Dear Prudence

Help! I Hate the Gifts My Mother Insists on Buying for Me.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

Graphics of gift boxes and a woman clutching the sides of her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by aetb/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

I have a poor single mom who loves gift-giving and is terrible at it. Growing up, she would scrimp and save to buy Christmas gifts I would inevitably hate but pretend to like so as not to hurt her feelings. I have tried to ask her to use her money for necessities or donate to charity, but she insists on buying me gifts. When I got accepted to college, she bought me a $200 poorly-fitting (to the point of being inappropriate) dress, and I cried for hours in my room.

Now I’m a grad student in a tiny apartment, and I don’t have space for my necessities, never mind expensive stuff that my mom can’t afford and that I don’t want. I know I’m being ungrateful, but I’m sick of feeling so distressed around the holidays. Is there a way to get her to stop without hurting her feelings?

— Guilty Gift-Hater

Dear Gift-Hater,

When I shared your letter on Twitter, a lot of people suggested firmly telling your mother to stop. I’m not so sure that would make you feel good. You two obviously love each other a lot, and you care about her and don’t want to deprive her of the experience of giving you a gift.

Others said you should give her a list of things you really want and need. But I think if your family had a wish-list culture, you would already be doing that. For some people, specific requests work fine. But for others, this approach can feel kind of transactional and impersonal. It sounds like your mom might be the type of person who wants the present she gives you to feel thoughtful and special.

I agree with those who, like @jannatesq, don’t think you’re going to stop her from spending money altogether:

I’m sure her mom feels like she doesn’t want her daughter to feel deprived of a loving gift from her mom, and her way to do that is to buy an expensive gift. I would start with that point in the conversation and acknowledge that your mom wants to do something special for you … I don’t think it is going to work to tell the mom not to get you anything or spend the money on herself.

So the goal should be to get more bang for her buck—for both of you!—from the money she insists on spending.

Readers shared some good ideas to achieve this. The best approaches allow you to pick something for yourself—either an actual item, a meal or an experience—with the added benefit of a special day together, and the reminder that you really value your time with your mom.

(Assuming they otherwise have a good relationship) “Mom, the best present that you could give me is more time with you. Why don’t you take me out for a nice dinner instead of buying me a present?” This doesn’t address the fact that mom might be spending $$ she shouldn’t on the gift, but at least alleviates the guilt of hating the present and not having a place to put it. And daughter can always pick a reasonably priced location and order carefully. “Nice” is subjective. — @BeerandPie

I realize the daughter feels guilty about her mother spending her money this way, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop. The mom wants to treat her kid, and clearly for her gifting is an act of love. So let it be a special thing, to pick something together. — @JillFilipovic

My mom would do the same exact thing. I finally changed the tradition I would set a day aside and go “Christmas shopping” with her and she would pick her gift and I would pick mine and I would pay for it-We would both open up our gifts on Santa Claus morning with our entire family — @MJLDeb

I’d suggest telling your mom that you’d really love to put gift resources towards having experiences with her instead of gifts - focus on making memories instead of getting stuff. It’s pretty easy to say that the last couple years has made you reevaluate what’s important in life. — @feeleyst

I think you should present these suggestions as something you’re excited about, rather than a way around her buying you expensive gifts that you don’t like. And I hope the result is that you avoid poorly-fitting clothing and maybe also start a holiday tradition that you actually enjoy.

Classic Prudie

Since my brother and I were little, we’ve spent Christmas Eve at home with our parents. When my brother got married, he and his wife continued the tradition and came over to exchange gifts. But a couple of years ago everything changed, because my sister-in-law’s parents and siblings came over saying they were just there to drop off gifts, but they stayed the whole evening. I was incredibly uncomfortable, because they’re complete strangers to me (except for one of the siblings, whom I knew from high school and never got along with, which only makes it worse!). The next year, my sister-in-law invited all of us to Christmas Eve at her house, so yet another year I was uncomfortable. Now she plans to host again, and not only am I dreading it, but I’m so mad about it that it makes me cry. Christmas Eve has been ruined! Am I wrong for not wanting to spend the evening with my brother’s in-laws? Should I just learn to accept it, or should I stop celebrating Christmas Eve?