Rob York was no more than 11 years old when he realised 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.
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 York, a 48-year-old executive. "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 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. "It's always been an issue for me."
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," 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, 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."
Where's the receipt?
Charity Wilkinson-Truong, a clinical psychologist, 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. 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, 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," 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 Gomez, 44. "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," 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."
Tom Parker, a 50-year-old art dealer, 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 favour," 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."
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The New York Times