"The Gift of Giving"
Holidays and gift giving can be incredibly stressful. "The Gift of Giving", © 2005, is one of Olive's most popular and read syndicated columns.
The Inner Bottom Line®
A Syndicated Column on Personal Choices & Ethical Dilemmas
“The Gift of Giving”
December 11, 2005
I’ve always admired people good at giving gifts. My mother was like that but I’m not. I don’t know how she seemed to know what all of us in the family wanted. She even nailed it with friends every time. I’m hopeless. I try to find out what my kids or husband want, but then Christmas comes, I walk into a store and everything goes out of my head and I don’t know where to start. We don’t have a lot of money. Doesn’t that make it harder? What do you tell people to do in cases like this? Is it right to spend money on something just to have a wrapped box to give on Christmas morning? All of the fun has gone out of the holiday for me and now that we have two children, it’s all stress and no enjoyment. I read your book and you talk a lot about the price we have to pay. Is this what you meant? If so, then what do I do? How can I change things? My kids expect presents, but I hate walking around feeling guilty the rest of the year knowing I’ve disappointed them again. I’m stressed about this and just a mom trying to do it right and feeling I keep failing. Please help?
With the holiday’s pending arrival it seems you’ve joined the ranks of stressed moms paying too high a price to be perfect and do the right thing. No wonder you’re experiencing guilt and anxiety. While those emotions can overtake us any time we feel we’re not doing enough, at Christmas the burden can become humongous. So let’s take some deep breaths, get you oxygenated, and then tackle this dilemma and find some options.
The holidays traditionally exacerbate numerous explosive issues around family, boundaries and gifting that would stress anyone out. And yes, not having a lot of disposable income adds another heavy load on top of any shopping spree, making us feel every choice is critical without room for error.
But at the heart of your stress lies an immense, all-year-round issue. The art and gift of giving. I’ve covered it before and during my November workshop devoted to coping with holiday stress, this issue came up again and again cloaked in various situations and emotions. The pressure of gifting, the expense of it, and in particular, the confusion, annoyance, even depression and anger associated with having to do it is endemic.
In our materialistic, possession-driven culture, it helps to draw a solid line and place giving on one side and obligation on the other. In the middle are choice and expectation. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position when gifting is mere obligation, sometimes a small, but important polite gesture. It’s still a choice. At times like those, a small token like a jar of jam or a bottle of wine can serve nicely as a considerate gesture of appreciation.
However, I suspect your sense of success or failure until now has been gauged by how well you’ve been able to meet other’s expectations and that pressure causes you to tailor your choices to fit those perceptions rather than respect your wallet and desire to give. That’s a scenario that can spell disaster where no one ends up satisfied.
Let’s consider changes that could emotionally lighten your load. The first is to amend or discard your internal perception of trying to do things like your mom. Once you’re able to let go of that unrealistic and unfair expectation, there will be room to adjust the act of gifting so it works for you and fulfills the dreams of those you love the most.
Next, it’s essential to deal with the issue of cost. Not having lots of income has a huge impact on outcomes and it makes no sense at all to go into debt later to please someone now. The old cliché “it’s not the gift but the thought that counts” may be sincere, but today, in our consumer-driven market, that’s sadly not always the case. Today it’s about bigger is better, what’s in and what’s out, and grabbing the newest techno-wizardry even if you don’t need it.
You also carry a more critical responsibility. You have children. All of your actions teach and send messages they’ll carry forward as adults. Are these the messages you want to preserve? Perhaps this would be an ideal time for some honest dialogue and joint decisions that would leave you all enriched emotionally and fiscally preserved as well as teach them to give from the heart rather than the pocketbook. That invaluable gift can change lives.
For instance, here are several simple ideas that might change the entire dynamic of how you all experience holidays. First, there’s no need to spend money on cards and wrappings any time of year. Homemade trappings put together from things we discard everyday would not only suffice beautifully but also teach them values that will last for years. Also, discussing the family Christmas budget with them and making a joint decision that no one will spend more than a certain amount for each person’s gift could take a huge amount of pressure off of everyone. That rule would apply to everything except for one special gift each child would receive from you.
And how can you find out what that one thing might be? You might consider having the children keep a “wish list” throughout the year of anything they’d like for birthdays or Christmas based on an understanding that while they’ll only receive a few things listed, it’s healthy to dream and ask. This would help you keep track of what they really want and also give them a learning tool on refining choices.
Christmas wasn’t intended to be a retailing nightmare. That’s a concept created by businesses for profits that we’ve bought into it for too long. That’s a choice, too, and a perfect example of “the good life” I take on in my book, for it creates a high price too many of us have been willing to pay and from which you’re now suffering unacceptably. So it’s time for change.
However, a small word of caution. There will be some whom you will never satisfy. While for some receiving a gift is more about the surprise and being remembered than about the object, there are others more spoiled who expect to receive, and no matter what you give, your gift will probably fall short of their fantasy. It’s your responsibility to sort those folks out and cross them off your list for good.
Gifting is a gesture of the heart not the wallet. You have a chance to remind yourself and teach your children the difference this year. Rather than choosing infuriating, pointless debt, you have the opportunity to approach this holiday from a different perspective and make it one of thoughtfulness, joy, humor and appreciation. It may take practice to get it to where it feels comfortable and good for you, but I can assure you that it’s more than worth the effort. I send you and your loved ones my warmest wishes for a joyous, healthy holiday season!