I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts lately. No surprise since it is Christmas and we are all inundated with commercials advertising perfect gifts whether we celebrate Christmas or not. Frankly I have never thought of a BMW as a gift but that is just me. All year long I give gifts for various celebrations but nothing compares to the Christmas season. I’ve started to ask myself what motivates the giver to give what he or she gives, what is the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and what is expected of the recipient? I’ve spent time reflecting on the many gifts I have given and received over my lifetime within the context of codependence and enabling. Here is what I have discovered.
Gifts are not free. Appreciation is expected in more ways than one and it often goes beyond the hand written thank you note. Many a giver not only wants reassurance, but actually demands it. “How did you like the book I gave you? I see you are not wearing your new watch. I bet you have enjoyed that scarf I made you; it’s been so cold lately!” Givers can be a tad needy especially when they want something in return. And honestly who is going to tell the giver what he or she actually thinks? “Aunt Julie, that sweater you knit me doesn’t fit and is a color I never wear. What were you thinking?” Not likely. My niece is going to tell me she loves the sweater regardless of how she really feels! I’ve been the recipient of such gifts and I, too, know what to say. Honestly is not always the best policy when it comes to showing gratitude for gifts.
Gifts are not without messages. How about a book on managing your money for someone in the family who is always asking for loans? Or a watch for someone who is chronically late; stationary for someone who doesn’t write very often; a cookbook dedicated to cooking light for someone who is overweight; tickets to the ballet for someone who could use a bit of culture. I could go on and on. A friend of mine had put on a few pounds that she constantly fretted about. While she wanted to lose the weight, she was still taken aback when her husband gave her a year-long membership to an athletic club. It let her know that he also thought she needed to lose weight and it stung. I have to admit that I have given gifts to family members that were laced with my interpretation of what it was they needed. You might say the gifts came with built in desired outcomes. Note that I am referring to ‘my desired outcomes.’ I’m probably not alone in giving such gifts.
Gifts are often disguises for less than admirable motives. For example, the parents who give their daughter a new car but only if she agrees to go to the college they chose for her. The parents who buy their son and daughter in-law a first home right next door! I call these gifts with attachments. Such attachments may be meant to enhance a behavior or to eliminate a behavior. I’ll give you a new computer if you quit smoking. And no one is more likely to be the recipient of gifts with ‘attachments’ than children being guided towards a successful adulthood. Think of all the gifts parents give their children in order to improve them! Addiction only ups the ante with the sole goal of enhancing recovering or eliminating the addiction.
When I look back on some of the gifts I have given my son, I cringe. The majority were things I wanted him to like or do and most came with a big message. Private tennis lessons? Message: you could improve your game and maybe get a college scholarship. Clothes; message: this is what your mother likes you to wear and thinks you look good in. Books; message: you should read more and this book in particular. Portable file cabinet; message: you need to get more organized. I once bought him symphony tickets and he didn’t use them. I was very disappointed. As he slipped into his addiction, I began to avoid any gift that I deemed as having the potential to further his addiction such as money or gift certificates. Always steering the ship, that was me! To say the least, these so called gifts were a continuation of the co-dependence and manipulation that penetrated our relationship except they were dressed up as ‘gifts.’ Gifts are a perfect venue for enabling and manipulating someone.
It is hard to confront myself, to acknowledge my less than stellar behaviors and to admit that I have been guilty of wanting some kind of reward or recognition for my gifts. But this is part of the journey. I didn’t do these things on purpose or with malice. I didn’t recognize my own behaviors as harmful. My son isn’t the only victim. Do I buy my husband books I want to read? If I am honest, yes. Have I sent not-so-subtle messages with the gifts I have chosen for others? Yes indeed. Do I seek praise and positive feedback unnecessarily? Culpa Mia. Can I do better? Yes, I can.
So here is a story of a gift I was given when I was 22 years old, in my last year of nursing school, and home for the Christmas holidays. My father bought me a set of Mickey and Minnie Mouse bookends from Neiman Marcus. I know he did it on a whim. He remembered that, at age five, I was passionately in love with Mickey Mouse. I watched the Mickey Mouse Show every day and wore my little Mouseketeer hat with the mouse ears. I sat in my special rocking chair. I’m certain the minute he laid eyes on those bookends, he had a flashback to my childhood. When I opened his gift, I was completely surprised and absolutely delighted. This was a gift that had only one message; I love who you are. My father died unexpectedly the following May. I still have those bookends.