Homemade cake with a side of red herring


When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.

I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.

When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.

My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.

Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.

Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.

Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”

I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.

Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.

Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.

If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.

Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.

They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.

Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.

Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.

And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.

And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live?  I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.

It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.

It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.

So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?

And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?

Can do.

Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

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19 thoughts on “Homemade cake with a side of red herring”

  1. Oh this is me. What’s funny is that I grew up as the oldest in the big family, so I do a fair amount of the ‘extra’ stuff thinking in the back of my head ‘this all goes out the window as soon as kid #2 comes along…or kid #3’.

    I already use the TV though. I have both seasons of Puffin Rock pretty much memorized (it’s the only thing my kiddo will sit still and watch). (Thanks for getting us on to it, Simcha. I blame you 😛 ) (I will say it VASTLY beats about 99% of kids shows though).

  2. Let’s just use words the way they are defined, instead of retroactively saying “teddy” when the phrase used was prostitute’s outfit. I know plenty of denim-wearing Catholic moms of many who wear pretty undies for their husbands. A prostitute’s outfit would be about role-playing something inherently sinful and derogatory. Am I to blame that I read the words you used?

    There was NO attack on your daughter, but on the craziness of claiming that one could not be normal and wear more than a skimpy suit (per your own description all that time ago). Plenty of normal kids cover more than the bare minimum and fit in fine. The blech was specifically about you weeping about your daughter’s hot bod. Not about her having a body of whatever level of hotness. I’d be so grossed out if I found out my parents had ever thought about my nearly nude, post-pubescent body that way. That was the blech.

    And the hotter the bod, the more likely such a person looks good in every swim suit. Wouldn’t be impossible to win that battle, teach some modesty. If a kid can’t stand out just a tad because her faith requires a reasonable level of modesty, how can a parent hope said child will have a mature faith? “I’m Catholic, as long as I never have to be uncool to the most immoral people in my social circle.” I really don’t get how one can be a good Catholic and have no qualms about being virtually nude on a beach in our hypersexualized culture. Maybe I’m missing something though.

    1. Mighty, I really don’t understand why you are so hostile. The little blip I wrote was supposed to illustrate what a dolt I was at twenty. You translated it to be how I feel presently. What I wrote about happened in the early nineties.

      I have been navigating modesty issues as a mother since my daughter Sophia was about 15. She is 23 now. She’s a really bright girl, and very creative. Her good taste in clothing and design actually earned her a great job in the fashion industry. I’m so glad I didn’t squelch her, and shut her down. She works for a multi billion dollar corporation in San Francisco. The clothing she helped design are about to land in stores everywhere for the first time. We are really proud of her. She didn’t earn it by being the amazing artist that she is, she earned it with self discipline and incredible diligence. She’s not perfect though–far from it, but she’s a really, really good girl She hasn’t violated my modesty standards for a really long time.

      I’ll be honest–the way you phrased the way I regard my daughter’s body disgusted me profoundly. She is a lovely human being inside and out. I think you read something a bit strange into what I said. She brings tears to my eyes the way a sunrise, or a sunset or the ocean brings tears to my eyes.

  3. Yeah, I was pretty whacked out too. But in my defense, I was a dumb, impressionable 20-year-old with a giant guilt complex who wanted to make up for the partying and materialistic aspirations (avoid all those eons in purgatory with a bit-o-sack cloth and ashes)

    So there was that, AND a Catholic friend that told me that the end of the world was going to happen soon because the Virgin Mary had told some kids in the Balkans that –like she did at Fatima and Lourdes. To warn. us. The end was coming.

    It was clearly time to start cramming for finals.

    All I needed was a few strong Catholic women that were the opposite of me to stalwartly school me in the ways of virtuous, Catholic house-wivery. Right? The former Anna Lisa liked all kinds of bad things like champagne, five star restaurants, mini skirts, high heels, Gucci handbags and Ray Bans. Nice Catholic Mothers that Jesus loves did Seton homeschooling, wore floral print/denim skirts, Birkenstocks, and *duh*, eschewed all make up and hair products as trappings of the devil. Lots of things were from the devil. Most things were in fact. A valuable patina of suffering was the best adornment a good Catholic wife and mother could wear.

    I needed to suffer!

    Sometimes I was regarded as an impostor by the other women. Maybe it was the mascara that I couldn’t give up. Vanity of Vanities. Every now and then in a fit of muscle memory, I broke down, backslid and touched up my highlights at the salon. I was regarded with a mixture of pity and suspicion. Their eyes told a story as they lingered, exchanging glances, apprising my condition. It smelt of sin and bad hell.

    My husband glowered and sulked. I saw this as stemming from his unenlightened non advancement. He would grumble and say things like: “they just want you to be fat and ugly like they are.”

    Yes, indeed. He said that and more.

    I told on him, complaining about his poor soul to my confessor. I was a little shocked when I didn’t get the reaction I expected. I expected pity but he laughed and complained back about American Catholicism being infected with puritanism. (Of course he took his side! Latins are all the same and in collusion! –Bringing their blood down a few degrees might just solve a few problems for *them*.) It irked me that he took my husband’s side, that he shockingly told me to lay off of the books (like Teresa of Avila), and go back to being the little tart my husband fell in love with. He didn’t say it in those words but said it none-the-less with more carefully chosen ones.

    I loved Teresa of Avila! We went back and forth. I grudgingly agreed that T of A knew how to whip a nun into shape, but didn’t know about a bunch of other wife stuff. –Like what to do when your husband presents you with a fancy box that has a prostitute uniform in it. What would the toddler think if he caught sight of his Mommy in THAT? It would plant a bad seed in his poor little male brain. Everyone knows that it’s a mother’s job to make sure that every little male brain learns the difference between indecent black lace and wholesome bleached cotton! It would be obvious to the sweet little girls but not the boys. And obviously all of those mothers from previous generations had reeeeeeeaaaaaaaally dropped the ball because they clearly didn’t care enough (and were too self indulgent to home school.) There were obviously lots of bad little boys that grew up to be bad men in the world, with bad things on their brains.

    That wasn’t going to happen in *my* family.

    1. Anna Lisa, This is nuts. There IS something wrong with wearing a prostitute outfit, whether or not your kids see it. How could that be about anything other than lust? Objectifying you?

      I’m sure you managed to find some fuddy-duddy Catholic women to contrast with your super sexy self, but I’d be amazed if they were a tenth as bad as you’ve described.

      I’ve known many types of Catholic women over years, and never yet met one who thought mascara was from the devil. This story reeks of “fake foil”. Let me exaggerate about my frumpy Catholic “friends” sonI can look both more virtuous and appealing!

      Also, every single time I see your name here, I think of a comment you made on an earlier post about how your daughters wear skimpy bikinis so they fit in, and your daughter is so beautiful that you weep looking at her almost-naked body. Blech!

      1. You haven’t walked in my shoes.

        I love beautiful bed clothing now, and there is nothing wrong with it. A good robe on a hook next to the bed?

        My only problem now is that I get night sweats a couple times a month so it’s 100% better to sleep in the buff. When they arrive at the door crying I shout “Just a sec’ –getting my robe on!” (it’s still on the floor and I fumble with it.) Truth be told, I still won’t wear the black lace teddy even if I admire the thought of it. I guess I’m still too selfish.

        1. I haven’t slept without socks in about ten years. Don’t know why. Too uncomfortably cold without them no matter the temperature, no matter the night sweat. My husband calls me Eliot Spitzer, a former east coast governor who had his indecent sock wearing made made scandalously public.

          1. I actually laughed out loud when I saw that! How have I not seen that before??? Forwarded it to my husband – that ought to stop him from complaining about the socks. 😉

      2. I think you’re mistaking the tone. I’ve never hung around ultra Orthodox Catholics in real life so I can’t comment on peer pressure that may or may not exist there, but there’s nothing wrong with a wife dressing in an outfit that’s only for her husband’s eyes. And I think lots of moms have difficulty seeing themselves as sexual beings. It sounds like Anna Lisa’s husband responded to that in an obvious way. Who can blame him for that? Accusations of objectifying and lust seem out of place given the context.

        1. I don’t think M.M. understood that I was writing with the voice of my former, idiotic self.

          –And to lay in to my daughter, adding the word “tiny” to the fact that she wears a two piece swim suit, –with the word “blech” to go with it?? Ouch.

          Yes, that same priest helped me not to torture my daughter by turning her into some kind of holier-than-thou Catholic weirdo on the beach. She never would have listened anyway, even if I had drawn some line in the sand and threatened her. It would have alienated her, forced her to act with duplicity and broken down our lines of communication.

          …Ah young mothers. Sometimes it’s hard to relinquish power. They don’t realize that their power can work for or against them, and are given those years to form a respectful relationship.
          I’m still working on it! (and am not resting on any laurels).
          When there’s that zinger called free will, mixed with concupiscence it makes for some interesting scenarios to say the least. But it gets really fascinating when you realize that concupiscence can wear the darnedest disguises! I think God made us parents so we could get a little peek at how He sees it all.

  4. Love this. I think I grew up in the era when “hard = virtuous but easy = lazy” too. I didn’t think it mattered since as a Catholic girl I planned on getting married and having a huge family like the one I grew up in. Then God laughed at the idea that I would have a big family and I have three daughters all of whom know how to cook and will cook or bake for fun when they have time between college classes. When they were little I nearly always felt like I had to apologize to moms of Big Catholic Families for the ease and leisure of my life (but not when the girls were toddlers, because when your three children are 3, 2, and 1 there is nothing in the world that is easy, and socks and shoes can make you weep with exhaustion, and I’m saying that not just for people with small families but for people whose families are still small but will keep growing).

    I still tend to think of myself as lazy, but when I was editing one of the three children’s books I self-published last year my second oldest (a night owl like me) looked up from her computer and said, “You know, I never really realized how hard you work at this.” A lot of us also fall into the trap of thinking that physical labor is virtuous but writing (or other artistic endeavors) is not.

  5. I love you: ) Can you come live at my house and speak this kind of wisdom to me always? I only have 7 kids and i am not Catholic, but your blog rarely misses to drive home the reality of my life. And all with wit and genius.

  6. Love this post. I don’t think I’ve seen mood stabilizers & box cake in the same category before, but after having a handful of kids and a handful of miscarriages, it makes perfect sense to me.
    Based on my own childhood experience I would add to this list Tylenol. My parents didn’t believe in western medicine, only homeopathy. So much needless suffering with childhood fevers etc. for some sort of standard that didn’t connect to reality…. so hard to discern which things to hold on to, faith does help, but still confusing😯

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