Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

Megan Nicol Reed: Birthday cakes are more than mere confectionery

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Each year my children's interests condense, crystallising as their birthday draws near. Photo / Getty Images
Each year my children's interests condense, crystallising as their birthday draws near. Photo / Getty Images

He put his order in last week: a pool table. Black rails, maroon baize. Maroon, not green - he was very clear on this. And the cake itself, I asked, thinking maroon... maroon! Oh, he said, I'm considering vanilla, maybe some small pieces of chocolate. Like a sponge? I asked. A sponge with chocolate chips? Actually, he said, I had more of a stracciatella in mind.

Each year my children's interests condense, crystallising as their birthday draws near. More than mere confectionery, more than just a vessel for the age-appropriate number of candles, their birthday cake is a comestible statement of self-hood. This is who I am! Now eat me! Needless to say, expectations run high. And like most rods under which a parent's back bows and buckles, this one is entirely of my own making.

When my editor was approached by the publishers of the rather marvellous The Great New Zealand Birthday Cake Book (released on Monday), she said "I have just the woman for it".

Our daughters are friends, you see, and while I know her children's birthday cakes are, ahem, out-sourced, she knows mine are hatched out of some mysterious maternal compulsion. It's almost primal, really, she said as she handed the book over, this instinct mothers have around the production of birthday cakes. Quite, I agreed, eagerly flicking through the pages, wondering whether my daughter might be convinced to swap the challenging horse's head she's requested for next year with a dinky Jelly Tip cake on a wafer stick. When it comes to gender, though, I'm not sure the making of birthday cakes is that clear-cut. Yes, women still bear the brunt of much of the child-rearing, but in several families I know it is the man staying up until 1am winding liquorice straps into wagon wheels.

There is an undeniable competitiveness to it that possibly appeals to men. Neither on Facebook nor Instagram, the only audience for my labours is the small guests. Arms aching under the weight of the tonne of buttercream employed to fill in the supposedly no-fail chocolate cake's crevasses, you place it gingerly down before them. And when the song is done and the candles extinguished, you reluctantly take a knife to what, in that terrible moment, feels as if it could possibly be the summation of your life's work, trying to tune out the child who proclaims that they only eat yellow M&Ms, to hold your tongue when you pass a slice of cake, a slice of your magnum opus, to the little shit who spurns it. If your timing is off, there is always the possibility, too, that the guests' parents will turn up before you're done. And while you'd be hard-pressed to find one who'll admit it, they will judge your efforts: smugly noting the empty Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake Mix packet on the bench; begrudgingly acknowledging the sheer genius of your primary-coloured fondant Lego blocks. Once I arrived to find a mother in tears as she fruitlessly attempted to attach Tyrannosaurus rex's banana cake head to his chocolate cake body. The next year she found me staring in openmouthed dismay as the edible Power Rangers' transfer slid off the cake and on to the floor.

We have a rule in our house: it doesn't matter whether you fancy it or not, it doesn't matter if you're full, always eat the birthday cake. You never know what's gone into it.

Following on
Last week I wrote on my feelings as an adult around my parents' separation more than 35 years ago. It completed a trilogy of columns detailing my recent anxiety.

The subject line of Julie's email read, "Over it". While she claimed to have once been "impressed" by my writing, now, she said, "Your personal anxiety issues are wearing a little thin." Others were more forgiving. Aged 5, Eleanor was sent to live with her grandparents so she could attend school. For a period last year, every week she went to stay at her son's to help with her grandchildren. The first time she cried. The second time she was grumpy. She couldn't understand why, until it hit her.

"All the years I had looked back on that time, I thought I had coped okay. I had no conscious memory of the emotions of the little girl who had to bottle up what she felt and do what the grown-ups said."

- Canvas

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Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

There were many things Megan Nicol Reed imagined she would do in her journalism career. She ticked off feature writer, editor and columnist. She never envisaged agony aunt. Now, when she isn't trying to sort out her own life, she's trying to sort yours. And when she's not doing that she is writing her first novel. In her downtime you'll find her mothering, cooking, running, cleaning and reading. Needless to say she spends much of her life in activewear.

Read more by Megan Nicol Reed

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