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.