THE SEASON OF ASKING
"It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along." - Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, at the Grace Hopper Celebration Of Women In Computing
In the family I grew up in, no holiday behavior was more rude or insulting than getting someone exactly what they’d asked for. It meant you put no time or energy into picking out a gift for them; you did no work. The Christmas request was supposed to be a jumping-off point, a suggestion that waved in the general direction of things that might be most well-received. Until the age of 25 or so, I thought that conventional wisdom meant everyone knew that a Christmas gift does three things:
- Demonstrates who a person is at their core, in their deepest heart.
- Demonstrates how much you care about that person.
- Declares, to the rest of the world, who that person is to you.
All of this was instilled by my mother, who still fondly recalls the year her second husband got her a pheasant-feather boa. I was her best friend, so of course I was the person with whom she critiqued every gift she received, and to whom she sighed with disappointment; there was always something that didn’t measure up to her idea of who someone else should think she was. Because of this, I grew up assuming that this was how everyone reacted to my gifts when my back was turned.
I had to learn to gift well out of sheer survival. And gift well I do; Leslie Knope has nothing on me. I’ve tracked down favorite chocolates from a woman’s childhood in India; I’ve talked to a wide swath of a person’s friends and acquaintances behind their back so that I could make an interactive game about that person’s impact on the world. When my niece was born, I crowdsourced pictures people took all over the world on the day of her birth and had it printed as a full-color, hardcover book with two copies — one for my brother and one for her when she gets older. Once, a friend called me in tears after opening a birthday present, and said: “No, this is good. I’m glad we got this out of the way. No gift either of us could give the other would ever be able to top this, so I can relax.”
But just like Superman has kryptonite, Iron Man has alcoholism, and Green Lantern has… stuff that’s yellow, this superpower has its downsides.
First of all: it turns out that not every person in the world has been trained by fucked-up childhood dynamics to be an excellent gift-giver. Most people are okay, which is okay, but when you’ve spent your life assuming that a gift is the totality of who you are and what you mean to another person, it’s hard to forgive your husband for getting you a salt cellar for your birthday. Worse, some people are uneven gifters, so receiving a scented candle the year after receiving an obscure token of a childhood memory can lead to weeks of crying and wondering when someone started hating you.
Second of all, you internalize a secret, toxic lesson: that the best way to ensure you never get something is to ask for it. All desires must stay locked in your secret heart of hearts, guarded intensely so that no one ever knows what it is you truly long for. Only then will someone stumble upon it accidentally. Or, you know, not.
In the broader, non-gifting context, these lessons bled out. I’d always been a giver because of that moment of transcendental joy on another person’s face when they unwrap something they never knew they’ve always wanted — but also because being a receiver seemed like a fixed game. I never asked for what I want, so I‘d get things I didn’t want that were devoid of meaning, and then I’d feel disappointed and unloved and alienated. So I resigned myself: my job on Earth was to be Someone Who Gives, the kind of person who never says no and never expects anything in return.
And wow, was I stubborn about that last part.
Refusing things — gifts, help, time, anything that costs someone something whether monetarily or otherwise — was a defense mechanism. It ensured no one ever disappointed me, because no one ever got the opportunity. It ensured I would never owe someone something. But most of all, it kept my secret desires safe; if someone got close to giving me something I needed, was that like asking? Did that mean I’d never get the real thing?
I got one of those transcendental gifts once, the kind of thing I never knew I always wanted. It was small and cheap and completely perfect. I sobbed for an hour, staring at it, my hands shaking.
The gift still means the world to me, but recieving it was the most terrifying moment of my life.
When Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, came under fire for suggesting that women shouldn’t ask for promotions or raises, it was considered naive and misogynist to even suggest that the wage gap could be solved by trusting that the system will notice and provide. This is a disgusting viewpoint, but it’s an ancient one: women give, and in return, men provide.
It’s funny how very different the connotations of those two words really are: when we think of gifts, we think of special, meaningful baubles wrapped up in colorful paper and tied with bows. Provisions, on the other hand, are rough and basic; MREs, cans and blankets stored in bomb shelters — the basics of what we need to survive. To ask for specific provisions would seem gauche. Winter is coming, why does it matter what color your blanket is?
Instead, we give — and in our hearts, we hope our providers know what it is we really need.
We do Christmas a little different in my household.
My first Christmas as a mom, my mother gave me advice: “Remember, shitty presents come from you, and all the good presents come from Santa.” Leaving aside the very obvious question of why the hell you’d ever give your kid a shitty present, that wasn’t a division of labor I was comfortable with.
Here’s what happens: the girls each tell me the one present they want from their parents, and the one present they want from Santa. I promise to email Santa so he’s in the loop, and that’s it. There are still surprises on Christmas — usually Santa sees a deal in the board game aisle at Target, or Mom realizes someone asked for a guitar but not a tuner. But the big surprise is always what the girls get for each other.
I’m not fully cured of my own gifting insanities, so I still think learning how to pick out and give a gift is a really important life skill. I sit down with each of my daughters and we talk about what we’ve noticed the other kid is interested in, and what things would make them smile.
And in recent years, they’ve started asking each other for things — in detail and in a wide variety of price points, just to be flexible.
I couldn’t be more proud.