Giving Gifts Out of Guilt
When working parents travel, they often bring home gifts. Read one mother's account.My first business trip gift to my son was a lukewarm bag of breast milk. Frankly, it should have been at least a half a dozen bags, but only one survived my 10-hour odyssey home from a conference in San Francisco. After three days of strategically hand pumping in cubicles and restrooms across the Bay area and carefully chilling my mammary contents, I lost all but one bag after violent puncture wounds caused them to explode on a New York City subway during my last leg home.
When I saw a puddle of milk flooding around the feet of my fellow subway riders, I wanted to cry. It was hard enough to leave my infant for a work trip; the guilt gripped my core. But then to have him subsist on formula - that seemed downright negligent. My pumping was for both of us. Yes, it was the nectar of antibodies for my son. But for me it helped relieve the excruciating guilt of leaving my baby. At the very least, I was keeping the milk flowing. We both needed that.
But that was nine years ago. Today when I travel for work I usually come home armed with some sort of gift for my kids. When they were younger I tried to keep it literary. I bought picture books to read to them. I'd visit independent bookstores in Seattle, Austin and Minneapolis, hunting for a unique book. I'd also swing by the airport Borders if I had no time. When I'd walk in the door after a few nights away, I'd enthusiastically exclaim, "I brought you books!"
That worked for my son who always loved the novelty of an undiscovered story. But my younger daughter wanted Beanie Babies or something furrier. Her disappointment was palpable and made me feel even worse about leaving.
So the gifts turned into stuffed animals and candy or a combination of both until my daughter told me that on the next trip she would prefer me to come home with some clothes, "something a little funky," she said.
"The gifts have to stop," I told my husband after my daughter sulked when I came home from Park City with a few t-shirts. My trips were becoming more stressful as I hunted for the perfect homecoming presents.
My husband also travels though he is not nearly as diligent in bringing gifts unless he goes overseas. He usually just "forgets" to pick up something for the kids. But he is also not wracked with guilt for leaving them. I, on the other hand, would rather miss my flight than return without the goods. I've even been known to stop at Target in advance of a trip, just to have something fun to give them when I walk through the door.
But experts say this may not be the best tactic. In a recent New York Times article about traveling parents and guilt, Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture," warns that too much gift giving can do more harm than good.
"'The child gets into the power seat, and that results in worse behavior ultimately. It leads to the gimmies. And when gifts become ordinary and expected, they don't function so well in creating that positive experience.'"
Other experts suggest that if a present is given, it's small and is related to the place where the parent visited. This makes sense. But when kids are no longer excited to get those snow globes from San Jose or a stuffed monkey from Memphis, it can feel impossible to now not only satisfy your kids but also assuage your own angst.
My rule now is that gifts only come if I am away for more than two nights and then they are something small. Clothes are off the list. When Crazy Bandz were all the rage last year, they were the perfect present AND they were readily found in airport gift shops. This year, I'm not sure what I'll pick up. I'm just hoping that I don't spend more than two nights away from home - then I can come home empty handed and not feel so guilty.
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