Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lowering my standards

I love to cook.

The first birthday cake I made for my eldest son was an overachiever's delight. My husband and I labored late into the night, lovingly crafting Spongebob out of homemade madeira (don't skimp on the butter), and fondant icing. So lifelike, it felt wrong to cut him, especially when he bled strawberry jam and a couple of the smaller guests almost passed out.

Over the years, I've made Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine, various Teletubbies, a soccer field, and the entire cast of Star Wars. And while I loved the result, getting there was always stressful. Particularly because in addition to making a cake for a party at home, I would also deliver 24 beautifully-crafted, home-made cupcakes to school for the class celebration.

My work partner Dave pointed out, every year, that I should just buy the cupcakes.

"I can't. I just can't."
"But you'll be cooking 'til midnight."
"They have to have homemade cakes."
"I always did."

I was desperately hanging on to my childhood notions of "what makes a good mum". My mum was an amazing cook, who created meringue swans afloat on seas of blue jelly (jello, I believe, is the U.S. translation). She scooped out orange halves to make dessert-filled baskets and boats. Her crowning glory was a field of mushrooms, made of green jelly and meringue, with lightly sprinkled chocolate flakes lying in a wispy circle under each fungi, representing the spores that fall through the night. Spores. She remembered the spores.

It's quite clear I get my kitchen overachiever gene from my mum.

You might say times have changed. But my mum worked too. Although, by her own admission, not like I do. And, most critically, my mum is able to get by on 4 hours sleep a night. I most certainly am not.

It came to a head when my son's birthday fell during a particularly busy spell at work. Whisking butter and sugar together at 1:00 am would have sent me over the edge. Something had to give.

I went to the fanciest cupcake shop I could find, and dropped $60 on 2 dozen sunflower-bedecked concoctions. My son's class loved them. Scoffed them down in 5 seconds flat.

The world did not end.

So after years of turning out butterfly cupcakes (the key word is butter, NEVER margarine), I made my peace with the fact that I am not my mum. And I am not a bad mother if I buy cupcakes. I am a sane one. A mother for the 21st century.

I called to confess to my mum that I had bought cupcakes.

"Well, that makes sense," she said.
"I feel like a bad mother. You always made everything."
"You've got more on your plate. I don't know how you do it."

The guilt melted away. I have since lowered my standards even further, and these days buy not only the cupcakes, but the big party cake too. Let's face it, when you're feeding kids something sugary, it barely touches the sides. Why waste the effort?

I also gave up on the fancy cupcake shop. This year, I bought the biggest cake I've ever seen. At Costco. I didn't handwhisk butter into it. But I paid my $17.95 in a really, really loving way.


  1. I went through the same thing when my daughters were the same age as your boys. Then one year I made all individually decorated cupcakes and the kid's fought over my cupcakes. The teacher told me that It was a disaster and that was the end of my going crazy over the cupcakes. Now, my son's class won't even let me celebrate his birthday in class. So my cupcake crazy times are gone.

    I must say though there was something about making them that warmed my heart. I get it Steph.

  2. I remember that Spongebob cake. That's about all I remember from that day.

  3. We did drink rather a lot of champagne, didn't we? I couldn't believe I was still alive one year in.

  4. There is a book, whose name, of course escapes me, which begins with a description of an overworked high powered mother who purchases cupcakes for her child's school bd celebration, as opposed to making them herself. She goes through great lengths to throw the plastic and wrappings into the trash chute directly so that the nanny will not see her transgression and report it to the other nannies and they, in turn, their employers. The amount of energy involved in this behavior seems very wasteful, would rather buy wine online. Glad we are all making progress on this issue from wherever we enter into the spin cycle of this particular hellhole of comparative domesticity meant to be a show of love and caring. Our mothers were larger than the sum of their domestic parts to their children, as are we.