The trouble started on the day before Mother's Day.
"Am I supposed to give you something tomorrow?" my husband, Bill, asked. "Of course not," I said. "I'm not your mother."
But I was hiding one tiny fact: I wanted a present anyway. A box of chocolate truffles, say. Or jewelry. Or maybe even something Bill had made for me. Most of all, I wanted him to read my mind, know that I would love one of those things, and produce it the next morning.
I felt like a jerk for wanting one thing and saying another. I told myself to grow up. If Bill gave me nothing for Mother's Day, he would simply be respecting what he thought were my wishes. A man who respects me: What more could I want?
A present, that's what. All the next day—the day—I kept hoping. When Bill left the living room to take a shower, I pictured him in our bedroom, wrapping. When he went outside to get the newspaper, I imagined he was in fact dragging my present from the garage, where he'd been storing it because it was just too darn big to hide in the house. He wasn't. By lunchtime, nothing could fully distract me from Bill's lapse—not even when 13-month-old Davey pointed at me and said "Mama!" for the first time.
My secret tumbled out a few hours later. The three of us were running errands when Davey bumped his head on a store counter. "I thought you were watching him!" Bill said—loudly. And despite all the people shopping nearby, or maybe because of them, I hit a new low: "Most men are taking their wives out to brunch today," I shot back, just as loudly, "and you're yelling at me in Kmart!"
On the ride home, Bill apologized for his outburst. "Well," I admitted, "I shouldn't have said what I said either. I can't have it both ways: I can't tell you I don't want anything for Mother's Day and then be mad at you when you don't get me anything."
"So you're saying you really did want me to buy you a present?"
"Yeah," I said, embarrassed.
The next day, wondering if I was alone in my Mother's Day neediness, I polled a few moms I know. One said she was glad her husband hadn't given her a present: "It means I don't have to worry about getting him one for Father's Day." But the others all said they had wanted, or even expected, Mother's Day gifts from their husbands. Never mind that some of their kids were old enough to make presents themselves.
"Why do we care so much if the guys give us something?" I wondered. My friend Sara, whose husband gave her a gift certificate for a spa massage, put it best: "We like to feel appreciated." After all, we tend to do the lion's share of kid care, from breastfeeding babies to carpooling Cub Scouts. Mother's Day presents from our husbands help show us that they recognize this.
Little Things Mean a Lot
A few minutes after I hung up with Sara, I discovered a clean disposable diaper wrapped around something on the floor outside my study. The diaper had been written on in ballpoint pen. "Dear Mama," it said. "Hapy Muthers Day! Dady was suppozd to giv this tu yu yesterday, butt he scrued up." Inside was a pair of earrings.
Even as I oohed and aahed over them, though, I had the uneasy feeling that Bill really shouldn't have bought them. Sure, they were pretty—and I was wild about the cute wrap job. But I'd obviously coerced him into it. What was worse, I realized, I no longer even wanted a Mother's Day gift. How in the world could this be? I thought back to the evening before.
When we got home from our trip to Kmart, Bill had hugged me. "I'm sorry I didn't get you a Mother's Day gift," he said. Soon after that, he announced that he would give Davey his bath and put him to bed, and told me that I should just take some time for myself and relax. I happily had a snack and wrote in my journal.
So, 24 hours later, it dawned on me that Bill's gesture was a whole lot more than just an apology for not giving me a present or treating me to an elaborate brunch. It was also his way of saying he knew how hard I worked as a mom and that I deserved a break. It was exactly the sort of recognition Sara was talking about. No wonder I felt guilty about the earrings: I'd already received a lovely present from Bill. I told him so.
"You mean you don't like the earrings?" he asked in disbelief. "Am I still in the doghouse?"
"No! I love the earrings. They're beautiful. It's just that I don't need a tangible present from you to feel like you appreciate me."
"Okay, then, so for next Mother's Day, I should just give you something intangible again?"
"That's right," I said. "Though if you also want to throw in a box of champagne truffles, believe me—I won't complain."
Melissa Balmain is the author of Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter.