On Friday my son turned five. And so it was that on Thursday night I found myself elbow deep in dark chocolate cake batter and made-from-scratch coconut frosting, carefully following a recipe from the very chic Boston bakey Flour. After asking Conor to name all of the children in his kindergarten class (twice) to be sure I would make enough cupcakes, I filled 18 spaces in my two non-stick pans and stuck them in the oven. Then I collapsed—while I love to cook, I hate baking, since it requires precise measurement and careful attention to detail, for which I have little energy left in the evenings given that such effort is required at work all day long. Normally I would have taken a shortcut and used a mix to make life easier, but I wanted Conor’s cupcakes to be exactly as he’d asked for them—very chocolate, and very coconut.
Well, what those cupcakes really were—I learned 25 minutes later—was stuck. Glued to the pan, going absolutely nowhere. So much for “non-stick;” those suckers weren’t moving. No, I didn’t use cupcake liners; I was trying to be “green.” All of that Penzey's dutch-processed cocoa, organic butter and eggs, for nothing.
I went to bed distressed. Now what? We needed 18 cupcakes by 930 am, and they had to be great. Yeah, I knew they were for a bunch of 4 and 5-year-olds, but still-- they really just had to be great. I searched West Madison online for bakeries, pondering the one with the $3 organic cupcakes (really??), the good ol'stanby Costco (not open til 10), and a new place a Facebook friend recommended. As my eyes closed, I berated myself for obsessing this way. How could I have forgotten the cardinal rules of academic motherhood, and even attempted to bake cupcakes? My own UW colleague, Simone Schweber, once wrote a brilliant column for the Chronicle about this-- and I had neglected the wisdom of her words, also written after attempting to make perfect cupcakes: "I was always afraid that I wouldn't be a good mother, much less a perfect one, and indeed, it's much easier to make perfect, if ridiculous, cupcakes than to be a good mother."
The next morning, I dropped Conor off at school and set myself on a path for the grocery store. A $5 or $10 box of cupcakes from the bakery department would be just fine for these little palates, I told myself. I drove towards Sentry. And then, to my astonishment, I turned left-- and instead made a beeline for Cupcakes-A-Go-Go. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience; I got out of the car, went in and purchased 18 cupcakes, handing over my Amex and charging $54 -- all the while screaming (silently) at myself "STOP IT, this is CRAZY!"
What in the heck had happened to me? I knew the money was better spent elsewhere, that the kids wouldn't taste the difference, and that no one but me was demanding that I do this. I knew that only children would be present at the celebration, no other parents, and that my kid's school (a Waldorf program) does its best to discourage conspicuous consumption. As a sociologist, I further knew that my behaviors were class-linked, and that I ought to actively resist them. I knew this, I knew that, and I simply couldn't stop.
So I brought the cupcakes back to kindergarten, and my husband and I served them. Conor smiled and enjoyed a chocolate one, and the other kids (including my 2-year-old daughter) licked their fingers happily. The eating lasted all of 10 minutes, and then it was done. $54 worth of sugar, consumed.
What happened Friday morning is going to stay with me for a long time. Mainly because I still can't understand it. Was I simply over-compensating for the guilt of being a working mom? I don't think so, since I really don't feel my family is anything but proud of my career. Was I embarrassed by my baking mishap? Not really-- I know it happens. Was I competing with other moms, whom the teacher mentioned sometimes shop at another organic bakery? Maybe a little. But at the end of the day, for all of my intellectual abilities to classify and analyze my own actions, I can't find an explanation that resonates. Most of all, I can't account for my intense guilt (almost disgust) over that $54.
What I can tell you is this: I won't be found in a cupcakery again. Just can't do it.