It’s August 2021 and I’m Facetiming with my husband as the sun sets on my 35th birthday. I’ve been spending the week with my family at a small lake in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in a cabin with the rustic “charm” of spotty internet. He’s back home in our New York City apartment, sorting through cards and packages — a combination of birthday wishes for me and recently redeemed Amazon gift card orders from his birthday the week before.
“This one has both of our names on it,” he says, lifting an oversized box into the frame while I wave my phone into a cobweb-filled corner, hoping for a stronger connection so I can actually see what he’s trying to show me.
“Do you want to open it?” I ask, figuring it’s a gift for both of us. He does.
I catch a glimpse of what’s inside and immediately know it’s not a birthday gift. It’s too big, too nice, too expensive. The packaging is black with big bold letters. It’s a full block set of knives, and the card confirms it’s a wedding present, arriving on the eve of our second wedding anniversary.
By the time I got engaged, I’d been to enough weddings to know what to expect — shower, bachelorette party, rehearsal dinner, wedding reception — but nothing could have prepared me for the swell of celebration and support that followed my own engagement.
From the day I shared the news of my engagement three years ago, the message has been clear: “We want to celebrate you.” And it’s been wonderful.
But it’s also made me wonder: Why me? Why now? In getting married I hadn’t accomplished anything. I hadn’t overcome anything. Why was this moment, more than any other, the one that kicked off three years of congratulations, gifts and well wishes regularly arriving at my door? And why was I on the receiving end of so much more support and celebration than my unmarried friends?
Women’s milestones extend far beyond marriage and motherhood, yet our traditions for supporting the women in our lives haven’t evolved to support them.
While scrolling through pages of $50 salt and pepper shakers to decide what to add to the wedding registry I kept being asked to share, I couldn’t shake the memory of having my first book published and the struggle I felt begging friends and family to spend $20 on a copy. It was easier to get a full set of Crate & Barrel wine glasses (red and white) shipped to my doorstep to celebrate my marriage than it was to get the people in my life to leave free reviews of my podcast.
And I know it’s not just me.
But despite my own experience, and seeing all of this, I still find myself ill-equipped to celebrate milestones that fall outside the scope of marriage and motherhood, like the girlfriend whose life’s work culminates in the completion of a PhD or the start of her dream job.
No matter how many exclamation points or confetti emojis I include after “Congratulations,” I can’t help feeling that my support rarely matches the scale of the moment.
There’s no registry for passing the bar exam or the boards.
No shower for getting out of a toxic job or marriage. It’s easier to buy a Halloween card than it is to find a greeting to celebrate your girlfriend paying off her student loans after ten years of hard work and sacrifice.
But when she announces her engagement, you know what to expect — you stick the Save the Date on your fridge, mark your calendar, look up the registry and chime into the group text thread of bridal shower ideas. You know exactly how to celebrate her.
While our rituals for celebrating weddings and babies continue to expand limitlessly (and sometimes problematically; see: gender reveals), the ways we show up for women in the rest of their lives still fall painfully short.
There is no clear cultural tradition for celebrating bold individual or career milestones. Where are the registries to support someone who just moved to a brand new city? Why not have a tradition of new business bridesmaids? Should it really be so unusual to have a shower for the novel you spent a decade working to finish?
When I think about what made my wedding so meaningful, it wasn’t the new set of knives or the wine glasses. It was the experience of being fully supported: having people in my life excitedly checking in and asking if there was anything they could do to help. I felt seen and championed in a way I’d never experienced before — not when I was overcome by self doubt after publishing my first pieces of writing, or wracked with imposter syndrome establishing my own business. Or pulling all nighters to prepare for the biggest opportunities of my career. I think how meaningful the support and celebration I got at my wedding might have been in those moments.
If what we celebrate and support is an indication of what we see and value in one another, it’s time to end the narrative that the only things worth celebrating are baby bumps and diamond rings.
And if we believe women are more than wives and mothers, let’s find ways to expand how we celebrate them by championing milestones beyond pregnancies and engagements.
Image: moodboard /Brand X Pictures via GettyImages