The bank of girlfriends.

Since I got to Anchorage a couple of weeks ago my hostess and I have been paying it both forward and backward.

Linda drove us to Hope for a reunion of female Anchorage Daily News reporters, so I owed her for gas. She drove on our frugal trip to Homer, too, and put the shared hotel room on her credit card. Meanwhile, I bought Linda lunch on my first day here and ordered her some discounted gift cards so she could re-do the yard for 8% off.

The math was kind of funny. “The hotel room was $156, and the gas was $18 apiece, so I owe you…”

“Don’t forget the gift cards. They were about $64, I think.”

“But didn’t you pick up the lunch tab on our second day in Homer?”

We’ve gotten into some verbal pushy-shovies over other expenditures, too. Mind you, it’s not Mavis-and-Phyllis-at-Schrafft’s: “You had the extra cup of ranch dressing, which was 30 cents more…” And it probably does all even out over time.

But there’s always been that give-and-take: No, you paid last time. This one’s on me. Or there’s fretting over the other person mowing the lawn, folding laundry or bringing home ice cream to share.

Linda actually wanted to pay me for mowing the lawn. Never mind that I’m staying with her for two months and house-sitting for only one week. (Last year she tried to pay me for that, too.)

Then again, I want to pay her:

  • For higher heating costs (I lived here for 17 years but my blood done got thin down there in the banana belt of Seattle)
  • For her driving out of her way to take me to the supermarket or my niece’s house
  • For utility-bill increases due to a couple of months’ worth showers (long, hot showers – see “thin blood,” above)

Naturally, she won’t take a dime.

The curse of the mom

So I keep trying to find ways to give some of this back.

Let’s go to Harley’s for Sunday brunch – my treat.

Want some of these pretzel M&Ms? They were a great coupon deal – just a dollar a bag.

Yeah, I vacuumed the downstairs. You wanna make something of it?

And Linda just keeps returning fire:

If you buy that 8-pound bag of oranges, I’ll split it with you.

Are you cold? Turn the heat up!

Use whatever you want from the cupboard. Don’t worry about it.

I understand how she feels, since I always want to do things for my friends. But part of my psyche resists letting them extend the same courtesy. I’m afraid of owing anybody anything and, more to the point, I’m afraid of seeming needy.

I call it “The Curse of the Mom.” Taught always to put other people first, you find it tough to acknowledge your own needs, let alone accept help for them. Whenever someone offers me a favor I instantly think, “How can I pay this back?” Or, worse, “I don’t need anyone’s help. I’m OK.”

Which can feel pretty darned deflating to the person offering the kindness. It comes across as, “What you’re offering is not good enough.”

In John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” the bordello madam Fauna coaches one of her girls as she prepares to go on a real (not paid) date. One point Fauna makes is that when someone wants to do something for you, you should allow it:

“Don’t get proud and say you don’t need it or want it. That’s a slap in the puss. Thing people like most in the world is to give you something and have you like it and need it.”

I know that. I’ve preached that. Apparently it doesn’t apply to me, though. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what people do for me. It’s that I’d rather give than receive. I always want to feel a little bit ahead in some imaginary Kindness Ledger.

So I try to do things when Linda’s not here to catch me at it: take out the recyclables, sweep the kitchen, pick up twigs from the front lawn. I sort of have to, because one of these days I’ll be upstairs and not hear the dryer stop – and when I come down, Linda will have paired up my socks.

Readers: Do you/did you have this problem? Any thoughts on overcoming it?


27 Comments

  1. Uhg! I have the same problem! I love doing for others and giving to others but when someone does or gives to me, I feel as though I am TAKING from them. I think it’s part of my quest to never be dependant upon anyone but myself. I know I need to get over it but just can’t figure out how. I get a real kick in the pants when I can help someone else out or just do a little kindness….I really shouldn’t deny them the same feeling.

  2. Coupon Ninja

    I totally have this problem!
    On two levels:
    I am one of the older married females in my social circle and I have a tendency to mother hen people. I usually cook/hostess/etc and I am always like, “No, I have it, etc”. Rarely do I call on any favors for anything, I have gotten better about allowing people to do things for me though and not do it al.
    On the other level, I have been living with my mother in law since the middle of April. [we are renting there home and she is vacating fully now that the school year is over] and we are forever falling over one another taking care of one another. She does this, I do that, we fuss at one another over who will get what done. I must say however, I didn’t complain too much tonight when she made dinner.
    I love her dearly. :D
    Awesome food for thought and you aren’t the only one Donna!

  3. Once I went without food until there was not another piece of elbow macaroni or grain of rice in the house, no cans, nothing in refrigerator. Then and only then did I apply for food stamps. When friends found out 20 years later how bad things were for me back then, they were angry at me for not asking them. I couldn’t! I did not want to be needy to friends. I did not want them to think I wanted anything from them when I called or visited. Yet, as they remarked, I had filled their needs emotionally and from my stash of material and extra baby furniture and other things while I had no food in the house.

    Now, when I give something to someone just to give, I am extremely annoyed when they look for something to give me. I am not looking for them to return a favor. However, it is a Southern tradition that when someone gives you a dish with anything in it (casserole or cookies or such), then you return the dish with something in it.

    I am annoyed when I share my extra eggs and the person pulls out money to pay me. I do it to share something special and end up getting my feelings sort of hurt. AND, I never ask for or take money for eggs. Actually, I usually give them to someone who just did me a favor. It is sort of a way of sharing or a “thank you.”

    Have you ever been chided for giving so that you want to snatch back whatever you gave? It is almost as if you have insulted the other person. I think it makes them feel needy.

    When I still had things ex and I had, if someone admired something he and I bought together, I would usually just give it to the person. Oh, I was so annoyingly generous…lol. You like that expensive music box with my favorite song? Well, take it.

    I had to wait until my mother took a nap to wash the dishes for her. She was always pleased and surprised when she awoke, but refused to let me do it even when I was there for a week with three children. She wanted to do for me.

  4. GeeJai

    Donna you remaind me of my mom. Once, when I was a kid, my dad was telling her that he would cook breakfast the next weekend so she could sleep a little longer, and she said to him “so you don´t need me anymore?” in such a sad voice that my dad had to put her at ease. He somehow solved that issue because every weekend since then mom has breakfast in bed cooked by my dad. But that´s the only comfort she allows.

  5. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is to graciously accept what they give you.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Stella: Exactly. I’m struggling with that concept, and I hope to win.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  6. Reta Davis

    Amen, Stella.

  7. sharon

    I agree with Stella. What is there to overcome, exactly? If everyone felt that way–that they want to be just a little bit ahead in the Kindness Ledger, the world would be a better place. But that doesn’t mean we have to turn away any kindnesses offered to us. It’s not a zero-sum game.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sharon: What’s to overcome is multiple decades of being told/shown that other people matter more. If it were as simple as just letting go of long-ingrained habits and attitudes, then therapists would be out of business.
      I’m a work in progress, is all.

  8. April

    I run into this with my best friend. My family and I just visited hers for the holiday weekend which is also her birthday weekend. It is a bit of tradition that I visit at this time and we go out to lunch and shopping to the bookstore, but this time all three of us went.

    I know times are tough for everyone. They are a single income family with three kids, but she stubbornly refused help with groceries … to the point of glaring and reminding me we paid gas for the 4 hr drive and $25 in tolls one way, so I had to find other ways to help.

    I tucked a $20 in with her small birthday gift which I knew she would end up spending part of at the bookstore while we enjoyed our day. When an extra fan was needed for the living room where hubby and I were sleeping, I picked one up for $20 and then left it behind when we went even though she swore she had been planning on picking up one for the girls room anyway. You should have seen the battle at the Dollar General … poor saleslady, but my friend and I are used to it and made us laugh afterwards. I drove when we went shopping. She picked up drinks for the drive. I picked up the lunch tab at Red Lobster …and yes she didn’t care that I used a coupon LOL. She picked up frozen lemonades for us on the drive back. It was this way all weekend and well .. we wouldn’t have it any other way.

  9. Those exchanges are so very midwestern! (Just like our post today…)

    Keep on paying it forward, backward, and saying thank you. As a midwesterner I can’t tell you to stop feeling like you should be doing more because that’s the culture I’ve been inculcated in. You can still be polite and accept things while doing other things like mowing the lawn and washing dishes. Let’s remove the guilt and focus on the payback/payforward.

  10. I come from a family of givers…my Grandmother gave generously, while others only gave with the strings attached. Thank God I took after my Grandmother and find joy in the giving. However, I’m pretty suspicious when someone wants to give to me, and I always look for strings, so it’s hard to just “accept” a giving. I’m working on that, though.

    • Donna Freedman

      @T: Me too.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. I think the only advice I can give is this: Your friend is not being kind because you were kind first. She’s not doing something nice for you to repay an imagined debt. She’s doing something nice because she’s your friend and that’s what friends do. So it should be with you. You’re tying up favors with value and that’s why you feel awkward. Ditch the mental scorecard. It’s too much effort anyways. When your brain starts listing everything someone’s done for you tell it to shut the heck up!

    • Donna Freedman

      @MutantSuperModel: I know I should do this — that’s why I wrote the piece. I’ve been trying to do this. Just not succeeding quite yet because 50-plus years of programming can be a tough nut to crack.

  12. I’m fairly good about being gracious when others are generous with chores and stuff, it’s with compliments that I’m terrible. A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers told me I looked nice. I proceeded to pick apart my appearance and explain everything that was wrong with the way I looked.
    The coworker said, “You know, you could have just accepted the compliment.”
    I felt like a turd.
    So yes, sometimes, we should just accept with grace the kindness that’s extended toward us, whether it’s a compliment or a ride to a relative’s house. But that is easier said than done sometimes.

  13. Ro in SD

    Hi. I don’t have this problem any more. Most of my girlfriends take the “Even-Steven” approach to try to make it fair. We’ll take turns treating, take turns driving long distances to each other’s home and by turns extending hospitality.

    I used to be a lot more generous until around 3 years ago when facing a possible job loss (that never happened). I also cut lose “friends” I determined were taking advantage of my generous nature.

  14. You already know that I’m your clone so I do the same thing as you, now if only my IQ was as high as yours. I’m sitting at about 7.

  15. There are people who think they are worthless and are deserving of NO kindnesses.

    There are people who think they are better than others so DESERVE all kinds of kindnesses-though they don’t deserve them.

    I try to be somewhere in the middle.

    When someone offers a compliment, thanks is a great response.
    When someone offers a gift or favor- accepting with thanks is plenty.
    If they are a true friend, no thanks is needed-but that’s what nice people do. If they offer their gift with strings, they aren’t a true friend and don’t deserve the worry time you give it.

  16. Susan

    Hi Donna – I struggle with the same issue. I suggest you look around her house and see if there is anything sorely lacking and either get it while you are housesitting, send it up, or leave a gift card when you return home. Yes, it isn’t as gracious as just saying “thank you” but it is easier to sleep is you know you have given as well – there is just something about wanting to give that is compelling. You want to see her smile too! Enjoy Alaska, we have had about 3 days of sunshine here in Seattle – the shock was too much, so we are back to rain for the rest of the week!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Susan: Hers is the best-appointed home I’ve ever seen. It’s like living in a gallery because she has so many beautiful things from her travels and just her life in general. I will, however, be mowing her lawn the whole time I’m here. I also always leave a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant, Harley’s Old Thyme Cafe, in the guest room — and she always fusses at me for doing it, but I know it’s something she’ll use (vs. more Stuff) and it also benefits a small, local business.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  17. Susan

    @SonyaAnn – My IQ is somewhere between my age and my weight…closer to my age!

  18. christy

    “Don’t get proud and say you don’t need it or want it. That’s a slap in the puss. Thing people like most in the world is to give you something and have you like it and need it.”

    Well that is my problem. I could really use help often but I don’t let on and when someone offers help (not knowing I could use it b/c I don’t act as though I do) I have a hard time accepting it. Actually I have a hard time accepting compliments as well :(

    • Donna Freedman

      @Christy: That’s pretty common among most of the women I know, and one or two of the men. We’d rather give than accept, because we frame it as “I’d rather give than take.” It can be hard to remember that other people might actually want to help us.
      What I’m trying to do is remember how good I feel when I help others, and when someone offers help, frame it instead as “By denying Christy the chance to offer her help, I am denying her the chance to feel good and maybe even making her feel that her help isn’t good enough.”
      It works some of the time, anyway.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  19. My life took a twist where I had to be the reciever. Im VERY independent and never want to be beholding to anyone. I love making others happy and I’m not a score keeper. But when I was in dire straights at first I refused any help. Eventually though I accepted the kindness of others. It wasn’t long before a great resentment took hold as I realized I coud never pay back their kind generosity, which is what I always consoled myself with whenever I accepted their generous proposals.Mind you they never once asked that I pay them back or do extra favors for them. They never expected for me to be obligated to them. Just like the excerpt from John Steinbeck’s book, a woman who was a starnger offered me money. She claimed that she was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Let me tell you, I do not dress shabby, I do not look disabled (although I am), and I own a modest, paid off bungalow home. So essentially, I don’t appear needy and I don’t go around telling people my personal problems (not all the time anyway; we all vent!). When I refused her offer, she grabbed my hand and firmly said to me, “Now you listen here. You are not going to take away my blessing! I have been told to give this money to you. I don’t know who you are but I want you to have this money.” WOW! That was powerful and lifechanging for me. Learning to be a gracious reciever was my new lesson in life. Gracious without a thought of tit for tat. Just do what is needed move on and accept was is offered and move on. Beautiful living.

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