My Mother is Hard to Please

Image Each year I return to the US to spend the holidays with my mother, a widow, who lives in the Midwest. Usually one of my two brothers joins us. But buying my mother a Christmas present is a nightmare for me. I spend hours shopping for something special from Paris, but I never seem to get it right. Last summer, I found gifts from previous years stashed in the attic – one still in its original wrapping paper. In contrast, she oohs and aahs over my brother’s gifts. My feelings have been hurt so many times… Do you think I should confront her, this Christmas?

A Gift giving is a thorny issue indeed. We all want to feel that we understand the tastes and preferences of our family members, that we make good choices, and that our presents are appreciated. There’s often a sense of dread as yuletide approaches in that we must once more second-guess our loved ones and attempt to show our affection through the surprises we select. And, alas, it does happen that if we misfire, the receiver takes it as an affront and reacts accordingly.

From the way you describe your mother’s behavior, I’m tempted to place it in the larger context of her relationship with you and with her extended family. You’re clearly doing everything in your power to honor your mother. You return home faithfully to keep her company; you dedicate a good deal of time and thought and probably money to what might please her, and yet she ignores not only the gifts you bear, but also your loving intentions. In contrast, she reacts with almost exaggerated enthusiasm to the equivalent from your brothers.

I can’t help wondering if the pattern which displays itself in the gift-giving realm isn’t, in fact, a sort of metaphor for your family system as a whole. It sounds as though your mother is very involved with her two sons, but emotionally detached from you – even occasionally dismissive – without ever being overtly conflictual. This bespeaks a mother-daughter disturbance, which might even have got started within an earlier generation. Could your grandmother have been the victim of circumstances, which prevented her from bonding with her own daughter? Or did something happen to your mother, which thwarted a successful early bonding experience with you? When a child senses pervasive distance from a parent, he or she often wrongly assumes blame, and runs him or herself ragged trying to close the gap. Your perpetual attempts to find the perfect gift fit right into that schema.

If this hypothesis fits, don’t attempt any confrontation. That’s another approach to gap-closing, in that you would want your mother to acknowledge your pain and do things differently. Such an approach might well work in an involved relationship even where conflict exists, but in the climate of detachment, which you describe – I think your mother would simply deny the accusations or find excuses, and you would be left feeling empty. She’s probably doing the best she can. My advice is to let go of your hope for recognition or gratitude, practice doing one-stop shopping, and focus on getting from her what you know that she CAN give. I’m sure there is something!

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.