Are the all-female wedding and baby showers a necessary evil to rack up on gifts? Or are they painful reminders of our inadequacies? Lyla Cicero explores the tradition.
There are few things women feel more ambivalent about than bridal and baby showers. I think it’s in part because in their traditional form, showers are places where gender stereotypes and unattainable expectations live. They are where we go to pretend we are living the fantasy lives we believe we are supposed to be living and hide the lives we are truly living. The specific meaning of showers will change over the course of our lives, but for many women, these gatherings bring about self-doubt and reinforce notions that marriage and babies should be the primary focus in our lives.
Around the time I graduated high school, a cousin of mine became a teen mother. I remember my grandmother repeatedly telling me, “She gave her mother a beautiful baby.” My grandma provided no validation for my ambitious pursuit of higher education and was unimpressed that I was attending a prestigious college. In her mind, all I had given my mother was a pile of debt. She would have preferred a great-grandchild. Showers behave in much the same way, rewarding certain life choices over others. They send the message that babies and marriages are events worthy of all the women in your life gathering together in your honor. We don’t get showers for finishing our dissertations, writing books, improving our mental health, training for marathons, landing the perfect job, being well-read, advocating for oppressed groups, getting promotions, or choosing to live sustainably. Further, traditionally men don’t attend showers, offensively suggesting that marriage and children are more pivotal in the lives of women than men.
Carrie Bradshaw’s character in a classic Sex and the City episode gives voice to many women’s frustrations when, exasperated by attending and buying gifts for so many bridal and baby showers, she insists that as a single, childless woman she deserves a shower too. For many women, showers bring about painful feelings that change throughout the lifespan. When I was single, bridal showers triggered all my fears about ending up alone. When I myself was a bride, they churned up all my ambivalent feelings about traditional marriage rituals and how to negotiate them. More recently, bridal showers evoke a new set of uncomfortable feelings surrounding whether to warn the bride about all the things I wish I had known before making the choice to marry—like how hard marriage is! I have yet to encounter a life stage in which bridal showers take on a truly festive emotional tone.
I can tell you there is nothing more excruciating than a woman who is silently facing infertility having to attend a baby shower. On the very day I received the news that I had a serious fertility problem, a baby shower invitation showed up in the mail—yet another cousin with a “beautiful baby” for my Catholic-Italian relatives to rub in my face before confusedly asking me why I’m still in school after so long. Luckily, my merciful husband snatched up the invitation, quietly ordered a gift online, RSVP’ed that we could not attend, and trashed that thing before I could come anywhere near it. Although I am now a mother as well as a wife, I find myself somewhat less morally tormented at baby showers than bridal showers because the damage is already done. The woman is pregnant, so there’s no point in telling her how hard parenting really is.
Spurred mostly by greed, I myself consented to a traditional bridal shower, an all-female event during which I sat on a throne-like chair pretending to be enthralled by housewares and kitchen gadgets that I had picked out myself, and that I knew my future husband was going to be the one using. I also received advice including such egalitarian gems as “When he gives you the grocery money, put a little aside for yourself each week,” and “Make sure you let him think he’s smarter than you.” But the fact was, we needed those items and couldn’t afford them ourselves. In order to undo the icky feelings from that shower we had another “shower,” a co-ed cocktail party at a local wine bar with no gift opening to be had.
Many of us use the excuse of needing loot when we engage in shower rituals, but I think the truth is there is more to it. I missed out on my baby shower because I was on bed rest the last three months of my pregnancy. As ambivalent as I was about the shower, I feel cheated to this day.
The truth is we do need support and time set aside to process major life transitions. Some female friends and I began the tradition of calling events before weddings and births “transitional gatherings.” My pre-wedding “transitional gathering” was one of the most meaningful, special days of my life. It involved my best female friends and me walking, eating, and drinking our way through my favorite spots in Manhattan. At each destination, one of them presented me with a scrapbook page documenting our relationship, and spoke about what I meant to them. At the last destination, my future husband joined us with his own page. It was a day to celebrate the relationships that had taught me how to love, and to be honest about the loss inherent in transitions, even celebratory ones. The truth was, I needed to celebrate that I had found a life partner, but also to grieve that all the other relationships in my life were going to change forever. I’m guessing my husband could have used a “transitional gathering” as well.
Now that I am a mother, I am all too acquainted with the loss involved in becoming a parent. I think part of what I missed out on at that shower was getting a lot of positive attention and support that might have helped bolster me for those first few sleepless months, and for the emotional turmoil inherent in becoming a mother. Sure, I really did need the gear. It helps defray costs, but it also sends a message. It sends a message that all these women in your life are there, metaphorically giving you what you need to do this thing. I guess for me, I would have liked the process to be more literal. I would have liked to sit down with experienced mothers and have them warn me about how I was going to feel—about the paralyzing ambivalence of loving your children so much it’s terrifying, and managing terrifying feelings of losing oneself. I wish they had given me advice not about products to buy and baby soothing techniques, but about how to believe you are a good mother and still feel like a whole person—especially in a culture that tells us that the best mothers no longer want to be people.
So there is a kind of logic to events that mark life transitions that are fraught with mixed emotions. We may, in fact, need a little extra support and attention prior to marriage and birth because, unlike getting our degrees or progressing at work, they are not only times to celebrate, but times to grieve. However, the way we approach showers tends to gloss over those mixed emotions causing them to stay hidden, and reinforcing stereotypes in the process. If we don’t make showers about the truth of marriage and birth, the joy and the sorrow, then they simply serve to make everyone feel like they are the only ones feeling ambivalent and experiencing loss. As for the all-female attendance, if showers could be about helping women navigate their internal experience as well as the cultural messages around motherhood and marriage, it would make sense for other women to participate. However, I can’t see why men shouldn’t have the same opportunity.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.