Baby Showers, Now and Then

Colonial women held "birthing parties" in the home of the pregnant woman, in which friends drank "groaning beer" in sympathy with the mother-to-be's labor pains. Even poor colonial women who could not afford lavish meals experienced labor and after-birth surrounded by female friends.
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"Are you sure men are allowed at these things?" my husband called from the home office, stalling. "Showers have changed," I told him. "They're not just for women anymore." And indeed, the baby shower we attended that day was a warm, delightful affair for both sexes, with ethnic dishes, a midwife MC and a mound of beribboned pastel gifts. The baby shower tradition had changed over the years. It was only after I did some digging that I realized just how much.

It turned out that the shift from a women's celebration to a gender-mixed one, the "Jack and Jill"' shower, was not the most notable innovation. The shift that really mattered -- culturally, socially and environmentally -- was the move toward collecting all of those gifts. The mountainous material display of affection common at the pre-celebration of birth is something I had experienced at my own shower. It feels magical for the parents-to-be, and it is. It also feels timeless as a cultural tradition, but it isn't.

The custom of bestowing countless gifts on a mother-to-be and her unborn babe appears to have emerged in middle and upper class American families in the early 1900s. In 1937, high society author and manners maven, Emily Post, included a brief description of the ritual in her book Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. Because Post did not mention the baby shower in her 1922 original publication of the book or in her 1927 enlarged edition of the text, historians date the baby shower to the 1930s era. Even in her 1937 edition, Post describes what she calls a "stork shower" in the briefest of terms; in contrast, she devotes an entire chapter to the infant's Christening Party, which was far more prevalent at the time. Post explains, in a chapter titled "American Neighborhood Customs," that: "Showers are friendly neighborhood gatherings held usually in honor of a bride-to-be, or in welcome of a new clergyman or of new house-owners, or in expectation of the arrival of the stork." The stork shower, then, was only one type of shower party that neighbors could host for one another, giving gifts around a chosen theme or for a special occasion. Other types of showers included a "larder shower," at which edibles were gifted; a "kitchen shower," at which kitchen supplies were given; and a bridal shower, at which personal presents for the bride were exchanged. About the baby shower in particular, Post writes: "presents given at a stork shower include everything for a new baby," and "a stork shower is always given in the early afternoon and only intimate girl and women friends of the mother invited."

Before this third edition of Post's book was published, most women's circumstances made it difficult to imagine parties at which numerous gifts were given to the future child. High mortality rates for mothers and children meant the outcome of childbirth was uncertain, and the lack of affordable, mass-produced goods meant excessive gift-giving was a luxury. In addition, rituals dating back to colonial America centered on the pregnant woman herself and emphasized relationships among women in the community. Colonial women held "birthing parties" in the home of the pregnant woman, in which friends ate "groaning cakes" and drank "groaning beer" in sympathy with the mother-to-be's labor pains, and then celebrated with a second feast after the child's healthy birth. Even poor colonial women who could not afford to provide lavish meals experienced labor and after-birth surrounded by female friends. In her book on American family rituals, historian Elizabeth Pleck explains: "The community of women who gathered for the birth of a child, prevalent in colonial times and throughout the nineteenth century, was part of a cradle-to-grave system of emotional support among women." But as home births declined and hospital births increased by the 1940s, and as religious rituals of child baptism became more private, the practice of pre-birth baby showers gained in popularity. By the post-World War II period, the baby shower was an established rite of passage, and along with Mother's Day, Father's Day and Kwanzaa, it became one of the few lasting American rituals created in the 20th century.

The practice of women relatives and friends gathering to bestow gifts upon the expectant mother and her unborn child, to share a special cake and other frothy fare, to disclose experiences about mothering and childbirth and to play light-hearted games, is by now an integral aspect of new mothers' experience across the U.S., and increasingly, in Canada and England. Even as the shower has evolved with our cultural times -- sometimes including men as well as women, sometimes occurring in the workplace, and often bypassing traditional games -- one central aspect has remained consistent. As Canadian journalist Dona Johnson put it in the British Columbia Times Colonist newspaper: "[T]he point of this party is to rack up loot for the newborn."

The baby shower displays and encourages the consumption imperative of modern-day motherhood. The event becomes the new mother's guide to a whole new world of consumer goods -- consumer goods that she might never have needed or desired otherwise, and that surely contribute negatively to the ecological footprints we leave behind. This presents an inner conflict for those of us who enjoy showers and also love the babies who will inherit this earth. So how can we balance our desire to demonstrate care through giving, maintain our devotion to tradition, and protect the environment by consuming and discarding less?

Rather than reenacting a ritual in which an infant is showered with things, alternative baby showers emphasize the goal of welcoming new parents into networks of social support. Some alternative showers seek to return to traditional practices of women's communities, evident in a number of cultural heritages, in which pregnancy, childbirth and the months following are occasions for the formation and maintenance of encouraging women's circle. This is not to say that we should completely swear off stuff. Parents and babies need things, and lots of folks enjoy giving gifts. Moderation and creativity can make for a good start. Some items can be fashioned by hand or shared and re-circulated. Friends might give a special object from their own children's infancy, replace a gift for the baby-to-be with a donation to a local women's shelter or children's hospital, or contribute baby food to a local food bank (a much better use of it than that traditional taste-the-baby-food shower game). And when we do buy new things, we could buy well-made essentials that won't end up in a landfill as soon.

The baby shower, as most often practiced these days, is a commercial carnival -- the Happy Meal of early motherhood. It is also a beloved tradition with wide cultural reach that many of us will take part in at some point in our lives. The shower, if creatively imagined, might then hold the power to shift our cultural consciousness just a wee bit closer toward the vision of an environmentally sustainable future -- a future where, after all, each of our babies will have to live.

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