“Seven is a big year,” my son told me.
Indeed, I knew it was. How memorable, I didn’t yet understand.
I had bought the party decorations, piñata, Star Wars tattoos, balloons, and all sorts of other party accouterments, preparing for his birthday celebration at home. This year, though, I would make him a birthday cake. What may seem rather elementary to most of you was a big move for me. While I was quite comfortable in the corporate environment, and most things ‘mommy’, the ability to mix ingredients into something reasonable – or at least edible – had somehow escaped me. This often left me marveling at friends’ culinary concoctions, as if they were pieces of art – which, actually, many of them were.
How hard could it be? Hmm…I’d better start with a box cake.
After spending about $50 on American cake mix and frosting (hard to find in Austria) and Star Wars edible sugar cake toppers and bands, I was ready. Unfortunately, I forgot to grease one pan (only one) and one of the layers got stuck, leaving gaping holes, which I thought to fill in with huge amounts of frosting. While basking at my ingenuity, I forgot about the other layer – still cooking away in the oven, at a temperature I wasn’t quite sure was accurate. Damn. I went to grab the second layer, which is how both the layer and my entire right hand ended up burned. Double damn. I also, apparently, didn’t stir the batter enough, which left the top of the now too-rounded, red velvet cake looking like a teenager with rosacea, and acne. The lumps also meant that the cake topper I had purchased wouldn’t sit flat on top of the cake, and couldn’t be used. More frosting, I surmised, wondering why the frosting wasn’t sticking (who knew you had to wait so long for a cake to cool?) When I put the layers together, the first started to melt into the second. I needed the edible (read: probably toxic) cake band, just to hold the two sad-looking, now melting, and lumpy layers together. It didn’t work. So more frosting. This is a true, sad, and very ugly cake story.
“Here it is buddy!” I said as I unveiled the world’s ugliest cake to my son, while holding ice against my burned hand.
He eyed the cake for a moment. Looking up at me, he then said, “Mom, the important thing is that you tried.”
After I laughed, we both sat there for a moment. The ugly cake filling the silence between us. Baking a birthday cake for your child is somehow one of those measurable mommy moments. And I had failed. He knew it. I knew it. And my throbbing, burned hand knew it.
“I’m sorry about the ugly cake, buddy,” I said. “Yeah, it happens,” he responded.
What? When did it happen? I wondered, but didn’t ask him. The kid was only 7. Surely he could only remember his last three birthdays — all of which the cakes were bought, and quite fabulous.
Then a wonderful thing happened. He climbed on to my lap, and started to count the cake’s lumps. We both started to laugh again, hysterically, at the world’s ugliest cake. It’s a memory I won’t ever forget.
In thinking about the ugly cake, I also started to think about the lesson I learned that day. While I appreciated my son’s empathy and understanding, I also appreciated that he didn’t gloss over the fact that I had failed. Trying was most important, but let’s be honest: I would have preferred to make him a good cake. The fun was found in my failure. “It happens,” rang over again in my head. I needed to hear that.
So I wondered, as parents, why do we not do the same? All the positive parenting books I have read underscore the need to praise the child’s effort, look for the strengths, appreciate the willingness to try, do their best, and above all, make sure they have fun! When our children do ‘fail’ (or fail in their own eyes), we put a ‘PR spin’ on that too. “You must fail to succeed,” “The best athletes have failed,” “It’s only a game,” or my favorite, “When a door closes, a window opens!” While I agree with some of this, in principle, and certainly like the positive spin, I can’t help but wonder when and why did we stop acknowledging and letting each other fail?
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The only people that I know who can do this well are children. They have a unique ability to see through bullshit. They know they can try, and succeed. Or try and fail. Both can exist, either can happen. And they don’t get caught up in the fuzzy lines the way adults do. They are truth-tellers. We may try and help them soften their truth, but they see it. They know it. They are very well aware when they win and lose, both literally and metaphorically.
I became very well aware of this when my son – an extremely competitive (and very sensitive) soccer player, came off the field, angry as could be after the other team’s winning goal slipped passed him.
“You tried hard. You had fun, and a great game!” I said as cheerfully as my mommy voice would allow. I meant every word of it.
“Mom, we lost, ok? Enough!” he said before storming away.
He was right. It was enough. The truth is – that moment sucked. I felt it. He felt it. And I wasn’t letting him have it. Put another way, I wasn’t letting him ‘suck it up.’ And if I didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to move past it.
The truth is not everyone wins all the time. Not everyone makes the team, gets a trophy, or passes the test. Sometimes, even with your best efforts and intentions, the ball slips through the net. Sometimes your mom screws up your birthday cake. When we get older, jobs are lost, businesses fail, relationships break up, things don’t go as once planned, or intended. Sometimes you’ll be the best. Sometimes, you won’t. Sometimes your perceived failure might have nothing to do with you. Other times, it will fall squarely on your shoulders. But whoever you are, whatever age you are, whatever the context, failure, hurts. It deserves to be recognized.
Of course one never stops trying. And I do believe that sometimes a perceived failure can lead to something better, or at least a better lesson, if we let it. Other times, I think failure might just be a big kick in the teeth. Both the door and window are closed, while you’re left toothless, for the time being, in a seemingly dark closet. Because, sometimes, that’s just how life happens.
How much stronger might we – and our children — be, if we simply looked ‘failure’ in the eye and said, “Yep, that happened. And it sucked.” In fact, I would argue that if we didn’t try and find the silver lining in everything, it actually might allow us to put our failures in context, and do what we need to do – which is to recognize failures for what they are, and just move on.
The end of the ‘ugly cake’ story is that my son and I decided to stick a bunch of plastic Darth Vader heads and mini lightsabers into the cake. He thought this would make it better. And why not? The thing couldn’t get much worse. Did it make it better? No. In fact, not only did we have the ugliest cake in the world, it also was now the tackiest. But he and his friends loved it – in all its lumpy, plastic, over-frosted glory. That made him, and me, happy.
And perhaps the end resulting happiness would renew my optimism that I might be able to make a better cake for my second son’s birthday party next week? Absolutely not. In fact, I am quite certain both my boys will have to make due with ugly cakes, as long as they are to have birthdays, and I am to be their mother.
Sometimes, that’s just the way life goes.