It's time to update the traditional baby shower - here's how to do it

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

When I was a first-time expectant mum four years ago, I bought into doing everything by the book, including my baby shower.

I spent hours poring over reviews for gear and products to curate a thoughtful registry, and while the shower itself wasn't anything over-the-top - a gathering of about 15 women at my apartment - it hit all the traditional marks. A longtime friend thoughtfully organised it and made tasty finger foods, my mum ordered a custom cake, and I spent an hour awkwardly opening everyone's gifts in front of them so they could coo over cute things and I could express my gratitude in person.

The party was a complete success by every standard measure. But as I think back to my first year of motherhood, I think maybe my baby shower was a missed opportunity.

I was, like most new parents, unprepared for the year that followed. My son was born with some serious health problems that required hospitalisations and surgery when he was a newborn. I was back at work before I was ready, and I lost my job shortly after returning. I had tons of anxiety and went through a profound identity crisis.

More than a surplus of onesies and toys, what I needed most was strong support from people I could count on during those tough times. I had friends, but I didn't know how to ask for help.

The gifts, while generous, didn't bring the comfort I craved. The outrageously expensive, top-of-the-line stroller I was convinced we needed and asked my parents to buy, for example, went largely unused, as we ended up favouring a $20 lightweight umbrella model. I sometimes think about the better ways that money could have been spent during my son's first year while I was unexpectedly unemployed.

I am a reporter covering the social and economic issues facing mothers. And the more I research, the more I have come to dislike baby showers. Not because I loathe all that is tiny, adorable and Pinterest-worthy, but because I believe the tradition needs an update to address the real needs of modern parents-to-be. New parents need child-care help, meals and groceries, therapy and social support. And these feelings have recently solidified for me as I await the arrival of twins in February. What is increasingly clear this time around is that I don't need fancy stuff. I need help.

Here are four concrete ideas for how we can meet the real needs of parents and create a more modern, and inclusive, celebration when gathering to fete an expected baby. While traditional showers are often aimed at mothers, these ideas can benefit dads, single and adoptive parents, same-sex couples and veteran parents.

* Ditch the expensive gear registries and start a "babyfund" for expecting families. Rather than registering for that full-price baby swing your kid may sit in twice and hate, expectant parents should consider signing up to receive money for "experiences" that could make a real difference in their lives. 

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* Don't just fund gear. Spend time thinking about and researching your needs for non-material support. This could include a session with a lactation consultant, a plane ticket for a beloved sister to come help for two weeks after the baby is born, a weekly night nurse so the parent whose partner works away can get some sleep, or help with recurring bills to take away some of the financial stress when one or both parents are taking unpaid parental leave.

* Most everything a new baby needs (with the possible exception of car seats) can be handed down from other parents or purchased secondhand for a fraction of its original cost. Steer your friends and family toward helping with support costs, instead of shelling out money for top-of-the-line new stuff.

* Get shower attendees to sign up on the spot for a Meal Train. Signing up to bring food or have meals delivered has become increasingly popular. Providing home-cooked meals during times of stress and transition feels deeply nurturing and can be an opportunity to check in, in person, and see how the new family is doing and reduce their social isolation. While we didn't have a Meal Train after the birth of my son, some neighbourhood friends set one up for us after one of his surgeries, and I think I burst into tears of gratitude every time some food arrived.

* Use the baby shower as a moment to include the new parent in online and in-person community groups. Veteran parents have often put months and years into finding their "tribe." Rather than spending an hour opening gifts, invite guests to brainstorm about these groups beforehand, and use that time to formally include new mums in supportive communities, whether it's the invite-only buy/sell/trade local listserv where they can get a ton of baby stuff at deep discounts or the community centre that offers stroller walks for new parents.

* Create a ritual or craft project that memorialises community support beyond money. If you feel like no baby shower could be complete without a craft project, look for one that serves a meaningful purpose. Taking a page from a Jewish Ketubah, or marriage contract, design posters where guests can pledge how they will support the expecting family in non-monetary ways. This could be offering to take your older kid for play dates to give you a break on the weekends, a weekly check-in phone call from the best friend who lives across the country, a vow from the mum of three to share a coveted list of her most trusted babysitters, or offers from the night owl neighbour to do late-night store runs.

Have everyone write something down and sign it. The expecting parents can also sign, as a promise to take people up on the offers. Then hang it on a wall or even frame it. I can think of nothing I would rather stare at after a sleepless postpartum night than a list of all the people who have offered to help me, alongside my signature promising to take that help.

The Washington Post