Baby showers are such a common ritual in the U.S. that showers are even being held for American reporters covering the war in Iraq. I’ve been to quite a few baby showers; I’ve helped to plan some and hosted others. Many of the games I can live without: guessing when the baby will be born and guessing the baby’s weight are tolerable but some of the games played at these parties are not my cup of tea.
But like all showers or other gifting parties, my favorite part is the opening of the presents. No other kind of party has such cute stuff! The cutest little outfits. Teeny baby hats. Bath time toys. Little stuffed animals. Bumpers and sheets. Blankies. Many of the gifts correspond to a theme/motif if the parents have specified, and if the parents know the sex of the baby the gifts will be predominantly pink or blue. Even the party favors are cute--tiny pacifiers and bottles, and cakes shaped like diapers! The “entertainment” sometimes includes mothers sharing terrifying birthing stories.
Baby showers are another ritual that many of us attend, but we rarely think about their social significance (I discussed birthday party rituals here). Certainly, baby showers serve to welcome a baby, whether born or not. And in some cases they can help the parents and their friends and family get used to the idea of a pregnancy or even come to terms with an initially unwelcome pregnancy. Due to the ritualistic nature of such an event, there are specific elements we expect. What purposes do they serve?
At the most pragmatic level, baby showers provide many of the myriad items that babies need or that parents simply desire. When I was a little girl, it appeared to me that the only things you needed for babies were nappies (cloth diapers), loose-fitting tops, and a couple of (glass!) feeding bottles.
In the warmth and relative poverty of some of my neighborhoods growing up in Guyana, much more was superfluous. Why would someone who doesn’t walk wear shoes? In the heat, why bother with socks? Why dress up to stay at home? (Certainly, babies had Sunday best outfits too and were christened in their finest.) There was no need for car seats,or even for fancy carriers when a simple carrier could be fashioned from a piece of cloth. Most people didn’t have an entire bedroom to devote to a baby, so there was no need to decorate a nursery.
But in the U.S. today, babies seem to me synonymous with lots of paraphernalia: car seats for every stage of life, or car seats that morph from seat to carrier to stroller to luxury vehicles! And there are high chairs, folding strollers, deluxe strollers, jogging strollers, bouncy seats, designer clothing, mounds of toys, chests to store the toys, and a plethora of breastfeeding aids (breast pumps, breast feeding cushions, breast feeding bras, breast feeding wraps). In the context of all there is to buy for a little one, a shower seems like a great idea.
Of course, a shower is more than a ploy to get gifts. Isn’t it? But the baby shower ritual is not as universal as we might think.
I never thought much about baby showers and their meaning or whether they’re universal. I suppose the pragmatic aspect made sense to me and I left it at that. But a recent conversation with a relative caused me to think more about baby showers; my aunt said that she wasn’t used to baby showers occurring before babies are born and that she didn’t like the idea.
She explained that in England, these events—which are not actually called showers there—are given after a baby is born. (This is changing as American-style showers become more popular.) Why would you wait until then? I’m used to the model of North Americans doing everything to prepare for a baby’s arrival, often, many months before the birth. Often the only thing left to do is literally wait for the baby’s arrival. Clothes have been bought, washed and hung in the closet. Nurseries have been painted and decorated with murals and furniture. Appliances and other paraphernalia have been assembled.
But as my aunt pointed out, what happens with all of these plans in the event of the baby’s death? Perinatal (stillbirths and deaths in the first week of life) and neonatal (deaths in the first four weeks after birth) death do occur. In 2006, about 19,000 babies in the U.S. died in their first month alive. (Have a look at this post for some information on infant mortality in the U.S.)
Considering how much more dangerous childbirth was—both for mother and baby—it is not surprising that in some cultures and countries it would remain prudent to be cautious about preparing for a baby. Many Jewish Americans, for example, have baby showers only after they baby is born. Remnants of old childbirth fears—and the reality that there is an element of risk involved in pregnancy and birth—may explain why in some cultures it is still considered bad luck or improper to hold a shower or offer a baby gift for an unborn child. How do you think the social significance of a post-birth baby shower might differ from a shower held for a baby that hasn’t arrived yet?