By Shannon Williams
I lug the oversized red mixer from the pantry to the counter, set the oven to preheat, and check the recipe to make sure I’ve added the right amount of brown sugar. I watch as the mixer stirs, as butter and sugar become impossibly light and creamy. Eggs next, scraping down the bowl after each one. Add cocoa powder, flour, sea salt, mix again. Butter the pan. Pour the batter in the pan, stick it in the oven, and set the timer.
It’s quiet now that the mixer is done, save the hushed sounds of Brandi Carlile coming from a speaker on the other side of the room. I rinse out the dirty dishes but don’t clean them. I sit down with a book instead.
It’s my birthday, after all.
On the surface, that scene could sound sad. The solitary making of my own birthday cake.
Except it wasn’t. I don’t mind baking; I enjoy it. (It’s doing the dishes I take offense to.) I’m the only one in my family who really bakes. I’d rather bake my own cake, one I’ll actually enjoy, than submit to the horror of a grocery store sugar bomb with 682 ingredients.
I would have done that in the past; pretended baking my own cake was a chore since everyone around me seemed to think so. I would have gone right along with a store-bought version, trying to hide the fact that I scraped all the over-sweetened icing off my plate and straight into the garbage.
Maybe baking my own birthday cake sounds cumbersome. But I’d rather take the time to create something I want, to make it on my own, than to compromise. In a small, sugared way, I see it as a rebellion. It’s an assertion of myself.
My sophomore year in college was difficult. I wouldn’t officially be accepted into the design program until the following summer, the program I’d specifically chosen my school for. I was several hours away from home. Worst of all, many of my friends from freshman year had scattered: transferred to different schools, studying around the country for weeks at a time, or living elsewhere on campus.
That birthday fell on a Saturday. I spent it working on a project for drawing class, writing a paper, and watching Grey’s Anatomy re-runs on the futon in my dorm room. I suppose I ordered dinner at some point. It felt mostly forgotten, save a scattering of Facebook messages and phone calls from relatives. It was, basically, just another day.
I cried in the shower that night, the water cascading down my shoulders, grateful my roommate wasn’t around (she’d abandoned me that year for a new boyfriend). I felt burdened with the weight of what I “should” have been doing.
I should have been out with a big group of friends.
I should have been celebrating with cake and presents.
I should have put aside projects for partying.
Some of my tears were the result of pure loneliness. But many of them were the result of all the other people’s expectations piling up on top of me, the fun and celebration my head told me I was supposed to be having. A college student shouldn’t sit in her dorm on her 20th birthday—on a Saturday no less—working on homework, right? How pathetic. So I wrapped my arms around my wet torso instead in the cold, fluorescent lighting of the dorm-room shower. What a loser.
Since that lonely birthday, I’ve come into myself. I don’t know if it’s parenting or hitting 30 or both, but I’ve figured out more about who I really am. I’ve discovered more about how the world works, how I work.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water, wrote, “The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.” I think I’ve been disciplined in the past couple of years to make my own effort towards wholeness, discovering just what makes me tick and why.
I’ve discovered that the extroverted part I’ve always thought has dominated my personality actually has an equally strong, needy introverted side. Before I had children, I said an automatic “yes” to any social event. Now I stop to think about what I’m going to get out of it. Is the mom’s night out on a chaotic Thursday going to be healthy for me at the end of the day? The day I’ve already spent with too much noise and too many children? Maybe. But maybe not.
I used to worry that my habit of sitting down to read while my kids have their daily dose of screen time looked both selfish and lazy: the ultimate stay-at-home mom luxury. All that’s missing are the bon-bons. Shouldn’t I be cleaning toilets? Now I know it’s essential for me to take a time-out for my mental health. I’m a happier and healthier mom when I take care of myself this way and it’s good for my kids to see me doing something I enjoy. Also: we get to cuddle.
I’ve found my voice and am learning how to use it with confidence. It was always there, just tucked away under several layers of trying to please everyone else. I would have waited in the past for people to plan things for me. My best friends and my husband should know what I want, right? That I want to eat at this restaurant, receive this gift, invite these people along. Now I know that’s just not true. That if I don’t speak up, I can hardly be disappointed when I don’t get what I want. That’s how you end up with grocery store birthday cakes.
Adulting is hard. We’re children for 18 years and then it’s out into the world. It takes time to learn how to shop, how to cook, how to meal plan and make friends and sort laundry. We have to learn how to make time for both schoolwork and a social life, fumble through balancing a job and parenting with a marriage. Motherhood taught me which diapers don’t leak around those chicken-like baby legs, how to fold laundry while also nursing a baby, the best way to remove blood stains from clothing. (The answer: blue Dawn dish soap. Every time. That stuff works on everything.) It taught me how to cook dinner with a brood of toddlers and babies underfoot, to always have an abundance of kitchen towels on hand to soak up spills, that sometimes take-out is the only answer. Motherhood teaches us how to care for everyone else.
It stands to reason that it takes more time to figure out exactly who you are amiss the chaos that both adulthood and motherhood bring to life. Or to re-figure out who you are, after bringing all those babies into the world. And that it takes time to learn how to take care of yourself, too.
The quiet of my birthday baking session was broken once my husband returned home with the kids at lunchtime. I let the twins help me make frosting for the cake. We whipped together butter and powdered sugar, poured in melted dark chocolate, added milk, vanilla, and sea salt. They each licked a beater clean. I spread the frosting and they helped me decorate. (With dinosaur sprinkles, obviously.)
All three kids sang to me later that evening, their little off-key voices joining my husband’s and my parents. They beat me to the blowing out of my own birthday candles. I giggled; I should have seen that one coming. Not long after, my husband shuffled them off to bed, while I put on the oversized, chunky cardigan I refer to as my “house coat” and snuggled up with a book. It was quiet. It was perfect. I didn’t feel like a loser at all.
Shannon is a writer, reader, designer, Minnesota native, and Enneagram 1. She celebrated her recent birthday with homemade chocolate cake for the second year in a row but still hasn’t been able to blow the candles out before her three kids. You can find her writing about motherhood and life at shannonscribbles.net and on Instagram @shannon_scribbles.
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