rushed out to buy it…

The food, hurrah,  can still be salvaged, some great tips here on how to make Christmas dinner more eco.  (My Christmas guests, you have been warned…!). And it’s worth pausing on Christmas dinner.  Because it’s a very stark representation of where we are getting it… not quite right

Let’s talk about consumption overall, because figures across the board at this time of year become hyper-inflated (and they start from a high base).  Google “how many presents should I get my kids” and the answers suggest anything in the region of 20 – 70 (per child!) is acceptable.  What?!? 30 – 70.

This is materialism, gone mad.

Although my kids won’t get anywhere near 70 presents, I reckon by the time this year’s haul is out they will end with upwards of 15 (from us, grandparents, a few friends).  This is a lot.

Following this audit, I am, it appears, a true, committed, Christmasoholic — on the verge of sleepwalking into a relapse.  As with the best habits, it’s fun and hard to break.  

My first instinct is to try to justify it.

It’s an uphill struggle, it’s not just me, I’m better than some. All true, perhaps. Most of all, I don’t want to let the kids down.  Our poor little darlings, only three presents?! Won’t this feel like a punishment rather than a treat?

We discuss up’ing it to five. “Leeway to deduct a couple if they are naughty before then?”, we reason.  But, then I think. Who, really, is letting who down here? Yes, my kids are young and they might still think that “the best thing eva is opening presents”, as the note, left on my desk by Mary, pointedly informed me the other day.  

M's christmas letter

But then, the same evening, she reads about the whale found dead with a 100kg ball of litter in its stomach, and bursts into heartfelt tears.

I’m the parent, and for the sake of my kids more than  myself, this is one habit I have to break.

And moreover, what am I teaching my kids with this consumerist insanity?  Not much, judging by Mary’s letter to Santa. A cursory nod to Rudolf’s sustained health, she’s nothing if not sassy, but then what?  No “thanks”, no “I’ve been kind”, no indication of what she proposes to give to poor Santa in return for asking him to make the long journey from Lapland to rural Cambridgeshire on a freezing winter’s night.  This is a child who has come to expect to get, but not to earn, I realise, with a frown.

“Mum”, asked Mary the other day.  “What is Christmas actually for?”

Bert and I looked at each other.  It’s a good question. We explain the religious background, but as we are not religious ourselves that only got us so far.   We start to flail. Er. Is it a thank you? A reward for kindness? Is it ‘just because? Surely not. And then I cast my mind back.  “It’s about kindness”, I reply, “and learning how to take care of the things, and people, we love”. 

So now, I go back up to the gift stash upstairs.  I divide up the presents again. Three presents each to ours and the rest to families who don’t have the luxury of worrying about these self-indulgent problems.   And then, because I don’t want to ruin their Christmas and because it’s almost inevitable that there will be one or two grumps between now and then, I add two more. A tree to plant in the garden, and a set of ten vouchers.  “Each of these vouchers entitles the holder to an hour of 1:1 time with Mummy or Daddy”.  

Perhaps, there is still time, I realise, to do Christmas, but properly.

Molly Kingsley is a writer and photographer, who also happens to be a parent to Mary (6) and Phoebe (3). You can follow her @the_lens_i_see_through.


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