I lost my baby shower virginity on a temperate Tuesday in October. The sky was muddled; the leaves had slunk past red and were spinning, brown and dry, to the asphalt. After work, I drove from my work site back to the main office holding a plastic bag printed with butterflies between my knees.
The women were pleasantly appalled. My first baby shower? I was 28! What had my friends been doing? Didn't I have any family starting a family? (The answers, unspoken, in no particular order: reading novels; no.)
Someone placed a plastic pacifier on a ribbon around my neck; someone else thrust into my hand a cup of pink punch frothy with cream. I watched a video slide show set to inspirational soft-rock hits and I avoided holding the real version of a that video's star, a petite pink bundle who slept and pooped with the blithe disregard of the very new.
It was understood, what you did. You drank your punch. You ate the mini-meatballs and the candy hearts and the homemade truffles with the strange, cake-like filling. You chatted about babies in general and babies in particular, and admired the way the bunker-like conference room had been transformed, with the aid of tablecloths and centerpieces and coordinated tablewear and pink favors and a line of tiny onesies, each bearing a letter of the baby's name, tacked to the wall, into a shrine to babies.
You played baby shower games involving tasting baby food and stealing one another's pacifiers and identifying chocolate bars smeared into diapers. You marveled at the diaper cake and oohed when each pink-ribboned package blossomed into a pink-ribboned pinafore or bunny costume or changing mat. You endured good-natured ribbing about when you, yourself, would get around to reproducing. When the baby cried, you did not flinch.
I was prepared, when I signed up to work for an inner city school system, to face cultural dislocation. I knew that as a white, middle-class woman dealing almost exclusively with black people living in poverty, I would be a stranger in a world with its own rules and rhythms. I would do the wrong thing. Sometimes I would guess the right thing. I would be aware, each and every day, of my difference.
But I wasn't prepared for the second, subtler cultural gap between myself and my colleagues. It's a sneakier gulf: smaller, easier to navigate. Like my colleagues, I'm white. Like them, I'm college-educated. I only feel the full force of the difference at events like the baby shower, or when I use a word that's too big or too specific, or when the psychologist asks everyone at the office which wedding cake she should pick for her daughter and I am the only person on a staff of 22 voting for the one with fewer candy curlicues.
The song howls, "Back Home Again in Indiana" -but I'm not home, not really, and maybe it was naive of me to assume that I was. Indiana is on my birth certificate, but my parents are college professors, and it's more accurate to say I was born in academia. Babies are obstacles, in academia. They interfere with dissertation deadlines and strain skimpy graduate stipends and cry during lectures. They're accepted when properly timed, but they certainly do not merit spun-sugar rattles or games with pureed meat or a fake cake constructed entirely of disposable diapers.
Academia is its own country, with its own rhythms and rules. And every time I hope that I've transcended it -that I can blend in, assimilate, pass- it wrenches me home.