December 5, 2016
Rob York was no more than 11 years old when he realized how terrible his father was when it came to buying gifts for his mother. One Christmas, it was a camera. The next, a handbag. He got used to watching his father’s awkwardness and his mother’s disappointment.
Mr. York vowed to do better. But each year, he finds himself trying to find exactly the right thing for friends and family, which, he said, has put a strain on him.
“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”
In the stereotype, indifference or ham-handed ineptitude is at the root of a man’s difficulty when it comes to the ritual of gift giving. But no one wants the reaction Homer Simpson got when, in the first season of “The Simpsons,” he gave his wife, Marge, a bowling ball — with his name etched on it — for her birthday.
For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.
“I have it as bad as anyone,” said Lin Borkey, a web designer who lives outside Richmond, Va. “It’s always been an issue for me.”
Mr. Borkey, 53, traced his problem to an event from childhood. It happened one Christmas Eve in a drugstore, where he watched a panicked man pulling anything and everything from the shelves with his daughter watching. With each thing he grabbed, he asked, “Do you think she will like it?”
“It was just the desperation that he had that made me have empathy for him,” Mr. Borkey said. “For some reason, it stuck with me my entire life, the stress that I knew he was feeling. Now I always second-guess myself, even if I have the right thing in my hand. Rarely have I had a gift where I felt I nailed it.”
As a result, Mr. Borkey and his wife stopped exchanging gifts a number of years ago. But this year, he said, they may go back to it. “I feel like it’s something I need to continue to work on,” he said. “Because getting more and more stressed about this is not sustainable.”
Charity Wilkinson-Truong, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey, said that feelings of inadequacy are common in a culture that tends to correlate a gift with the devotion of the person giving it: “If you give something and don’t get the reaction you want, you ask yourself, ‘What does this mean for our relationship?’ even if nothing’s wrong.”
That kind of thinking is typical for Adam Dorn, 46, a jazz musician and composer in Los Angeles. Last Christmas, he bought his wife a necklace from Tiffany, which led to a response he said he has gotten before: That was nice; now let me have the receipt so I can get something I really want.
While his wife always shrugs off the whole thing, knowing he has good intentions, Mr. Dorn still fears her disappointment, even when there isn’t any.
“It’s like I’m trying to find a problem and she is not creating it,” Mr. Dorn said. “I want her to be excited when I give her something, and really overjoyed. And when she doesn’t respond like that, I ask her, ‘Am I in trouble?’ And she says: ‘Why would you think that way? Why would you be in trouble?’”
Nestor Gomez has a different problem when it comes to gifts. During childhood Christmases, he and his three siblings, who along with their parents had immigrated from Guatemala to Chicago, received clothing or other practical items. The notion of tearing open wrapping paper to find something from Hasbro or Sony was not part of his experience.
“My father always said something like, ‘Money is always tight and you have to be smart with your money, and you are going to spend your money in a good way,’” said Mr. Gomez, 44, who works in quality control at a Chicago manufacturing plant. “I always look at the practical side of the gifts. He took the magic and joy out of it, I guess, because he taught me that when you give a gift, it has to be a practical gift.”
“It made me not a good gift giver,” Mr. Gomez added. “I have never really been a really good gift giver and have a hard time when someone gives me something. It’s usually a really awkward situation for me.”
Steve Ellis, a 45-year-old graphic novelist, has come to realize he is tone-deaf when it comes to gift giving. His go-to present for his wife used to be flowers, which seems nice — if you ignore the fact that she has made her living as a gardener and landscape designer.
No matter the occasion, and no matter how hard he tries, Mr. Ellis said, his attempts usually end in disaster. He thinks of the days before Christmas as a time of “absolute terror and dread.”
Part of the problem, he said, may have to do with his profession. He works alone and must live inside his own head, which can leave him disconnected from the real world. He added that he is also ill at ease when receiving presents.
“I never know what to do,” Mr. Ellis said. “I’m flabbergasted that they thought of it. I feel guilty for not thinking of giving something back.”
Tom Parker, a 50-year-old art dealer in Brooklyn, had the misfortune of finding gift-giving success from the start. When he started dating the woman who would become his wife, she told him about an outfit that she loved but had left behind in a cab. After much homework, he managed to track down the same one and give it to her for Christmas.
“With that one gesture, I think I won the prize for not only being in tune with what she wanted, but achieved a level of thoughtfulness that worked in my favor,” Mr. Parker said. “These are the boxes guys feel like they have to check. Ever since then, I’ve held myself to that standard and never quite attained it.”
Over a decade later, he makes it a point to pay attention to her style and taste. But sometimes he feels as if he is chasing the ghost of his younger self.
“Back then I had nothing but time,” Mr. Parker said. “Thirteen years into a marriage, with two kids, we are tired, and all the extra money is going to the kids, and that kind of romance is a little more elusive. You are just trying to do something nice for your spouse, but you don’t have that opportunity to be your best self.
“There is that feeling, particularly when nothing comes to mind of what to get, of: ‘Am I fresh out of ideas here? Do I not know my wife well enough to know what she wants this year? Am I not as in tune?’ You want to still believe you can sweep her off her feet every now and then on special occasions. But right when you are in the throes of a young family, it’s a lot harder to do the sweeping.”
For the record, there have been some notable misses, including, he said, that Christmas he gave his wife the Marie Kondo book “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.”
Same with the paper shredder from Staples.