young woman in snow

If I am the gift then people, jobs, and environments need to earn me. If I find myself someplace where I’m not treated like the gift, if nobody is excited to find me there, then I am in the wrong place.

By Holly Herring

When I was a small girl, I was taught that gifts were the ultimate prize.

If I behaved, if I ate my vegetables without making a face, if I cleaned up my toys, if I sat quietly in church, there would be gifts. Pretty soon after learning the association between my behavior and gifts I realized I was aiming too low. Walking quietly without grabbing boxes of cereal in the aisles of the grocery store would get me a rubber bouncy ball.

Now, I liked bouncy balls, they were cool, but there were better gifts out there. I knew this because of the Sears catalog. 

Discovering my mother’s Sears Catalog upped my gift game. Turning pages I saw so many opportunities to transform my bedroom into someplace I’d break all the rules just so I could get sent to it. I was suddenly obsessed with bedding.

I started looking at upscale toy boxes and bicycles. My imagination was overloaded with fantasies of lava lamps, star shaped, nightlights, and dragon sheets wrapped up with beautiful bows. My mother said that I should make a list and maybe, if I was really good, I’d receive them as gifts for Christmas. 

I tried so hard to be good.

I cleaned my room. I did the dishes without complaining. I drank my milk each morning and I hated milk.  I hadn’t started receiving gifts from the Sears catalog yet, but Christmas wasn’t that far away, not really.

When Christmas came and I had tried harder than ever to be good, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I counted sheep. I didn’t get out of bed for too many sips of water because I didn’t want to mess up my gift chances. My imagination ran wild at each sound I heard until I could see the sun rising outside my window.


House rules of Christmas stated that upon waking I could access the contents of my stocking and also whatever gifts were from “Santa” and were unwrapped—out in the open.

Peeking around the corner into the inner chamber of the Christmas Sanctuary that the living room had become caused my eyes to open very wide.

The dim Christmas tree lights provided just enough light to spot my stuffed stocking. “Excellent,” I thought to myself. My Christmas slippers announced my arrival with their scuff scuff scuffing along the wood floor as I approached the gifts scattered under the fragrant tree. 

This all sounds very upbeat to this point, but I assure you it was the last moment I can remember that I felt this optimistic about Christmas morning. I had been so good and the gifts I received were not what I had asked for. My mother explained that maybe I wasn’t quite as good as I thought. Maybe I had told a few fibs, not all my schoolwork had been completed, oh—she reminded me about times I hadn’t done exactly as she had asked.

I started to understand how a fantastic gift was always just out of reach for a girl like me. My mother took notice of this and she used it as a tool. 

I learned from a young age that my grades weren’t good enough, I dressed all wrong, I styled my hair disgustingly and I said things that embarrassed my mother.

I got too angry, and too sad. But, if I dressed and styled my hair the way my Mother wanted, I’d get the gift of a milkshake on the way home. If I backed up things my mother said, especially if the things she said weren’t true—I got really big gifts. An incredible gift I got once for backing one of my Mother’s lies was a beautiful rattan sleigh bed from a Macy’s store display. 

In the very first few weeks of my Freshman year in high school, I developed a crush. I told my mother about this boy and she was excited. It turned out the boy was interested in me as well and he asked me on a date. Excitedly I told my mother and asked permission. This boy was older than me and had a car, he was on the soccer team.

Oh this pleased my mother and a gift was due!

She took me to the mall and I got to select an outfit to wear on this date. Upon opening the front door to meet my date face-to-face for the first time, I was no longer supported with gifts because I had made a poor decision which embraced my mother.

My date was black and he drove an old pick up truck. He was raised by his mother, who suffered from a mental illness, and his father was dead. My mother asked that he move his truck so that it was not parked near our house. I didn’t receive any gifts for a while. 

The years immediately following this were not great. In fact, they were downright bad. My self esteem was as poor as I was. I had ventured into the world believing I was not good enough to receive gifts unless I was pleasing someone else.

Gifts were a thing to earn with hard work, great effort, and I was someone who had to really work hard to obtain them because of how disgraceful I was. It took literal decades to overcome this belief—which I did—by realizing that actually I AM THE GIFT. 

Mind blown, right?

My mother never taught me that I was a gift. I wish that I had learned to value myself instead of how to dishonor myself. Imagine how different my life could have been if my foundation was that of believing in myself.

Maybe I wouldn’t have settled in relationships. Perhaps I never would have worked in a particular industry as long as I did. Maybe when things were rough, I wouldn’t have taken that first pill because I would have had the confidence in myself that I could do something different. Even those thoughts about wishing I had done better are self defeating. Because now I know that I am the gift. 

Today I know that I am the gift and that gifts aren’t out there waiting for me to earn them. Tomorrow isn’t promised so the me that I am today as the best version of me. If I am the gift then people, jobs, and environments need to earn me. If I find myself someplace where I’m not treated like the gift, if nobody is excited to find me there, then I am in the wrong place.

But I am still the gift.

I haven’t seen my Mother since I was a teenager. She wasn’t in my audience the day I graduated high school and she’s never been there when I’ve won an award and was celebrated. In that home was the first time I recognized that I was in the wrong place and left it.

I had trouble recently during a treatment called EMDR moving through a memory involving my Mother. However, my mind is a prize too and it turned her into a cartoon character. My cartoon character Mother lost her influence with how I view myself that day.

Many things in my life got put on hold while I attended a Trauma Recovery program.

My therapist spoke to me often about my relationship with Buddhism and asked me regularly what Buddhism taught about different things I was experiencing. I had just left my marriage, yet another environment I left for good after remembering my own value. I couldn’t think of anything in particular that the Buddha had taught about that applied until now. 

One day the Buddha, who was a gift, encountered an angry young man while walking. The man shouted insults and said all sorts of rude things to the Buddha. The Buddha stopped walking and asked the man a question.

The Buddha asked,

“If you buy a gift for someone, and they do not accept it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The young man replied “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

I recognize that this Buddhist story is about anger, and my ex-husband certainly had some of that. But I am paying attention to the mention of a gift in this parable and remembering that I am the gift.

If I give my gift, my precious self, to someone and they leave it in the dirt or kick it off into a field, then I understand that this isn’t the person that was right for my gift. I return to myself, still the gift, and I continue down the path. 

Because I am the gift.


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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Holly Herring
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