Can we go back to plain birthday cakes?

Cake standards pushing us over the edge ...
Cake standards pushing us over the edge ... Photo: Getty Images

Back in the 90’s when I was growing up, birthdays for me and my siblings meant two things – a frozen Sara Lee cheesecake and a bucket of KFC. It’s easy to judge my mum of course but aside from the fact that I remember less judging of mothers in those days, my mum was juggling raising three kids while doing a PhD and working full-time. I find it incredible she even remembered our birthdays.

My brothers and I loved those Sara Lee cheesecakes – loved them even more when mum had remembered to take them out of the freezer an hour or so before we cut the cake so the knife would hit the tin foil at the bottom, rather than getting stuck in a frozen block of cream mid-cut. Nowadays of course I can imagine the horror that would befall on any guests at a birthday party to see a frozen cheesecake on tin foil (complete with reused candles) being brought out as the birthday cake. There would be murmurs, perhaps a mum or two would reach out and cover their children’s eyes – no child should have to witness such a monstrosity. There would be polite declinations when slices of cake would be offered. People would blush and perhaps wonder if they should’ve spent more on the birthday present (yes you should, always).

We live in an era where no cake is a cake too far. Where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a cake that’s a precise recreation of a Princess castle, complete with a princess who uncannily looks like the birthday girl, for a second birthday party. Where beautiful cakes are made specifically for one-year-olds to smash in front of a camera for photos (ie cake smash photo sessions) before another even more beautiful cake is made for their actual birthday party. Where frosting comes in more colours than a rainbow, in fact, in as many colours as paint for your walls. Where your kids favourite books and cartoon characters can come to life, not only in their imagination, but on a cake.

A birthday cake these days is no longer just a cake, we feel it’s almost a judgement of us as parents. The cake you present at your child’s birthday will be viewed by not only their friends, but their parents. And even if these parents don’t outwardly ask us anything about the cake, we will be mentally asking ourselves questions on their behalf. Did you bake the cake yourself? If so, why not? Are there artificial flavours and preservatives in the cake? Is it naturally sweetened? You didn’t use a cake mix did you? Did you make the icing from scratch? Did you use fondant? Did you take into account various party guest allergies before making the cake? God forbid if you didn’t.

I recently went to a friend’s son’s birthday party and before the incredible cake was brought out my friend apologised for not making the cake herself. Working long hours full-time had left her little time to make the kind of cake she would be happy to serve at such an occasion. It felt incredible to me that we’ve come to such a point as mothers that we feel the need to apologise for anything in our lives that hints at us not being perfect – perfect domestic goddesses, career women, mothers, wives and cooks. At the end of the day no one really cared whether my friend made the cake or not. Perhaps the only one who did was she herself. And that’s what it comes down to. The fact that we feel our efforts are being judged when perhaps they aren’t at all. That somehow the effort we put into a cake is being taken as a measure of the effort we put into parenting. If it is you most certainly need to get new friends.

There is a sense of competition in it too of course. We can’t go to a series of birthday parties where intricate and amazing cakes are served and then serve a cake from a box at our own child’s birthday, can we? I did one worse than that – at my daughter’s last birthday I bought her a cake from Woolies. An admission I was happy to make to anyone who asked. Did that make me a bad parent? Not on your life. Not the best cake maker? Hell yes.

We need to remember who we are throwing the party for. Presumably it’s for our kids. And if your kids are anything like mine all they’ll care about is cutting the cake and chomping down on it before running off to play. Do they linger on the intricacies of the cake? Not so much. Do they feel special? Yes, no matter what sort of cake, every child feels special if they’re having a party in their honour.

At the end of the day, do you want the legacy of your child’s birthday to be about the cake or the fond memories? Memories that will live on perhaps not so much in their minds, but in yours, especially when the birthdays they end up celebrating have very little involvement from you. For me it’s these memories that are most important. It’s these memories I’ll picture when I’m wishing them a ‘Happy birthday’ over the phone, rather than being right beside them as we are now – a fact that I’m trying not to take for granted as they ever so imperceptibly get older.