Care and Feeding

My Mother Frets About Money Whenever I Buy Her Gifts

Finances have been tight her whole life.

Hands holding out a small gift box.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Anastasiia Korotkova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

For the last 20-plus years, starting when I was a tween, I’ve been in charge of handling Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day for my mom because my dad just couldn’t care less. This year, he totally forgot her birthday and didn’t even acknowledge it, and then he spent weeks talking about all this stuff he wanted to do for his own birthday. It really bothers her that he doesn’t step up. When Christmas rolled around, I’d had enough; I bought all of her gifts and took credit for doing so, as opposed to pretending some of them were from my father. He didn’t care at all.

Mom is now worried that she is taking advantage of me financially. I’m single and very financially stable. I’m doing this because I want to, and I want her to be celebrated on these occasions. Money has been tight her whole life. She kept our family going by scrimping and saving every penny, plus working hard, so when she saw that I spent $300 on her at Christmas, she started stressing out (she actually spent about that much on me, but that logic didn’t help alleviate her guilt). Any advice on how I can help her see that I’m doing this because I love her, and to help her realize that she can’t be taking advantage of me when buying her a bunch of presents was my idea in the first place?

—Just for Mom

Dear JfM,

I think it is great that you are making a point to give your mother presents as an expression of your love for her. It is possible that your abundant giving further forces her to confront your dad’s refusal to put forth any effort to make her happy during a time when most people are, at the very least, willing to pretend to care about celebrating their partners. Either way, many parents struggle to let their children spend money on them, as it’s counter to the sort of relationship they have had with them from birth: She takes care of you, not the other way around—until one day that dynamic changes to be less binary or, perhaps, simply reversed.

Continue celebrating your mother while kindly reminding her that you are in a financial position to do so—due in great part to her lifelong investment in you—and that for you, gifting to her is also a gift to yourself. You aren’t trying to make up for your father’s slacking—OK, perhaps you are, but you’d still want to give her nice things anyway, right?—so no need to make this about him when you discuss it with her. Purchase things you know that she will enjoy and, most importantly, use. If she is uninterested in extravagant luxuries, don’t get her those simply because she has not been in a position to buy them for herself. What might she buy herself if cost was not a factor? Go for those things, ideally stuff she’ll enjoy on her own and that won’t benefit your dad, because he definitely does not deserve any presents. (I’d totally have accepted that he may have grown up unable to celebrate holidays or that maybe he was just clueless, but the fact that he celebrates his own birthday is just … don’t buy him shit, seriously.)

—Jamilah