How to Gift in America

 The gift of giving. (

“So, when are we throwing you a baby shower?” a well-meaning American friend asked my six-months pregnant self over dinner a few weeks ago.

“Erm… I dunno,” I stuttered.

This is not an event I’d ever imagined being held in my honor. I’ve had a wedding, so naturally I assumed that the next big knees up with me as the centerpiece would be my funeral.  Now that it’s been mooted, I find the whole shower (of gifts, presumably) idea a bit unsettling.

“To be honest, it feels a bit money-grabbing. You know, having this thing, where people are supposed to buy you a thing… it’s just not very… British,” I added, aware that I sounded ungratefully snotty, like Downton’s dowager countess if someone offered her paella.

“But it’s what people do here.” He had a point. All the other pregnant women I’ve met in New York are having baby showers and none of them are apologizing for it.  Not only that, they’re registering.

For the uninitiated, this is what Americans call it when they sign up with a retailer and craft a personalized catalog to send out to their friends and family, who then buy them stuff from it. Apparently, though, the more dignified thing to do is to wait to be asked for your list rather than brazenly link to it in a round-robin or plaster it on the invites.

Still, I get the impression that some Americans think it’s their constitutional right not only to receive gifts but to demand them. As I understand it, women who get married here require a minimum of three offerings per guest: one for the bachelorette party, a wedding shower gift and a present for the main event. People must have to take out loans for this stuff, or drop good friends as soon as they get engaged.

By contrast, most Brits allow themselves a single “want” list – for their wedding – per lifetime. And, unless they’re completely missing the genetic code for self-awareness and modesty, they’ll distribute it with embarrassed humility. I decided against one for my own nuptials but then all those stories about couples getting 57 of the same Argos toaster unnerved me. Eventually, I relented but coyly headed the relevant section of our mail-out “That awkward bit about presents.”

“Look,” my baby shower friend reasoned. “Having a kid is expensive. And people want to get you something. Enjoy!” Hmm. Do they really? I remain unconvinced. But, clearly it’s what’s expected here. And what am I trying to prove by holding out? That I’m above it all? That I hate presents? That pastel-colored wrapping paper with nappy motifs really creeps me out? Yes to all of the above.  Except the one about presents — I really do like those a lot.

And besides, if everyone else in the U.S. who spends nine months selflessly gestating gets loot, then I sort of want to feel I’m part of the gang: the grasping, guilt-your-friends gang.

So tell me, fellow expat Brits: should I have a baby shower?  Or stick to my big British guns?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • ThatOtherGuy

    They are going to buy you presents anyway. Better to tell them what you’d like or you’re going to be stuck with some white elephants.

  • Gillian Ladley

    My American family threw me a proper US style Bridal shower before I got married. It was a complete surprise, and I thought it was really lovely.

    If you can get someone else to arrange it, why not? As ThatOtherGuy says, people will probably give you gifts regardless, and you might enjoy it!

  • ExPat Andy

    Sounds to me like you are struggling with adjusting from a British lifestyle to an American lifestyle that you are currently embarking on…and being an ex-pat…the phrase “not very British” sounds somewhat pretentious. So you should have a shower…if nothing else to not offend your friends that are wanting to throw one for you.

  • JLo

    My friends threw me a surprise shower, but I didn’t register so they got me clothes and toys (most of which didn’t fit because he was 10lbs!). But I’ve been to some showers where they got their entire nursery filled, and I find it really strange to have other people buying all your baby stuff for you. If you read any of the pregnancy forums, it’s all about whining because your MIL got the car seat in the fabric you didn’t want, but you can’t change it because she’ll be offended etc etc. Just buy your own and be done with it!

    • Josie

      Those whiners are ungrateful and should be told so. It’s about family and friends wanting to help welcome a new little person into the world. I’m just wondering Jen, did you still send thank-you notes for the clothes that didn’t fit on the premise that it is the thought that counts, or did you go on the forums and whine that they were too small?

  • Rachel Witherspoon

    Im sorry to tell you, but you DO sound a little snotty, and better than thou about it all. Here, its what is done for family and friends to help them “set up house”, and is not necessarily “Greedy and grasping”, in most cases. I think, maybe in your case, that your only seeing a certain income level gifting, Because even the least of us want to help our friends, and many times, young couples need that help, like myself, who used all money or gift cards given to help set up electric and water, and buy cooking utensils and bedding. Without the kindness of those people, we would have had to live with the parents or in-laws for a long while, being a burden. Some people suffer from lack of funds, and here, unfortunatly, we DON’T have socialized medicine, and pregnancy can be EXTREMELY expensive, never mind the absurdly high cost of formula and nappies. You make it sound like we should be ashamed to need help from people who love and respect you, even if they can only help out with a baby bottle, or a package of diapers

  • The Giver

    This is nothing like what actually happens no one expects to have a gift the point of a gift is making someone happy not expecting it. Do not judge a country based on what a few may do.

  • Judith Nelson-Spanks

    Baby showers are usually a lot of fun apart from gift-giving. There are games, food and cake. For some they are a reason to help out a new mom or perhaps a couple that doesn’t have a lot of money. For others it is a party and the gifts are secondary. Your friends can usually tell what kind of party you want. I always feel awkward about asking for particular gifts and I’m an American. I feel like gifts should be something I know nothing about until I open them. However, the 57 toasters thing would be a disaster. One good thing to tell your friends is if you are doing the nursery in a certain color or cartoon. I have heard of people having diaper showers as well. Which means the guests don’t bring gifts, they just bring different kinds and sizes of diapers. I’m sure whatever you decide you will have a great time! People (at least in America, IDK about the UK) really get excited about new babies and they will probably buy you things whether you ask them to or not and whether you have a shower of any kind or not. If it was me, I would have a shower and not be too specific about gifts, you can always return things if the guests provide gift receipts!

  • Winston Bishop

    As others have said, you sound a bit stereotypically pretentious. It may not be very British, but neither is the lifestyle you lead in New York.

    It’s high time to leave that arrogance behind – you’re not a turn-of-the-century businesswomen in colonial Hong Kong trying desperately to create the semblance of British living via denouncement of your host’s culture. You’re a BBC blog-writer living in the wealthiest city of the wealthiest country on earth – the culture of which isn’t nearly as different from yours as most Britons might have you believe.

    Have the bloody party.

    • Collette C. Kilbourne

      Pardon me, but you, sir, are rude.

      • Christy

        You are pardoned. Just don’t let it happen again, Collette

    • Josie

      Except for the one word at the end, there, I rather think you were frank and unpretentious, not rude.

  • catrin

    Seeing all of the comments about this being snobby and pretentious… I don’t agree… but that’s probably just because of the different culture.
    I always feel extremely embarrassed accepting gifts from anyone, even for things like birthday and christmas! xD

    • gn

      Even if you reciprocate the gift?

  • expatmum

    This is a huge cultural difference and I’m quite amused that so many see your reluctance as snobbery, arrogance or pretentiousness. It’s just not part of our personal history to have so many parties and gifts given, so it can seem a little grasping.
    And really.. what the heck is so offensive about saying “it’s not very British”? – it simply means “I’m not used to this ’cause it’s not what I’ve grown up with”. Fact.
    Having said all that, I agree that you should just let them get on with it because t would seem churlish to turn everyone down, and you’ll probably end up getting presents anyway. And don’t forget, everything comes with a gift receipt so you can take whatever you don’t want back to the store and exchange it.

    • Josie

      “I’m not used to this,” says, “I’m not used to this.” “It’s not very British,” says, “I prefer the British way and am unwilling to adjust despite the fact that I have chosen to make your country my home at this point in my life.”
      As proudly multicultural as the British are, so are we Americans, at least most of us who have been born and raise here, proudly a melting pot. Saying I want to live among you, reap the benefits of your representative democracy, your economy, your rejection of old-world class consciousness and feudalism, and embrace your idea that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough, is a bit of a slap in the face. Rejecting the generosity of your friends, who want to share in and celebrate your new joy, seems rude and selfish.

      • expatmum

        That’s reading an awful lot into one little phrase! But again, this is an example of cultural differences. If someone was asking me why I was so uncomfortable with something (such as showers, as here) and I was trying to explain that I wasn’t brought up with it, the phrase “It’s just not very British” would mean no more and no less than that. It certainly wouldn’t be intended to cause a fit of indignation.

  • Kate

    Ok, what is with all of these “you’re so snobby” comments? I am an American and I feel extremely uncomfortable asking for presents too and do not “get” wedding and baby showers. I am also not a fan of registries either. Asking for gifts so blatantly like that just would make me uncomfortable–not to mention the total humiliation that would come with being the center of attention at a party. I don’t even like having happy birthday sung to me or anyone having a party in my honor for that either. (I am also convinced I was born in the wrong country. My level or reserve feels a bit out of place in the American Midwest, where people will accuse you of being rude or a snob because you are shy. I must admit, I like how everyone else is outgoing though because with my natural reserve I wouldn’t meet very many people…but I digress.)

    And a side note to all of you people saying showers are fun–are you insane? Most of those types of “games” and just watching someone open presents can be quite boring. The chit chat and food part and talking about the upcoming baby/wedding are fun though. I have no interest in ever having one of these types of events because I HATE being the center of attention, and just thinking about one day getting married in front of a lot of people is enough to make me nervous.

    Also, when did bachelorette parties become gift giving events too? I thought it was just a time to party with your girlfriends, but then I went to one and everyone gave the bride gifts (except me because I was clueless). I couldn’t help but think though, I had to travel out of town for the bridal shower, bachelorette party, and wedding, and I spent quite a lot of money on that plus gifts for the shower and wedding–was I really expected to get yet another gift for the bride? It seemed like overkill to me, and if I was the bride, I would be embarrassed to be receiving so many gifts–everyone’s presence would be enough for me.

  • lissatz

    I know you are asking expat Brits for advice, but I feel the need to put in my two cents on one thing: most people (in America, at least) DO want to buy you something for your baby. I absolutely LOVE buying baby gifts and find it hard to hold myself back. If you think you might want to go forth with it, just invite a limited number of people so you don’t have to feel so guilty about it.

  • Tanya

    You sound kinda snooty in this article…
    Baby showers are an American tradition.
    It sounds to me like you’re just having a hard time adjusting to the culture.

  • gn

    As a father of two, I can confirm that an eight-months-pregnant lady has a constitutional right to ANYTHING SHE WANTS :)

  • Sara Jean

    As an American, I know that at least for my friends and I, it really is something we enjoy doing. I’ve spent the past few months working on knitting and sewing projects and such for family and friends. Not many of my friends (ranging in age from 13-18ish) have many things on their list this year- I asked for a jar of cheese dip or a TARDIS hat- but it’s so much fun to watch people open your present and see the look on their face. When I come up with the perfect idea for a present, the recipients response makes my day. I’d say just give it a try. And if you don’t want to join in yet, they’re probably fine with that too. But be warned- the gifts will come, wanted or not! 😉

  • Rachel

    Your point of view is so refreshing…it can be a bit much when wedding season comes around and you’re expected to buy 3 separate gifts for 6 or 7 brides. I love gift-giving but I have never been a huge fan of showers (although it is very American to enjoy being the center of attention). I suppose I prefer gifts that are spontaneous rather than scheduled. In fact, I’ve made my family and close friends swear not to throw a wedding shower for me. That being said, baby showers do tend to be more enjoyable than other showers. It’s exciting to see all of those tiny, pastel presents being unwrapped by a glowing mum-to-be. Congratulations and I hope your shower (if it happens) is lovely!

  • Collette C. Kilbourne

    It’s not snobbish at all! Honestly. Just not the way we were raised. Big difference really. But when in Rome, as they say. I say why not give it a go. Just be prepared for a barrage of very overly cute and undignified ooh and ahs, crinkled noses and baby talk during the whole affair. I’ve been to several and they can be quite a lot of fun actually. Very helpful in setting up nursery as well.

  • Olivia

    “Still, I get the impression that some Americans think it’s their constitutional right not only to receive gifts but to demand them.”

    Perhaps it’s not so much that we Americans want to receive gifts, but truly enjoy giving them? A lot of people, regardless of nationality, are this way. I already had a gift for my friend’s son before she even thought of a baby shower. I could wait ages to open the gifts that are under the Christmas tree for me, but the anticipation of seeing others open what I bought them is driving me mad!!!

  • Meow

    I know you weren’t looking for opinions from Americans, but here is one anyway. I was a little stunned by your assertion that three gifts must be given to those getting married. I’ve always been taught that a gift is never required for any occasion, but should one choose to give a gift, it is certainly appreciated. Typically unless I am very close to a bride or groom, I choose one occasion during the showers and parties to which I bring or send a gift. This has never been frowned upon by my friends and that was the norm in the wedding and shower gifts I received. Perhaps you might re-evaluate those with whom you spend your time – just kidding.

    By all means, though, allow your friends to give you a baby shower. It is as much for them as it is for you, as those who enjoy them (I am not one of those people), truly love giving/attending them.

  • hotgeek88

    From the moment your friends in the US found out you were expecting, I
    guarantee they started looking for gifts, and if not immediately, then
    certainly once the baby’s sex was confirmed. They may have even already
    bought it and will therefore be hugely disappointed if you don’t have a
    shower. Its traditional for first-time mothers and optional for any
    subsequent children. It may not be very British, but if you are on our
    side of the pond, it will be expected. :)

  • astudyingreek

    If it makes you feel any better, I am an American, and I was horrified and then had to apologize for being horrified, when I found out that my husbands family sends out these registries every Christmas and Birthday. I had to apologize because while the look of shock was unintentional, did insult my husband, for whom this was the tradition in his family.

    In my family it would have been completely rude to send out “requests” for any kind of present, for any holiday or occasion, even if you ended up with 40 toasters, you’d send out a card expressing your deepest thanks and how you’d always wanted 40 of the exact same toaster and be grateful. As well, in my family, though, you don’t insult other family traditions as diametrically opposed as they are from your own. They eat infants for Easter? Oh, how lovely! Why didn’t we ever think of that? And then politely excuse yourself to go phone the police, but not before thanking the host/hostess for a wonderful evening…

    • expatmum

      Good grief, I’ve never come across a family who do that at Xmases and birthdays. Unbelievable!

  • Lorri

    We don’t give presents for bachelorette parties, unless you are talking about dime-store tacky funny stuff.

  • Christy

    Yes, it must be a hard-knock life. You know, having to deal with so many whom “aren’t very British” trying to force their gifts upon you. How appalling! The nerve of those damn Yankee Doodles! Grrrr….

  • Christy

    Out of curiosity, do these evil shower-throwing friends of yours happen to read your blog? No? Well, if you want to take care of those pesky American “gift-giving “ne’er do-wells” simply direct them here. Problem AND solved — you’re welcome!

  • Ryan Haber

    Men aren’t usually involved in showers or bachelor parties, and oftentimes the wedding gifts seem more directed toward the woman, and bachelor parties don’t really involve gifts, except maybe as practical jokes, and that is all fine.

    But you will hurt your American friends’ feelings if you don’t acquiesce on the point, and some might interpret it as standoffish, or worst of all – assume you had one and that they weren’t invited for some reason.

    We like to fawn on people here – just a bit – but a bit more than you Brits do, I expect. It’s not bad. It can even be fun if you relax and let yourself be princess for a day.