Here’s what makes the story of my son’s birth universal: it didn’t go according to plan. By day four, tight in the grip of the baby blues, that fact had started to chew me up, but on day two – our first spent entirely at home – I was still so high on adrenaline that I didn’t care. Tear me up, strap me down, chuck me in the back of an ambulance all you like: I had brought this new small guy into the world in one piece, and I could do anything. So, I baked. I might not have been pregnant any more, but by God I could be barefoot and in the kitchen.
We baked a birthday cake for my son, whom we’ll call (for the purposes of this blog) The Bee. This was a ridiculous thing to do in several respects. Firstly, I should have been in bed, trying to cache more sleep against the oncoming Great Sleep Recession. Secondly, I am not good at baking. I know this at a cognitive level, but there is some more basic and stupid part of me that nonetheless mainlines the Great British Bake-Off and somehow, instead of being awed by the proficiency and creativity on display, becomes convinced that baking isn’t so tricky, and simply requires the right balance of bravado, banter, and baking powder. Then, when I am scraping the results of this misconception into the bin, I have a little cry and vow to buy all future children’s birthday cakes from a shop, already knowing that I won’t, because my inability to learn from my own mistakes is kind of a Thing (and as it happens the wellspring of this blog). Thirdly (keep up), it wasn’t my son’s birthday. And wouldn’t be for 364 days, for that matter. It could scarcely less have been my son’s birthday. What it was, in fact, was Boxing Day, though, which was part of why I thought baking the cake was a great idea. As you can see, my son did not pick the most convenient of days on which to be born. Destined for a lifetime of having his special day overshadowed by the preeminent religious festival/consumer sideshow on earth, he deserved (I thought) a little more attention to the small miracle of his own arrival. I wanted to start a small ritual just for him, separate from Christmas, free from cinnamon spice or holly. Hence: cake.
Lastly, and this is the bit where you’ll have to bear with me, baking was a last-ditch effort to salvage something of the birth I had wanted and not got. I’ll, um, return to this theme, but for now let’s just note that I spent a lot of time in the pregnancy watching videos with our toddler (let’s call her The Bird) of beautiful home births like the one I was planning. The Bird adored these. She took to asking, whenever she saw my phone, ‘Can we have a baby being born?’. She liked to point out the midwife and the baby’s daddy, and to say ‘She’s REALLY shouting!’ as a woman pushed. She liked to observe, when the video babies were born, how they wrapped then up in towels to get ‘nice and all warm’, or, if it was a water birth, how they ‘put the baby in a paddling pool!’ And she and I shared a favourite video: the natural birth centre birth of Daisy Emmeline. I loved the mother’s incredible calm and zen; the focus on integrating the gorgeous little girl into her equally gorgeous family. The Bird loved that it ends with them making a big ol’ cake. Now, my son’s birth, in the event, was not incredibly calm and zen. We are not a gorgeous, perfect family, and all evidence so far is that The Bee’s arrival will not turn us into one. Even while still up on that adrenaline high the first twinges of disappointment from that disconnect were needling me. But I knew, by God, that we could still round things off by making a big ol’ cake. Maybe that would bring the whole affair to an ending as peaceful and celebratory as the one in the video.
So we made a huge and yellow Victoria sponge, with buttercream and jam, and snowed it under with jelly diamonds and sugar sprinkles. Making it took all day. The buttercream, made with marge, did not set properly and slid off the cake’s sides like b-movie sentient slime. By the time we blew out the candle the sun had long since set on Boxing Day 2014, my son’s zero-eth unbirthday. The cake was so sugary that The Bird did not come down off the insulin high for hours, matching her mum’s jittery post-birth mania blow by blow. And, you know what: it was bloody delicious.