Dear Captain Awkward,
Howdy. I’m 26 and currently living with my mother. She likes to buy gifts for people. Sometimes I come home from work and there will be a little present on my bed, like a little stuffed pug. It’s cute, and I appreciate the thought, but I have no space for a stuffed pug. What am I going to do with it? I literally don’t have room for it on a shelf or something.
A few months ago we were shopping together and she wanted to buy me a suitcase. I told her the trip I had been going on in a year had been canceled. She showed me a brightly colored suitcase with elephants all over it that cost $80. I said it was cute, but not my style. The next week, she had a surprise for me. She had bought me that suitcase.
Today I came home from work and she had several gifts for me. She had bought me a clothes hamper. I already own a clothes hamper, which I showed to her. She said she didn’t see it there, but anyway this one is bigger. That means it wouldn’t fit where I keep my hamper. She said this one has wheels on it. I live up a flight of stairs. She also bought me a big metal tumbler to take to work – I don’t carry refillable tumblers because I always forget them places, and they make the water taste weird, and my job actually just gave me one with the company logo on it this afternoon – and a portable phone charger – I already own one. I did not list the Reasons I Don’t Want The Things. I just thanked her for all the things.
I love my mom, and I know I’m so lucky to have someone who cares enough about me and has the funds to buy me presents at Target while I’m at work. But I do not want the things she is giving me. I can’t use them. I don’t have space to keep them anywhere. And I can’t give them to people who would want them because I live in her house. How do I curb the gifting without hurting her feelings?
Curbing the gift-giving will almost certainly hurt, or at least bother, her feelings, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You’re not obligated to live your life under a pile of her stuff/feelings. And there are potentially a lot of feelings here, from wanting to mother and care for you to wanting to choose things based on her idea of you mixed with wanting an excuse to buy things and telling herself that it’s for her kid gives her license to shop (I will not even hazard a guess as to the ratio in play here).
Next time she buys you something, you could say “Mom, thanks for thinking of me, but I can’t use it.”
She will explain how it’s great and you totally can use it either now or “someday.”
“Mom, let me rephrase: I like the one I have now, and I don’t want or need this one. But if you can use it, you should keep it.”
This will be very awkward and hard. You will be under a lot of pressure to keep/take/hold onto whatever it is. She might get very agitated and accuse you of being ungrateful for how much she cares for you. You might have to say something like, “Mom, I understand it means a lot to you to give me things, but I know that you also taught me to be thoughtful about space and money and to be honest with you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I also don’t want another [elephant suitcase/laundry hamper that doesn’t fit my room]. How can we resolve this?”
She’s probably hearing “I don’t need an insulated soup mug” as “I don’t need you, Mom.” That can be both true and not your fault at the same time. It’s okay to be really honest with her about how all of this makes you feel. “You are so thoughtful and loving, and when you buy me presents I know you want to communicate that you were thinking of me and are taking care of me. But what I need right now is for you to listen to me and to respect me – I don’t need or want more stuff right now. I’d rather…
- …see you buy nice presents for yourself!”
- …spend that money on experiences we can enjoy together – a theater or concert subscription, or save up for a nice trip we can take together.
- …find a charity that’s doing good work and buy all the stuff on their wish list.”
- …pop a little more money into savings so that when I’m ready to get my own place you can help me deck it out in style!”*
- …have you write me a sweet note or card instead.”
- …pick out my own [suitcases, etc.]“
Whatever she says, to make this work long-term, you’re going to have to have a plan for what to do if she just won’t take whatever it is back or stop buying you things. It’s fine to communicate that you have a boundary, but if you don’t enforce it the other person will ignore it. You say “And I can’t give them to people who would want them because I live in her house” but I think it’s time to reexamine that, because you also can’t keep it all in your room! Repeat after me: Once a gift is given it is yours to do with what you want.
I recommend returning the item to a space that is primarily your mom’s and leaving it (and her feelings) there. You might have to let things awkwardly pile up there for her to either absorb into her life or return to the store. Or you can return it to the store for cash or store credit (that you should feel free to quietly hold onto), or absolutely re-gift it/donate it somewhere it can be used. And you will have to be consistent, like, a thing you can’t use => say “thanks, but I can’t use it/don’t want it” => put it in the usual place you put stuff you can’t use. If she doesn’t like seeing the hall closet fill up with stuff she bought you, or she gets mad when you donate that elephant suitcase to someone who can use it, maybe over time she will stop buying you stuff you don’t need? We can hope.
*If gift-giving is your mom’s favorite way of showing she loves you, if you get your own place eventually it will be both a relief and a new front in this battle, as she starts trying to fill your new house up with stuff and your tastes and wants are pushed aside in favor of hers. If you have kids someday, get ready for giant inconvenient gifts to them that fill up your house. I think you are going to end up donating a lot, and I mean A LOT, of housewares to local charitable organizations or taking them back to stores for a refund.
Good luck with talking to her. “I know you love me, but you’re not listening to me/seeing my actual needs” is a difficult, primal conflict to have with a parent and it’s bound to get a little bit messy for a while. This kind of thing is also hard to push back against, because to people who don’t know what it’s like to not be listened to or respected in the face of someone’s chosen style of showing love it sounds like good problem, like, “Oh, I wish my mom bought me presents! You’re so lucky!” You don’t have to listen to those people, or just keep accepting piles of stuff – it’s okay that you don’t like this and want it to change. Hopefully if you stay consistent you can curb at least some of it.