01/13/2012 01:54 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

How I Went From Bridal Shower Critic To Guest Of Honor

I've never been a fan of bridal showers. The tissue-papered excess, the cooing over Crock-Pots and vacuum cleaner cozies, the theater of watching someone unwrap gifts they already know they're getting. It was all lost on me.

More than that, the ritual seemed a touch outdated. The subtext read like the initiation of a bride's new life of keeping house, the female elders gathering to soften the blow with mimosas and gift her the steam mop and non-stick cookware she'd need to get cracking.

Even if those sexist undertones had faded some by my generation, I still didn't understand this culture of using a marriage license like a voucher for Nicer Stuff. How did we come to equate a lifelong commitment between two people with the sudden need for Pottery Barn sheets? And I wasn't alone in my thinking. I knew plenty of others my age who bemoaned the custom. As one friend observed, "It's basically people trying to upgrade their lives on the backs of their friends."

So imagine the predicament I faced when I got engaged last year and found myself go from documented bridal shower critic to presumed guest of honor. With December's flurry of engagements, it's a dilemma that many brides are about to tackle: how to reconcile their modern aversions to bridal showers with the sentimental expectations of their mothers.

In my case, I let our moms enjoy a few weeks of post-engagement bliss before casually dropping the bomb that, thanks but no thanks, there was no need to throw a bridal shower. They went slack-jawed. It was as if I'd just informed them that I'd be walking down the aisle in a blue pantsuit, carrying sparklers in lieu of a bouquet.

"Oh, no - you're getting gifts!" my future mother-in-law threatened me with nice things.

My mother protested, "All these years I've been going to showers and giving gifts --now it's my turn!" (As if she literally envisioned herself recouping the household tchotchkes she'd doled out over 20 years.)

But the whole idea of a shower made me itchy. I didn't want to put people out. And I didn't want friends and family to feel obligated to buy us gifts. We didn't need stuff. Both in our mid-30's and having lived on our own for many years, my fiancé and I had all we needed. Sure, much of it was second-hand and of the mismatched college-era variety. But it suited us just fine.

"I mean, we already have dishes and towels," I said to my sympathetic fiancé. "Why would we ask people to buy us new ones?" He nodded in solidarity before pointing out those dishes and towels also happened to be shower gifts from his first marriage.


Still, I wasn't keen on the idea. I wholly understood our mothers' perspective -- and trust me, they were insistent. I knew they just wanted to celebrate the happy occasion the way they knew how -- the way tradition had taught them -- and give me an opportunity to meet new friends and family before the wedding. I knew they wanted for me the fond, if awkward, memories they had of their own showers. And I knew they wanted the chance to beam with pride as I tore open the place settings and fancy sheets that, for them, were material symbols that their children were now adults embarking on a new life together. (And also, they wanted those material things to be very nice things.)

I warmed to the idea, brainstorming with my sister (who, as maid of honor, would apparently be charged with throwing the affair) on how we could reinvent the shower to reflect my own values and sensibilities. Why not focus on the female bonding part of the ritual and have a gift-less shower? The moms shook their heads. How about a Jack-and-Jill shower to dodge the gender-stereotyping aspect? My fiancé nixed the idea (double the guests, double the fuss). What if, instead of boring guests with gift opening, we hire entertainment in the form of a makeup artist to give lessons, or a chair masseuse to give mini-massages? I thought this last one was brilliant. But my mother frowned. Said my mother-in-law, "You don't have to massage my friends. They're just happy for you and want to come and celebrate you. They really do."

Conflicted, I went home in tears. On the one hand, I didn't want to compromise my values. But I also didn't want to disappoint the moms. Tangled up in all of this, I realized, was a question of identity: I didn't want to be the hypocrite who snarked on showers in singlehood, only to fill a registry with crystal stemware the moment she got engaged.

A few weeks later, my fiancé and I went to dinner with friends -- a relatively newlywed couple, themselves. When talk of wedding planning came up, I bemoaned my shower predicament. My girlfriend nodded sympathetically, having faced the shower question herself. And then she said something that flipped a switch inside me. "I came to realize," she said, "that there are worse things in the world than people trying to do nice things for you."

I got it. Without resentment, I understood that the wedding and all the pageantry leading up to it wasn't just about me and my husband-to-be. Nor should it be. It was every bit as much about our families, about our parents. Our mothers weren't trying to dictate what dress I wore or what music we picked. They wanted to channel their joy into throwing a little party, for heaven's sake. Why should I rob them of that, or the chance for them to bond in the planning of it? If something as benign as a bridal shower was a menace to my identity, I seriously needed to check myself before I wrecked myself.

And so permission was granted. I had but two caveats: I asked that it be a surprise so that I wasn't anxious in the days and hours leading up to it. And I requested that my fiancé be there for the opening of the gifts that were, after all, equally his.

When I walked into a condo clubhouse for my fiancé's "company picnic" on an August afternoon, I was genuinely surprised. Not only by the shower itself, whose date and whereabouts the moms kept expertly under wraps. But by all the smiling faces and the genuine love in the room. I was so touched that women came from hours away to be there -- and I didn't even have to massage them. In the end, all my fuss and worry was wasted energy. It was a lovely day from which I'll always have the memory of our mothers, beaming so proudly from the sidelines.

And, I'm not gonna lie: Sleeping on fancy sheets feels pretty nice.