Last year, the holidays were crazy! I seemed to spend most of my time standing in line or carrying bags. We spent a small fortune on assorted complicated gizmos — which got opened and then ignored as my daughter and son spent most of the day playing with $2.99 worth of stickers. We got stressed out in order to relax and suffered in order to have fun. My husband and I stared at each other across the flotsam and jetsam of wrapping paper and various pieces of who-knows-what, and you could see the look in each of our eyes: Say what?!

As you brave the holiday shopping crowds — trying to decide whether to give Barbie or Big Bird, Legos or (good grief) an iPad — or hassle with returns and sales in January, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed, and distracted from the real gifts that are at the heart of parenting.

But happily, when you relax a bit and come back to yourself, the true gifts of parenting come back to mind, the ones that go deeper than giving our kids toys and games — or even a college education.

Over and over again, a hundred times each day, we freely offer a hug, a smile, a touch, a scolding, a sandwich, a paycheck earned, a story read, a bed tucked in, a goodnight kiss. So many things, so rapidly readily given that we hardly notice them — but they are the fabric of family, new threads added many times each hour, warm and cozy and nurturing, the blanket of love in which we wrap our precious vulnerable beloved children.

We offer our lap when our back hurts, we offer our heart when it feels empty. We let our children enter our thoughts when our minds seem stuffed with grown-up concerns and plans.

Our offerings are not just material or actions. We also offer restraint, wise not-doing. We let small things slide. We take into account a no-nap, hungry day . . . or a tough strike-out in Little League . . . or a major dump on our daughter by her best friend. We give the gift of self-control, of not swatting or yelling or overreacting – even when, yes, it would be a relief.

We let our children have us when we feel all too “had” by others. We give even when others haven’t given enough to us: our coworkers, our boss, our spouse, our own parents.

We give even when a part of ourselves may not want to; often the most meaningful giving to our children is offered when our personal preference would be to do something else.

We find more water when the wellspring seems to have run dry. Most fundamentally, we give our selves. We open the door wide; we give our children access to the vulnerable places in our heart; we let them enter our souls; we let them crawl oh so deeply under our skin.

Our children give us so much to be sure. The act of parenting has its own rewards. And we need to take care of ourselves so that we can continue to have something to give to our children.

But parents don’t give to get. And in the moment of giving to a child we often don’t get back much at all. Fundamentally, parenting is not an exchange: we are not playing let’s-make-a-deal with our children.

Parenting is an ongoing process of healthy sacrifice: the sacrifice of attention, time, energy, money, personal agendas, and all the activities we would prefer to do if we were not parenting.

Of course, we sacrifice not as martyrs but with our eyes open, freely, with strength, with all the ordinary little heroic acts that make up the daily life of a parent.

We sacrifice our individual selves into relationship with our children. We release for a moment the sense of contraction as an isolated self into the joining of love, a love that may feel for some as if it partakes of something that’s ultimately Divine.

Sacrifice means “sacred act.” During this seasonal time, of plunging into the dark to be renewed for the swelling of the light, a period that’s sacred in many cultures around the world — it’s a lovely, self-nurturing thing to reflect a bit on what may be for you the sacred essence of parenting.

* * * * *

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.