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are baby showers anti-feminist?

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Last weekend I found myself at a baby shower. It was held in the park on a glorious Sydney Sunday. The mother is having a girl and so we found ourselves surrounded by pink paraphernalia: cupcakes with tiny sugar shoes, cranberry juice and pink champagne, and of course, a pile of presents wrapped in candy colours. (We’ll save discussing the topic of gender conditioning starting even when the child is still in utero for another time).

The organiser of the baby shower had selected a range of games for us to play. Fortunately the traditional and oh-so-hilarious ‘guess which particular brand of chocolate has been melted into the nappy’ game didn’t make the cut, but we did play ‘guess the girth’, ‘baby name bingo’ and there was a onesie-painting competition.

Like everyone else there, I went along with the games and the squealing and the general carry-on. I’m happy for my pregnant friend, it was a gorgeous afternoon, and the cupcakes were tasty. But as I painted a distorted elephant onto a white onesie with non-toxic paint, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. The women there were all intelligent, capable adults. Some of us have jobs which require a high degree of professionalism and assertiveness. In our personal relationships, we have no difficulty asking for what we want, communicating our grievances and devising solutions. If having children is something which requires maturity, competence, and some degree of life experience, and current thinking says it does, why is one of the major rituals surrounding it so intent on infantilising the parent?

As usual, in answering this, I came back to the fundamental question, the surefire test as to whether this is a feminist issue: ‘Do the men have to put up with this?’ And of course they don’t. The rituals surrounding imminent fatherhood are fewer and further between (men are less defined by their parental status than women), but they seem to be rightly focused on adult activities: cigars to celebrate the birth, for example. (When I asked my male partner whether there was a male equivalent to baby showers, he answered, ‘locker room showers’, which pretty much sums it up).

Baby showers were traditionally invented so that mothers, who likely had a lot of useful baby paraphernalia which their progeny no longer needed, could hand this on to an expecting friend to reduce her need to fork out for new things. They were also a chance for mothers to pass on their wisdom and advice from their own experiences, and were a family-orientated affair, with grandparents, aunts, sisters and so on often co-ordinating the event. They have inevitably become more consumer-focused with the rise of consumerist culture, with most presents now being bought specifically for the occasion. At most baby showers now, all female friends (regardless of whether they are parents) will be invited, leaving us with an exercise on par with an alcohol-free hen’s night. Apart from these two rituals, I can’t think of another situation where I’m surrounded, as an adult, entirely by women. It seems odd to exclude men from the baby shower, especially as it’s highly likely that a man was involved in the creation of the very thing we’re celebrating. But then if they were invited maybe we’d feel more self-conscious about all the pink.

I think the infantilising rituals are symbolic of the loss of identity some mothers experience, where they lose sense of themselves as separate from their identity as a mother. Reducing the woman, who used to be a competent adult, to the status of a dependant, begins in pregnancy and is particularly pronounced in the first months after the birth. Baby showers are essentially antifeminist because they contain these undertones. They are outdated and divide women into two categories – those who are mothers and those who are not, all other achievements and experiences are negated.

I’m not against the idea of a mother-to-be having all her female friends round before the birth. I have personal qualms with the idea of a ‘shower’ (i.e. present-collecting exercise), but that’s more because I just think it’s bad manners to ask all your friends to give you a gift. Single women who don’t get married or have children have much less opportunity to ask all their friends to a party celebrating themselves. But all that aside, what I find so abhorrent is the tone of the enterprise. If baby showers simply involved a group of people gathered to celebrate the imminent arrival of a brand new human being, it would be different. If we could acknowledge the adult nature of parenthood with suitably adult rituals (maybe not cigars for an expecting mother, but shifting these things from an afternoon to the evening would go a long way). When my friend decided to have a baby, she no doubt did so knowing her own mind, with an acknowledgement of the monumental commitment of bringing a person into the world. It’s a huge and happy decision, and we should celebrate the fact that she is an adult who is competent, rational and able to make it.

By Frances Chapman

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7 thoughts on “are baby showers anti-feminist?

  1. I was forced to confront such issues such as baby showers, makeup and so on as a young mother and a feminist. I knew (or thought) I was inconsistent at times and I still am. I banned Barbie Dolls until people began giving them in great numbers as gifts, my girls loved them and I gave up. They got over them; they all ended up in the bin eventually. I dressed my newborn in blue and got told off by an older woman, so what? Later I also dressed them in pink and all the colours of the rainbow. I made sure they were dressed appropriately for the situation – maybe a pink dress for a party but shorts and tea shirt for tree climbing. Both daughters are feminists. The point is I consciously brought them up to be able to ‘read’ these cultural messages and take them all with a grain of salt and they did, and they do.

    I am absolutely fundamentalist about women’s rights and equality but I think that grey areas abound in our cultural practises. For example I wear makeup – wanting to look groomed and dare I say – younger – while detesting ageism and sexism in all its forms – and do I do this for the male gaze? – well, yes, to a point. It makes ME feel more acceptable and it probably shouldn’t but we are all conditioned by our culture and deciding to be completely separatist did not work in the 60′s and 70′s and it won’t work now – we risk ostracizing both women who might think a bit more about what feminism is (and we can convert dare I say it?) – and men of course (though I am much less concerned here as many men will bristle at the word no matter what, so I wouldn’t bother trying not to offend those who are determined to be offended).

    I think the bottom line is that if you are fundamentalist about anything, you end up being preachy and risk becoming a boring judgmental person. I too am embarrassed about the propensity for some women to squeal and carry on but don’t men do similar things, you know; the ape behaviour at the pub and footy games? I am equally embarrassed by that.

    I really think it is way too strong to conclude that “… infantilising rituals are symbolic of the loss of identity some mothers experience, where they lose sense of themselves as separate from their identity as a mother. Reducing the woman, who used to be a competent adult, to the status of a dependant, begins in pregnancy and is particularly pronounced in the first months after the birth. Baby showers are essentially antifeminist because they contain these undertones. They are outdated and divide women into two categories – those who are mothers and those who are not, all other achievements and experiences are negated.”

    Despite the fact that women are much more vulnerable when pregnant, how she is treated will depend on her partner and her strength in demanding and reminding him that she is still a capable intelligent woman. A lot of men already get this and are supportive. I was married to a violent nasty man who did not respect me for a second, but he did not infantilise me – in fact, he did not give me any credit for the hard work I was doing and still expected me to go to work and do all of the home chores as well – and, I took care of all of the finances. That’s just abuse, not infantilisation.

    I think the historical loss of status and the patronising of men and some other women around motherhood is still around but God, it’s not the ritual of a baby shower that demonstrates that the women are participating in a symbolic denigration of womanhood no matter how unconsciously – it’s about how she acts and feels about herself in important things.

    Pregnancy and caring for children is a wonderful time in your life – you do deserve extra attention and help with the workload. The saddest thing some feminists did in the past was to refuse to have children to avoid being defined as mother – weak – female and many regret it. They let the MALE world affect their decisions yet again! It is still a fight, so ok, fight it in the workplace! I was able to have a lot of time with my babies when they were little as I was studying and working part time. I saw it as a right. I can’t think of anything worse that having to go into work and hang out with ‘the boys’ all bloody day and your baby with a stranger while you slave to pay the mortgage.

    Being a mother did and does nothing to take away my sense of self as a strong intelligent feminist woman – yeah I rub a lot of men up the wrong way but do you think I care about that?

    I think it’s good to be aware, but I think you need to lighten up and enjoy your ‘squealie’ friends as much as your more ‘sensible’ feminist friends. You don’t have to join in, just observe from the sidelines and be internally embarrassed. But have you not sat around drunk with your girlfriends and laughed raucously? I’ll bet the ‘squealie’ women are capable of this too. The special supportive bond that women share around children is a good thing – I would not want it taken away from me and I would not give it up for anything.

    A ‘real man’ would be able to be with the ‘squealie’ baby shower squad anyway if he and his partner are close – but what’s wrong with her having ‘girlfriend time?’ I am sure she allows him male bonding time? It would be more of a problem if when this baby is born he sees it as her job entirely to care for it.

  2. I loved this article. I hadn’t looked at it this way before and I’m glad that Frances has been able to help me see more than one side to the whole ‘baby showers’ thing. Great writer!

  3. Not really anti-feminist – after all its just a bunch of woman getting together to celebrate the birth of a baby. If they want to play games, squeal and have a bit of a laugh who cares. The emphasis on the need for pink or blue is a bit 1950′s and although this might happen at the ‘shower’ who today only dresses their child or pink or blue? Frances is a bit precious, methinks. I wonder what she would make of a ‘game’ I had to endure at a friend’s daughter’s ‘Hen’s Party’ where we were given plasticine and had to make a penis. The bride -to – be was then given the task of choosing which plasticine penis looked the most like her intended husband’s. I wonder if that game is ‘anti-feminist’ – or just plain stupid? Or maybe a bit of light-hearted fun like the nonsense at a baby shower?

  4. I really enjoyed this article and I can sympathise with the frustration one can feel about being forced into infantilising cultural traditions when everyone has mature and professional jobs and should know better.

    However, I think there’s plenty of cultural rituals which, while on the surface *should* require maturity, competence and life experience, actually are more based on infantilising – 21st birthdays for example, which, for both male and female, paradoxically require the subject to display a complete lack of maturity on the night of their entry into adulthood. Furthermore, our use of terms like “a night with the boys” or “a girls night in”, regardless of the age of the adults in question, seem to imply a preference for always describing our social relations in terms that are infantilising. People may be intelligent and capable, but they’re not averse to lowering their standards of civility when with friends.

    This is to say, I think you’re describing is part of a broader cultural phenomena, rather than one that can be easily dichotomised between the two sexes.

  5. Unfortunately we are in a world and Western society that condones the continuation of old practices and modern traditions that are anti-feminist. Like everything, however, it depends on the people involved and how they react during such celebrations. A friend of mine had a baby shower before having her daughter, and I think the only pink was in the gifts (traditionalist women giving gifts as they were conditioned to do – pink for the baby girl) and the favours. That being said, the shower favours were very anti-traditionalist: condoms, peanut slabs and silly items.

    I was raised to wear dresses, shorts, pants, shirts of all colours from the rainbow. I barely wore pink, and as such I checked with my friend when considering giving gifts as to how she felt about gender conditioning. But that was the choice that I made – the consciousness of tradition with the realisation that while I don’t condone it I won’t judge friends who choose to. Feminism is about the encouragement of choice for women! If they want to dress their daughters in pink and boys in blue then let them! I just know where I stand, and as Lorese said before, it’s all in the consciousness that the way in which you choose to behave and raise your children. So long as we have a choice, it’s all gravy.

  6. We were discussing “baby showers” the other day at work whilst supporting a colleague whose twin grand daughters were born with major health issues. The little ones life expectancy is limited. We both stated we hated baby showers as no one knows what the outcome will be. Sure its a celebration of being pregnant but life is risky and giving birth is too. Unfortunately in this “party” era everyone thinks that life is rosy and they get a hell of a shock when things don’t go the way they planned. And I agree about the idea that its basically “asking” for stuff. I would much prefer to give a small gift when the baby is born. I equate such an invitation to that of a Tupperware party invite.

  7. Pingback: Why Baby Showers Are Anti-Feminist | two beans

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