Goodbye to the Tyranny of Thank-You Notes

At my baby shower, a guest piped up before I opened presents: “Can we give you the gift of no thank-you notes?” It was a revelation.

Thank you notes flying through the air.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Proof of my moment of deepest shame still lies buried somewhere in the storage unit below my apartment: a box, dusty from years of neglect, of half-addressed, fully written, never-sent thank-you notes from my wedding 8½ years ago. Theoretically, these should have been straightforward and simple to send, but things rarely are as simple as they appear. Our wedding season was marked by a series of panic attacks on my part, a search for, and move into, our new home, and a beautiful Hawaiian honeymoon, on return from which we found our new home flooded by sewage—the pipes, we learned, were not in great shape.

We had suitcases to unpack and plumbers to call and a pile of bills to pay, and even though I wrote the thank-you notes (a task my uniquely female sense of responsibility would not allow me to split with my husband), fully half of them ended up in a box and never sent. From that house to the next apartment to the next, the unsent thank-you notes have followed us, an albatross around my neck that I continue to hold on to in a perverse form of self-punishment.

Then came this past weekend, when, at my baby shower, one of the guests piped up just before I started opening presents. “Can we give you the gift of no thank-you notes?” she asked. A hush fell over the room. Then the whispers—what an idea! What a great idea! Why hadn’t we thought of that sooner? I wasn’t sure how to respond, and had to think on my feet. Should I insist on writing the notes? Was this a trap? The encouraging faces around the room, and the sincerity of the woman who had offered this gift, made me think that perhaps we had just stumbled onto something brilliant. I accepted on the spot, making sure that as I opened each gift I looked the giver in the eye and said something honest about how much I appreciated both the gift and their presence there. The sentiment of gratitude remained; the hours of cramped writing and endless guilt over acceptable time frames did not.

In part, I accepted this gift with gratitude because all of the women in the room knew that my journey to get and stay pregnant had been a difficult one. Three miscarriages in under a year followed by a pregnancy plagued with daily nausea and vomiting has given me less time and capacity for things like thank-you notes than I would have in my normal life. But even for women with the smoothest pregnancies, the thank-you-note-writing regimen can be legitimately tough. Many women still experience exhaustion, fatigue, nausea, and layer upon layer of discomfort during pregnancy. Some, like my dear friend Myrna, give birth quite a bit earlier than expected and find a pile of unwritten thank-you notes necessarily taking a back seat to caring for a newborn, at least for a time. Others are balancing demanding jobs, taking care of other children, or otherwise stretched so thin that the hours it takes to write thank-you notes simply become overwhelmingly impossible to produce, and a sense of guilt settles in (not to mention the cost of purchasing stamps and thank-you cards.) And that’s just for baby showers.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, anti–thank-you notes in general. If a gift arrives in the mail, I am quick to write a note of thanks via mail both to express gratitude and to let the sender know that their gift arrived. If I have a lot of time on my hands, I actually really enjoy putting something mindless on TV and handwriting thank-you notes. Expressing gratitude is an important practice! But it does seem bizarre to me that—in an age in which there are so many different ways to acknowledge in low-maintenance, heartfelt fashion that a gift has been received—some dusty custom dictates that I express my gratitude yet again on a piece of paper that will quickly be thrown away.

When I tweeted about the thank-you-notes comment at my baby shower, the response was overwhelming. The vast majority of people seem to want to nominate this woman for sainthood. She has been invited to every shower, graduation party, wedding, and bat mitzvah from California to South Carolina. Scores of people have written about their own guilt over unsent thank-you notes from years ago.

Still, there are detractors. I saw a few responses along the lines of “I spent the time/money/energy to buy you a gift and go to your shower. The least you can do is write me a thank-you note.” To which I want to say: I understand, but a gift should not come with any obligations. A gift should be freely given with joy on the part of the giver, a best wish for this new chapter of life. Some people reported actually handing out self-addressed stamped envelopes with their gifts to make it easier for the recipient to send a note, which may come from a thoughtful place but still strikes me as a bit entitled.

Others whom I encountered had creative thoughts about how to say “thank you” in a less conventional way. Several women (and they were almost all women) wrote thank-you emails or texts. Others sent thank-you letters once they had actually started using the gifts, sending them slowly, over the first year of their baby’s life, with a note about how the gift was being used and how much it meant to them. Others still made sure to mention the gift next time they saw the giver. In all cases, there was no lack of gratitude to be found, or even lack of ability to communicate that gratitude. It was simply the fact of being released from an obligation during an especially busy season of life that made all the difference.

Our nursery is nowhere near ready; it is covered in boxes and books and bags of hand-me-downs. When I enter it now, I can hardly believe that in a few short weeks there will be a baby occupying that space. One of the ways he will know how loved he is—one of the ways we all know how loved we are—is in careful, thoughtful attention from family and friends, whatever form that takes. We are lucky to have space in our basement to store the gifts we won’t need for a few months yet, and even more space now. There’s a box of unsent thank-you notes I need to get rid of.