It's been months, but I can still see the therapist I was interviewing for my book shaking her head in bewilderment. I'd just described to her disconcerting stories I'd heard from a half-dozen women mortified by their problem of giving too much. "Where does it come from, this idea women have that, 'I have to take care of everybody?'" the therapist asked. "I see it so often I want to say it's from the cradle."
Maybe it is. My own giving is as unthinking as my nail-biting. Though I'd long been bewildered by my penchant for offering so much, writing a memoir forced me to dig deeply enough to realize that my over-giving was connected to the mysterious, decades-ago death of my brother at the hands of police in my Gary, Indiana, hometown. In 1977, I was immersed in grad school at the University of Michigan. The brother whose every move I'd known as a child was establishing a career 220 miles away. We became less close, as siblings often do while establishing adult lives. To this day, the circumstances of Darrell's slaying are inexplicable, and totally at odds with everything I knew about him. But I unconsciously decided that a tragedy so huge required someone besides the trigger-pulling police to share responsibility. Of course I chose me. I was consumed with guilt for having stopped checking in with him, counseling him, nurturing him. For leaving him vulnerable. Was my unwitting feeling of responsibility rational? No. Did I immediately start protecting, encouraging and doing all I could for the remaining men in my life? You bet I did.
The strange thing was, as I later discovered, I wasn't alone. While writing the book, "Brothers (and me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving," I met dozens of successful, outwardly independent women who whispered to me embarrassed stories of giving too much to their families, bosses, coworkers and kids. But mostly they lamented what they gave to men:
The fitness instructor who swore never to be like the mother she disdained for calling her dad "the king" as she lavished praise, attention and candlelit dinners on her father -- and who was astonished to find herself acting "like a servant girl" in her own marriage. The psychologist who marveled at the countless women patients who silently absorb all manner of mistreatment from men "out of fear of being called a bitch -- as if a 'bitch' is the worst thing in the world!" The researcher who recalled how happy she was with her messy apartment for the 13 years she lived alone -- and how obsessively neat she is today, sharing a home with a husband who feels little compunction to straighten up. "No matter what's on my plate, I see the dirty dishes, see the laundry that isn't put away," she said. Her husband sees only what must be taken care of -- for him.
At this time of year, especially, women can become overwhelmed by their own generosity. Though we all know men who rival Santa in their genius for giving, and women with hearts smaller than the pre-epiphany Grinch's, we also know this: Women are the world's most dependable -- and under-appreciated -- givers. And sometimes, we drive folks nuts with it.
I'll never forget the peculiar Christmas when I somehow found the thought of Yuletide shopping -- usually catnip to me -- repulsive. I could no longer stomach fighting for parking spaces -- an activity in which I was by then a black belt -- or stores' relentless pressure to buy. Suddenly I was seized by an inspiration: Handmade presents. I could create one-of-a-kind gifts!
So 'twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring--except me, still up at 4 a.m., elbow-deep in ribbons, feathers and seashells. Jaw clenched, I'd just put aside my accursed malfunctioning glue gun to paint a bank for my 10-year-old, one more gift to add to a pile that already included a hand-painted key-holder for my mom, personalized CD caddies for my teenage sons, a poem-inscribed stepstool for my sister-in-law, embellished jewel boxes and handmade ornaments for a half-dozen friends. Most were lovely. But nothing about my grim expression or hunched shoulders suggested Christmas cheer.
Recently, I was recalling my Mrs. Santa moment with fondness when a friend asked, "You're kidding, right?" She reminded me of the solitary hours I'd spent sequestered in my workroom, the endless visits to craft stores where I badgered equally obsessed women about the merits of harvest gold paint over autumn wheat. "You felt driven to create one masterpiece more gorgeous than the next," she said. "And you were driving everybody, including yourself, crazy."
Indeed. On Christmas Day, loved ones crowed over their gifts, presenting me with gorgeous paint sets to continue my new avocation. After New Year's Day, I stuffed them into a corner of a little-used closet. For months, I couldn't even look at them.
In the years since the revelation that my over-giving derives from my love for my brother, I've become less inclined to beat myself up for it. Interestingly, that awareness helps me to keep my giving in check, and to lovingly -- most of the time -- coax the guys in my life to give more as well.
Other women's paths to giving may be as hidden as mine. So this Christmas, I'm asking over-giving women to briefly stop obsessing about the umpteen relatives they still haven't bought presents for, and the parties requiring their homemade peppermint bark. I'd like them to pause and give themselves something: A break. To stop berating the giving that in many cases is lovely and hard-earned. Giving is a gift, a spiritual directive that softens the world's sharp edges. Women should embrace it -- then control it.
And for goodness sake, keep an extra glue gun around in case theirs gives out at 4 a.m.