Years ago, my old book club read Michael Cunningham’s brilliant Pulitzer prize winning novel The Hours. I absolutely loved this book, but I can still hear my fellow book club members groaning from here. Let’s just say everyone did not share my enthusiasm for The Hours. In their defense, it was rather depressing. I lent out my copy, so I can’t refer back to specific passages. But one in particular really spoke to me.
Laura Brown was an unsatisfied, depressed housewife in 1949 suburban Los Angeles. Like me at the time, she attached a little too much significance into baking (creating) her husband’s birthday cake. It was her job, her art, her lot in life. And no surprise, despite her ardent efforts, it came out imperfectly.
While thankfully I was never anywhere near the level of misery of Laura Brown (who winds up leaving her family), there was a lot of me who could relate to her struggles during that time of my life. Back in those days, a cake was one of the few pieces of evidence that I “did something.” And then the reminder that I once had so many more dreams for myself than just baking cakes.
She, Laura, likes to imagine (it’s one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren’t all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. — Michael Cunningham, The Hours
I am better now that my kids are older and I have crafted more of a balanced life for myself, but for every birthday cake I bake, I still remember that gray period of my life when the cake was such a powerful symbol. It represented my job, my worth, my abilities. While there are many times when I still mourn for my life with small children (usually when I see a cute one in the grocery store), I remember that it was also a difficult and sometimes dark time filled with much loneliness, isolation and boredom. Women don’t talk about that part, but they should. Despite my fierce love for my family, I was a little lost and unfulfilled as a person during my early years of motherhood.
It feels taboo to admit that. It feels whiny and self indulgent, and maybe it is. But I serve no one by pretending it was easy, happy and perfect. It wasn’t. Not for me, anyway. There were wonderful hours, for sure, but back then, the wonderful hours were much fewer and farther between than today. I don’t know that I would ever want to go back to that place.
This year’s birthday cake for my husband feels like a victory. Not because it will be perfect, but because it won’t be. It will just be a cake, and there is no such thing as bad cake. It will be sweet and a little messy but satisfying and made with love and good intentions, just like a cake and a life should be.