A few weeks ago, on the ninth day of Christmas, I undertook the melancholy work of undecking the halls. Under the tree lingered a few of my kids’ more utilitarian gifts, including a new pair of boots for each. I spent December with fingers crossed that no snowstorms would necessitate an early opening of these particular gifts. They didn’t, so each child opened a new pair of boots on Christmas morning, expressed proper thanks, then set them aside for more interesting goods. Eight days later, they lay pristine in their boxes long after new clothes had been worn and washed, toothbrushes and gloves put to inaugural use, and e-readers and art supplies employed to fill the deliciously unscheduled hours between Christmas and New Years.
I took the boots out of their boxes and carried them into the kitchen, where I carefully lined each pair up under each child’s cubby in our mudroom area. I set the final pair in its place—a lime green pair of wellies for my 15-year-old daughter Leah to use during her weekly work at the 4H farm. From a nearby basket of shoes and socks, I dug out an old pair of “wellie warmers” (fleece liners) that would work perfectly in the new boots. Last winter, both Leah and I kept forgetting to look for those liners. So every week, she would show up at the farm with only her cracked old rubber boots and whatever socks she had worn to school that day to protect her feet from bitter cold, snow, and slush.
As I smoothed the fleece liners into the new boots, I felt a powerful rush of relief at the simple fact that this year, her feet would be warm. These boots may not have been her favorite present, but to me, they suddenly felt like the most perfect of gifts.
I have written several essays, including a recent Brain, Child debate post, about why plentiful gifts for children remain a core Christmas tradition in our family. I have explained that material gifts echo the Christian nativity story that is central to our celebration, and that I hope to teach my children that well-chosen gifts can express to loved ones that we are paying attention, that we see what they need, what they love, and who they are. Those explanations still apply.
But standing in my kitchen, pondering three pairs of new boots lined up just so under hooks loaded with fleece and wool, I realized that the satisfaction I get from choosing presents for my children arises from an impulse far more fundamental than the desire to invoke a religious image or model thoughtful giving. My most basic impulse as a mother is to take care of my children. A pair of boots to keep tender feet warm and dry in a cold winter are proof—tangible, physical, satisfying proof—that I’m taking care.
That mothers love our children by providing material care is no great revelation, of course. The mother who obsesses over feeding even her adult children is a perennial source of comedic inspiration and exasperated eye rolling. The revelation sparked by all those new boots wasn’t that the material things I offer my children are an expression of my love, but that such expressions have far more weight and meaning than I often ascribe to them. My cooking for my kids and buying boots for my kids and tucking my kids into warm beds are not mere chores that pale in comparison to the encouragement, discipline, playful interludes, and teaching of life skills that are the real work of parenting. My material care, rather, is essential, as real as it gets.
I’ve always bristled at the clichéd advice to mothers that we ought to set aside our chores to play and interact with our children. They will only be young once, people admonish, and no one looks back on their childhood with fond memories of how clean their house was. That may be so, and I am certainly capable of lazy interactions with my children when I’m in a tizzy over getting some chore or another done.
But aren’t the chores so readily dismissed as distractions from the “real” work of parenting actually a necessary part of that work? Not just necessary but primary? Whether my family’s day is smooth or rough—whether the prevailing mood is calm or cranky—usually depends far less on meaningful conversations and fun outings than on mundane logistics. Do we have enough in the fridge and pantry to get a good dinner on the table? Do we get from one place to another on time and with everything we’re supposed to have? Are there plenty of sharp pencils for homework? Are bathrooms stocked with toilet paper and clean towels? Can we navigate around the kitchen without our shoes adhering to sticky puddles? Can I invite a friend to stay for a cup of tea without having to first clear the table of days of accumulated clutter? Are routines for laundry and after-dinner clean-up clear and established enough that everyone can easily pitch in without complicated, naggy oversight? Does everyone have winter coats, snow pants, and boots that fit so they can play at recess and do their farm chores without getting numb fingers and toes?
Games, day trips, focused conversations, and other activities that we associate with happy families can certainly foster deeper connections between parents and children. But the regular and timely completion of household tasks is just as—if not more— essential to my family’s happy functioning.
We love people by engaging in basic acts of care for them. That is the simple, sometimes undervalued, foundation of parental love. It’s also the simple foundation of Christian love. If you love me, Jesus tells Peter, “feed my sheep.” (John 21:17). To love God, feed those who are hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe those who are naked, visit the prisoner. (Matthew 25: 31–46)
The usual arc of our parental narrative is that, as our children grow, their need for physical nurture diminishes as their need for emotional and spiritual nurture grows. From a purely practical standpoint, of course, that’s true. My children no longer require my breastmilk in the dark morning hours or my intimate involvement with every bowel movement (and thank goodness for that). But I wonder if, as our children grow and their increasingly complicated needs outgrow our capacities to easily meet them, the physical care we offer actually becomes more important, not less. We can’t do that (heal her broken heart, save him from the consequences of an epic failure of judgment), but we can still do this (make her favorite dinner, buy him a new pair of jeans).
Maybe that’s why a pair of boots standing ready for my 15-year-old to use when she needs them suddenly looked like the perfect gift, transformed because they embodied a basic act of care. It’s no accident, I’m thinking, that a simple pair of boots took on such significance at precisely the time in my daughter’s life that I am less and less able to respond to her needs, because meeting them is increasingly out of my reach.
But a sturdy, warm pair of boots? That I could do. So I did.