The Kiddy Pool: Class Consciousness and the Baby Shower
Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
I admit I fell for Salon.com’s clickbait headline “Being a Bridesmaid Is Driving Me into Bankruptcy.” The article, written by Carey Purcell, relates her experience and anecdotal research regarding the many and ever-escalating costs associated with being a bridesmaid—dresses with alterations, shoes, hair, makeup, bachelorette parties, showers, and travel to the wedding and events. And that’s not even counting the gifts. Her examples don’t mesh with my own story as a bridesmaid, and the number (close to $1,700 for the honor of standing up at someone else’s wedding) is nowhere near what I paid. While the author made some interesting points about gender and the expectations of a consumer-driven industry, she seemed to miss the reality that the ways we celebrate our life rituals are largely influenced by social class.
Yesterday, for instance, I went to a lovely baby shower for a friend I’ve known for nearly two decades; the event took place at a café specializing in local, organic, and vegetarian fare. The setting as well as the parents’ registry items (many from Pottery Barn baby) indicates an upper-middle class family preparing for the first grandchild. It also reflected the personality of the mother-to-be, making the small gathering particularly poignant and personal.
Just a couple of months ago, I helped host a “sprinkle” for a friend expecting her third child. We hadn’t known each other when she was pregnant with her first, and our group of friends wanted to welcome her newest addition and celebrate her whole family as well. One friend offered her home and backyard for the party, we all pitched in for a potluck-style spread, and though some gifts were new, many were gently-used hand-me downs. Those trends persist in my circle of local mom friends not because we value second or third children less, but because the class and culture of our showers is different.
The baby registry isn’t universal, but its existence and character say a lot about the new parents’ expectations and social class (and I would say parental expectations are inextricably intertwined with social class). There’s a big difference between registering at Walmart or Target or Pottery Barn, and each of those is different still from registering at local boutiques or not registering at all. Years ago I attended a baby shower for a mother I barely knew ready for her fourth child; the party was held in a church basement with light snacks and raucous, silly games. There was no registry, and as the expectant mother represented an average family in a town hit especially hard by the recession, the gifts reflected practical and immediate needs. That’s code for lots of diapers.
Cost-of-baby conversations inevitably bring up issues of social class, even if we’re reluctant to recognize or discuss class as a real issue in the United States. I honestly couldn’t calculate the cost of mine or my children’s medical care (including labor and birth) because my insurance covered everything. That alone is a remarkable privilege. My mother hosted my baby shower in my parents’ home, where I was surrounded by family and friends and inundated with gifts both practical and purely fun. I got a ton of hand-me downs (maternity and baby clothes) from my sister-in-law, and that got added to the stash we collected from the showers hosted for us by our church and our workplace (both hosted at people’s homes and similar in style to the first one described).
We purchased hardly anything for our first child, and our multiple showers—complete with an embarrassment of riches—reflect our secure position within the middle class. The class stratification that manifests in baby showers persists throughout life, where socioeconomic status is largely static (in spite of our myths of meritocracy and mobility). Showers likewise illustrate the social class and personalities of the key players—the hosts and parents and guests—in ways that value American individuality; take, as a point of contrast, the Finnish “baby boxes” that provide new mothers with state-issued layettes. I’m not advocating the Finnish system, per se, but I do believe that every baby, regardless of social class or nationality, deserves to have his or her basic needs met. Perhaps an honest evaluation of social class in our culture could lead to that end, but in the meantime, some of us have been instructed to feed the lambs.