The first Christmas after I was married, my new mother-in-law gave me a steam iron for Christmas.
“Now you can do a better job ironing my son’s shirts,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said through gritted teeth.
The gift was a hint about as subtle as a brick thrown at my head. She wasn’t at all happy with my attitude that a man who wants ironed shirts should iron them himself. I wasn’t about to change my position because of a shiny new iron. Battle lines were drawn.
That was when I was 20. From my perspective as a mature adult, I can rewrite my story. My mother-in-law was coming from a pre-feminist world. From her point of view, she might have been trying to help me become a good wife as she understood the role. Whichever narrative is the truth, it was a gift gone wrong.
Gifts always send a message, regardless of whether that’s the intention. They reflect something about the relationship between the giver and receiver, their values and their circumstances. Does the gift show that the giver chose the gift with care or was it something that could be given to just anyone? Is there an undercurrent of tension between them or a deeply felt sense of knowing? Is the gift an attempt to correct or one-up someone else in the family? Or is it a generous act of kindness? It depends. It’s not the object that sends the message, it’s the context.
A gift certificate for ballroom dance lessons, for example, will be felt as special by a guy who wants them. But it’s a hurtful gesture if given by the sister who fears her brother’s dance moves will embarrass her at her wedding.
In some families, the aunt who gives an expensive anatomically correct doll to her niece will be seen as enlightened and thoughtful. In other families, she would be seen as pushing her agenda on the more conservative mother of the child. A donut machine will be received as a fun gift by someone who loves to bake and who has no food issues. But if the receiver struggles with her weight and is gluten-free, you have to wonder just what was the giver thinking?