Please, Mom, please: Not another dress shirt!

Every year for 30 years she sends me the same thing for Christmas. Will it ever end?

Published October 27, 2005 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I could make this a very long letter, with many examples of puzzling (disturbing?) behavior on the part of my wealthy parents, who are still going strong as 80-somethings, but I'm not going to. Instead, I'm going to ask you about one particular behavior that I am hoping will act like a Rosetta stone, allowing me to translate all of their other, um, "interesting" behaviors into a language I can understand. I myself am pushing 50 and not doing very well. Underemployed, alone, trust issues, depressed (too working poor for anything remotely resembling insurance or disposable income, so please don't suggest counseling), etc.

So here it is: Every single Christmas my mother gives me a dress shirt and a tie. Thirty years ago I had a job for which I had to dress nicely. The shirts got worn, even though like many guys I hate getting clothes as a gift. (Give me a gadget!) For years I said, "Please don't get me a shirt. I don't wear them, I don't need them." And yet, every single year there it is in its predictable rectangular box (though to be fair, sans tie for the last decade or so). I have a stack of shirts, still in their boxes. I finally gave up. Still, the shirts come. Recently, my sister even told my mom not to get me a shirt. Still, they come. What's up with that? Why would a parent insist on giving their child something he has repeatedly told them he doesn't want and doesn't need? And particularly, if my mom has a narcissistic personality disorder as I suspect (all signs point to Rome), what does this behavior mean?

Not Another Shirt, Please

Dear Not Another Shirt,

The thing about truly self-absorbed people is that the presents they give you are not gifts. They are burdens for you to carry or tasks for you to perform. Here is a lovely umbrella. Now hold it over me as I walk. Here is a lovely shirt. You do not like it? That does not matter. You are only a reflection of me.

It is customary for all sorts of parents, not just the terribly self-absorbed, to mark holidays by choosing a commercially available object of relative anonymity (something whose utility though limited is also unquestioned and whose applicability to one's own life though marginal cannot be utterly disproved -- who, for instance, does not wear socks?) and wrapping it in colorful paper, packaging it in sturdy cardboard and placing it in the hands of a uniformed courier who deposits it in a mailbox or on a doorstep, quietly and anonymously, like a tooth fairy leaving a coin under your pillow while you sleep.

If the parents are very busy people, they may employ not only a courier but some kind of secretarial help to choose the objects and make sure no holiday is overlooked. The wealthy and self-absorbed parent, intent on wasting as little time as possible on others, might find it attractive to automate or outsource the entire process. So your mother, while having initially decided that your annual gift would be a shirt, may not even be aware, at her age, that this process she set into motion long ago continues with such absurd repetitiveness.

Nonetheless, the objects one chooses can be quite revealing.

The shirt, for instance, may be said to be the sartorial equivalent of the face, while the pants are the sartorial equivalent of the body. The shirt is pride, money, position; the pants are vigor, authority, power. When we talk of power we talk of who wears the pants; when we talk of money we talk of losing the shirt. The shirt is also about self-control and status.

So by sending you a shirt your mother may be saying, Maintain control, maintain your place in society, go out and get a job, make something of yourself -- a magical incantation repeated yearly so that you will not degenerate into a raving, shirtless man.

If she is narcissistic, she only says it because you reflect poorly on her. If she is as self-involved as you indicate, the yearly shirt may only be an infuriating diversion from the fact of her lifelong neglect.

But the fact that you protest and never wear the shirt is beside the point: The point is that she knows her son has a clean shirt and thus need never leave the warm embrace of your social class. You may be the penniless remittance man, disappointment to all, shivering in shamefully reduced circumstances but possessed always of this one necessity: A clean shirt.

Perhaps you wish she would finally give you something truly of herself -- that is what the self-absorbed do to us, they taunt us, they tempt us, they fill us with hunger. But most likely you must content yourself with this routine annual inscription on the cold heavens: a shirt for Christmas, commemorating a miraculous birth but one that, if she has a truly inflated sense of her own importance, may remind her of her own act of giving birth. In fact, perhaps every Christmas she feels an ancient twinge at the torment your arrival caused her, as, in perhaps her life's only truly selfless gesture (in which by that point she of course had no choice), she issued you forth into the world -- shirtless.

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