Love floats up from the sifted flour, clings to the raw sugar, pierces through the sharp scent of pure vanilla extract. Affection oozes out of every egg, dropping from cracked shells, wobbling and waiting. There is a deep abiding love in the softened butter, the kind that comes from grass fed cows grazing on verdant hills. It gleams in the quick whip and whir of the beaters, spinning fast and faster until the batter smoothes out. Love smears itself across their sweet faces, ranging from little girl to almost grown, tongues lapping molded plastic spatulas, fingers leaving tracks inside the scraped out bowl.
My mom made my birthday cakes until I was five. That year it was a vanilla double-decker, frosted pale pink and decorated with pastel-colored chocolate Smarties. There is a photo of me with my long hair pulled back in a half-pony tail wearing a full-length, floral, sleeveless dress. I’m clutching my hands over the to-be-lit candles in delight, my eyes bright and cheeky, like I might just dig in right there. The next year I had my birthday party at McDonald’s in a package deal that included the cake. By my next birthday, we’d moved to a different country, then another within the year. Birthday parties blur together – swimming one year, an outing to see Ice Castles another, a sleepover complete with ghost stories and Ouija board. Tasty sheet cakes came in cardboard boxes or in frozen layers from Carvel.
Above our childish heads, tension swirled. My dad did not like his boss. My mom traveled into the city to take classes and wasn’t at home as much. Meals were more simple and quick and didn’t always include all four of us at once.
Now, with three girls of my own, I know how hard it is to pursue self in the midst of motherhood. My mom persevered, and I often think of her courage and effort with wonder.
Mine is a different kind of effort. Every year I take birthday cake requests from each of my three daughters, whatever they want: flavor, shape, decorations, number of layers, frosting or glaze, individual or to share. I always make them from scratch and there is no challenge I will not tackle. Last week I baked an orange-almond three-layer cake for my middle daughter. It took most of the afternoon, grating the navel oranges, grinding the almonds, melting the chocolate for the icing into a saucepan gurgling with heavy whipped cream and butter.
I did not go back to work after my second daughter arrived, opting to stay home full-time. A few months in, ambivalence settled over me, and hangs there still: was this the right decision? I stir the pot patiently, knowing I still straddle that line between home and the world, between living in the permeable skin of motherhood and the tighter, more intimate skin of the woman I am beyond my children and also because of them.
I am a writer and reader, hiker and thinker, sister and friend, but without my girls, I might never have become the Birthday Cake Baker. I sift and mix, combine and stir. My love for my girls sits faithfully in the measuring cups, rises up in the oven, cools quietly on the metal rack. When they come home from school and see the cake, their eyes go wide with glee. The candles are lit, the songs sung, the wish made. The birthday girl cuts the first slice. I watch them eat with abandon, cake crumbing up the table and now the floor, frosting kissing their lips.
My love is sweet and sticky, a sugar bomb, an edible endearment. They joke and jockey for seconds and I am both startled and grateful that they are mine. Behind my smile is a twinge of sadness, too: they are growing up and away from me, leaving behind a space I am learning to fill with myself. Still, I know I will always make room to bake them each a birthday cake year after year for as long as they like.
This essay originally appeared on Mamalode.