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Stick a fork in it

Why do so many brides register for the same wedding gifts their mothers did?

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 27, 2011

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Ever since she was a girl, newlywed Celena Fine has known what kind of wife she’d be: traditional, just like her mom. “She’s great at cooking and I thought I would be, too,’’ Fine said.

When it came time to register for wedding gifts, she asked for high-end pots and pans, a Cuisinart, a blender, an emulsifier (so she could make her own salad dressing), and a Martha Stewart cutting board and colander set.

There was just one problem, said Fine, 27, an assignment editor at Channel 7. “I realized — post wedding — that I hate to cook.’’

“I wanted to be that person,’’ she said wistfully. “I wanted [my husband] to come home and for me to have dinners ready for him. But the last thing I want to do when I come home is put together a meal. It’s kind of sad.’’

Perhaps, but not uncommon.

Some couples do register for nontraditional gifts, such as cash, kayaks, or a wine-of-the-month club. And a select few ask guests to donate to charity, as Prince William and Kate Middleton are reportedly considering. But the vast majority, according to Amy Eisinger, editor of the WeddingChannel.com, still ask for the same presents couples have requested for ages: fancy china, crystal wine glasses, crock pots — regardless of whether they’ll ever use them.

With the wedding registry season upon us — 40 percent of engagements take place between November and February, according to a survey by the WeddingChannel.com and TheKnot.com — consider this a cautionary tale.

Let’s start with newlywed LeRoy Watkins III, 30, of Everett. “My [now] wife said we’d entertain a lot when we got married,’’ he said. “Sometimes we do, but we’ve never had an occasion to use the quote-unquote china. Somehow it’s never an appropriate time.’’

What is appropriate, added Watkins, the owner of MyBike, a bike rental company, are plastic utensils and plates. “We don’t want to have to do the dishes.’’

As for that coffee grinder they asked for, it’s too loud. And the Shark brand steam mop has simply never been used. “I should sell it all on eBay,’’ he said.

Kate Kendall, 40, a Waltham mother of a pre-schooler, has a different problem with her registry: the lack of time to use what she asked for. Registering for gifts for her 2003 wedding, she imagined herself making weekly soups, stews, and roasts in her new crockpot. Alas, life got in the way. She barely uses it.

“It takes up a lot of space on the shelf,’’ she said.

Stephanie Coontz, the author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s,’’ said some brides almost can’t help themselves from registering for things they may never use. “We have these tapes in our heads about how the wedding itself should be conducted, and what you should ask for. It’s very common for people to think, when I’m married I will be like my mother or grandmother or like the fantasies I had when I was 10.’’

Coontz, the director of research and public education at the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families, notes that registries became popular in the 1950s, when most women moved directly from their parents’ house to their marital home, or lived on their own for just a few years in between. In 1955, the median age at first marriage for a woman was 20.2, according to the US Census Bureau, compared with 26.1 in 2010. In those six years on their own, women — and men — accumulate a lot of household goods. The idea of the registry, Coontz said, “is more than 50 years behind the times.’’

Sometimes it’s not the bride and groom’s fault they don’t use all those gifts — they don’t actually have them. Kim Stone, a senior event manager at Rafanelli Events, reports that some couples, living in small apartments or condos, have gifts sent directly to their parents’ house — and sometimes don’t pick them up for years.

“Everyone is living in the city and not moving to the suburbs so quickly. They often don’t see the stuff until they’ve bought a house 10 years down the road.’’

Elise Cherny, of Newton, is one of those parents hosting her child’s wedding loot. While the kitchen appliances and other goodies do take up space in her basement, there’s an upside: This past Thanksgiving she couldn’t find her Cuisinart — and then remembered there was a new one sitting right on the pool table.

“I could have a party down there with all the stuff,’’ she said. Yes, the Cuisinart belonged to her son and new daughter-in-law, but on the other hand, she said, “there was a lot of chopping to do.’’

But what’s a couple to do? It’s hard to know what you’re going to want decades hence, and there’s lot of pressure to do what mom did, said Eisinger of WeddingChannel.com. “The women around you have always registered for fine china so it sort of makes sense. You saw this happen, and you’re going to do this as well.’’

“But,’’ she added, “I also argue that you can get a little trigger happy when you get that scanner in the store. You say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a beautiful porcelain bowl.’ But will you use it? You are wrapped up in the moment when you are in the store.’’

Still, Marblehead-based etiquette consultant Jodi R.R. Smith warns the brides she works with about flouting tradition.

“Registries are such a tightrope to walk. There are things that couples so obviously want and use immediately — like a large-screen TV — but five years from now they’ll be on to a plasma TV, and the wedding gift will be in the recycle bin, versus some of the more traditional registry things, which you keep forever.’’

Couples in their late 20s and early 30s might not be able to imagine hosting a formal dinner, she said, but then the years pass, “and they realize it would be nice to host an Easter dinner or a Passover Seder and pull out that china. If you don’t have it, now you’re looking at the expense of buying china — it’s $5,000 and you’re not going to spend it.

While many brides love registering, the anxiety over taking advantage of life’s biggest gift-getting opportunity can be overwhelming, especially for those who aren’t used to keeping house or cooking.

Consider Sarah Muller, 27, of Boston, one of the confused. Busy with a full-time job and law school, and overwhelmed by decisions over pots and pans and linens and blenders, she asked her mother to register for her upcoming February wedding. Her registry is now filled with appropriate kitchen appliances, which has left her, like a lot of brides, counting on the fact that she’ll be a different person after her wedding.

“I’m not very domestic,’’ she said, “but I’m going to attempt.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.