I will never forget the moment about five years ago. I was cleaning out the guest room closet, which had become filled with wrapping paper, books, outgrown clothing and toys I hoped my kids would forget about. We were expecting our third child, and I knew this closet would need to hold a lot more than off-season clothing in the future.
So, on this particular afternoon, I tried to declutter, consolidate and neaten up the inside of the closet to make room for those coming baby necessities. Underneath the discarded gift bags and discounted pool toys, I discovered an unfamiliar cardboard box with some weight to it. Baffled, I pulled it down from the shelf, slid it onto my lap and opened it.
When I recognized the contents, my heart just dropped.
Dozens and dozens of envelopes, some addressed, yes, some even sealed and stamped. Thank you notes. Every last one was a thank you note I had written for one of the generous gifts given to me when I was pregnant with my twins in 2006.
Guilt washed over me. How had I possibly squirrelled these away and never even mailed them?
In my poorly executed efforts of fulfilling this important social obligation I had collected them all to go out in one huge batch. I remember thinking I would cross-check my list so I could complete the project all at once in one satisfying trip to the post office. Awaiting some of the needed addresses, I had somehow mistakenly allowed them to be packed away and go untouched for years.
Now, holding these cream envelopes in my lap, I thought of all the kind gifts, prayers and love I received during that stressful time. Baby bathtubs, double strollers, little smocked preemie size dresses, diapers in abundance, board books, and precious baby dolls. Everyone was so generous and kind, doubly so in this case of twin daughters. I was completely mortified.
I sat there reminiscing of a time that was as scary as it was joyful. I went into early labor only a couple days after my last baby shower. My darling little girls came into the world six weeks early at only a little over four pounds each.
As I recovered from a traumatic delivery, I struggled with tiny little sleepy heads who had no interest in nursing and took their bottles at such a leisurely pace they weren’t ready to come home for two weeks. We were blessed; they were tiny but well.
The next two years were a complete blur of reflux, diapers, colic, and tears. The exhaustion I felt was something I never could have imagined before motherhood. Things like daily showers, social interaction, and thank you notes swiftly got pushed to the back burner as basic survival become the primary family goal.
And somehow those thank you cards slipped through the cracks in my tired brain and were mistakenly packed away, never to be mailed.
After I recovered from the burst of shocked guilt, I began to think about the gifts I gave going forward. I realized I never, ever wanted a loved one to feel stress or guilt in connection to thanking me or allow a misplaced stamp to weigh on her heart and mind.
A thank you note is not a debt paid for a gift.
Anything I give is given with an open hand, with no reciprocation expected or needed. These days, I try to make that clear to the recipient. “Please don’t send a thank you note,” I tell them. In fact, in light of my recent exploration into minimalism, I want them to feel free to donate, return or exchange that gift.
I realize this is not the traditionally held view on responding to gifts. I know many people would be horrified I am anti-thank you note. I’m sorry, Emily Post. I know this is a topic you have far more authority on and your reasoning is valid. I appreciate the kindness with which thank you notes are penned. But I assure you my intent is pure. I want my gift to be without any strings attached.
I have mostly stopped writing thank you notes myself, with the exception of gifts received in the mail. In those cases, I text, write or call and express my appreciation. I want the giver to know the gift was received and appreciated. I do think gratitude is so important and I always, always say thank you for a gift. But I want to release my loved ones from the obligatory thank you note, so please don’t thank me. I want my gift to be a joy, not another item on your to do list.