Friday, November 25, 2011

Opening gifts for my daughters

As the holidays approach, I am reminded of all of the times I've opened gifts for my oldest daughter, Gwen. It's been nine Christmases now.

With the big day being less than 30 days away, I'm anticipating opening gifts for my youngest child just like I'd done with Gwen. She and Gwen are both children with cerebral palsy.

This means that those tiny moments when the anticipation of opening presents intersects with physically getting to open them, doesn't happen - at least in the traditional way.

When Gwen was three all of the 'toys' she received started changing from being 'play toys' to being therapeutic ones. I remember all of the age-appropriate ratings on the toy packaging stirring up reminders of the failed (albeit standard) milestones that Gwen didn't reach.

Every time I read the big white letters printed inside the even larger red starbursts, I would feel loss, even during the height and joy of the holidays. The packages read “ages three and under, ages three-plus or only for children five and above.” Each gift I opened usually meant more big blatant letters and starbursts. 

Over the years, Gwen would get more three-and-under toys than I'd like to think about, many of which we still have. I've watched her younger sisters play with these toys as recently as last week, and keep replaying my memories of some of those earliest family Christmas gatherings.

At that time, I used to focus too often on aspects of loss that I was dealing with while often making Christmas time more bittersweet than it needed to be. 

Once I focused more on Gwen, seeing that she loved to receive and open presents, I forgot about the age-ratings on the toy packaging, and also saw that she really didn't care that she wasn't actually opening the gifts.  Most importantly, I made the shift from letting my 'adult problems' interfere with my child's enjoyment (something I still have to constantly remind myself of).

As I look ahead, I'm guessing that there will be times when I need to embrace my own feelings of loss.  However, I do think the second time is easier with my youngest daughter – after all she is not Gwen and I am a much different person than I was in those memories.

These kinds of details, those that so many other parents and families don't get to experience, unite families like mine (and maybe yours, too). Most importantly they remind me that the holidays are about feeling connected with my children.

While this year I know I'll be opening gifts for my daughters, I wonder what you'll be doing. What are your families' non-traditional Christmas traditions?

Tim Gort is a writer, public speaker and advocate who shares his personal challenges and triumphs of being a father of three, two with cerebral palsy, at the family’s bog. 


  1. Tim, this is a very poignant post. Annual events like the holidays give us a yardstick to measure our growth in attitude over time... It feels good to be able to look back and realize that our family differences don't necessarily sting like they once did.
    I don't know if this would help your daughters, but we found a "work-around" for the lack ofg hand use at our house and how it impacts unwrapping presents. Gifts tucked loosely in tissue in gift bags can gently slide onto a lap with just a gentle tap to the bottom of the bag. It helps provide a wee bit of independence if the kids have a gross motor swat. If either of your girls can manage this much, you might want to let Santa know this trick.
    Our non-traditional tradition has to do with shopping. Seldom does my daughter's neurology cooperate with times when stores are conducive to shopping. Crowds, wheelchairs, and seizures just aren't a productive mix. Instead, we do our shopping online. When the packages arrive, I let her choose those gifts she would like to give others in the family. She still has some choice, if limited, and lights up when she receives thanks for a gift well chosen.

  2. I cried when I read your post. My daughter is 7 and has autism. I want so much for my little girl to unwrap her own presents, to be able to enjoy this time of year and all it's magic, but she never seems too interested. It's a hard time of year emotionally for me. I know I am not the only parent that experiences this, though. I know I am not alone. Music seems to be a great way to get my little girl to enjoy some holiday cheer. So it's a nice bit of joy in my heart to see her face light up to some good Christmas tunes. Thank you for telling your story. It's little things, like watching your child opening her presents on Chrsitmas morning, that so many get to experience, and some of us would give anything just to experience those precious moments. So thank you again, for understanding what it is like. Much love to you and your family this holiday season.

  3. My daughter turns 21 this year. Shortly before Christmas. I to have struggled with the age labels . But now I am used to it. Every year is a blessing for us. The non-traditional thing we do is she wraps the children 's presents. She really enjoys being a secret Santa to her nieces and nephews!

  4. My son is 14 and autistic...I used to have to open his presents too, and Christmas seems to completely over-whelm him. But at this point I have taught him to open his own presents, and now he really gets into it!!! Such a small step seems so huge with these kids :)) But I've had to learn that even though I WANT this to be exciting for him (and it IS at first), he does get overwhelmed and needs a break and that's okay too. I think that their enjoyment is paramount to what we "think" they should be able to do/enjoy :) Merry Christmas everyone!!!

  5. My Daughter is 9 and she has autism . I have always helped her open gifts but i don't think of it as a down fall at any point . Even though i know whats inside every gift I still get excited every time we open a gift . She doesn't get age related gifts but the thing is i have never cared just so she plays or uses the gift in some way. She loves Christmas and all it offers she does get over whelmed but its ok thats when me and her take a break and go in a quite room and look at her new toys or what ever it might be . Even though she doesn't play with all the toys at once doesn't matter some times it takes her months to get a toy out of a box . But here's the thing as long as we are together and she is happy and she knows the true meaning of Christmas well she understands it to a point . Thats all it matters quit looking at the disability and start looking at your child and their gift to you which is unconditional love . Don't think about other kids and what they can do . Don't compare because God gave you something really special .

  6. These comments are so meaningful. Thank you all for sharing your insights, feelings and stories. I appreciate this kind of dialogue and sharing because we get a feel of how we, as parents, are all different with our own experiences and perspectives. While I don't prescribe to the notion that "God" is the reason for our children, as it is my belief that God inside each and everyone of us, I can appreciate why people might have that viewpoint. Whatever works in this world of parenting is whatever works! Happy Christmas to all the great parents and children of 2011 (and beyond)!

  7. Just the fact that you came to the conclusion that Christmas is about feeling connected to your daughters? Makes that, in itself, the best gift they could get.
    This was beautiful. Your kids are very lucky.