With their colorful bombast and collectivism, gender reveals can feel like a new twist on an ancient ritual. And this ritual might be more for the mother’s benefit than the baby’s. Rituals are often created for times of enormous stress, says Nick Hobson, a psychologist and consultant who studies rituals. Take wintertime, whose depressing dreariness we zhuzh up with candles and presents during the holidays. Similarly, “pregnancy and labor is basically an exercise in managing massive amounts of stress and uncertainty,” Hobson says. Gender reveals lend structure and order to the chaos, helping parents manage their stress. You don’t know how your delivery is going to go, but you know one thing: It’s a girl, and everyone was so happy to hear it.
Florence Pasche Guignard, a religious-studies instructor at Ryerson University, watched hundreds of videos of gender reveals for her 2015 study on the topic, “A Gendered Bun in the Oven.” She notes that there is otherwise a stark lack of pregnancy-related rituals in North American culture. A baby might get baptized and christened, but pregnant women mostly get told not to drink wine or eat soft cheese. They’re frequently advised to buy baby stuff and read baby books—for the good of the baby. Gender-reveal products can certainly play into that industry by giving women even more stuff to buy, but a special ceremony to celebrate the pregnancy itself also can help fill that void.
Gender reveals can offer some parents a way to “re-enchant pregnancy,” Guignard told me. Most importantly, she writes, they fulfill the ‘‘very American cultural imperative of fun.” (This is perhaps why academics don’t get invited to many parties.)
It makes sense that a new ritual devised for pregnancy would be full of balloons and cake, rather than prayers and blessings. That’s in keeping with the trajectory of modern American society, in which atheists are one of the fastest-growing religious groups. “As society becomes more secular, we do turn to more nonreligious rituals,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.
Read: Three decades ago, America lost its religion. Why?
It also makes sense that gender would be a part of this new ritual. The elements that get wrapped into rituals tend to reflect whatever’s already swirling around a culture. Communities near water, for instance, develop water-related rituals, notes Michael Norton, a psychologist at Harvard Business School. Right now, he points out, gender is a hot topic in American culture. In recent years, the concept of masculinity has been dissected and debated, the rights of transgender people have been especially jeopardized, and parenting blogs have cautioned against calling girls “my little princess.”
Part of the pushback against gender reveals might even arise because it’s common for people to rebel against new rituals. “The first time you go to your in-laws’ for Thanksgiving, you’re horrified because they’re doing it wrong,” Norton says. Nevertheless, gender reveals show no obvious signs of decline. Clarke, the mom of four, told me, “I really don’t care what other people think or say about it.” As Andrew Lester, who runs Gender Reveal Celebrations, sees it, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. “I’m not gonna try to convince you,” he says.
Reilly, from Poof There It Is, didn’t give up after that first, imperfect gender reveal. His wife is currently pregnant with her third, and recently the couple did get their dream celebration. As a drone hovered overhead filming, the party’s guests fired 100 handheld tube “cannons” that rained down blue-dyed cornstarch and confetti, a modern fanfare heralding a prince.