My daughter’s fifth birthday party is nearly over when I glance at the remains of her princess Barbie birthday cake. Deep gouges, carved by the greedy fingers of my daughters and nieces, crisscross the lavender frosting, revealing the chocolate cake skirt underneath. Every sugary pink flower is gone. One of my younger nieces has even innocently licked the sweet frosting off of the plastic doll pick: a bare-breasted, half-Barbie with a pointy stem, instead of legs, extending from the base of her torso. Disconnected from her cake skirt, the doll pick lies discarded on the serving plate, exposed and vulnerable. As a final, dishonoring act, one of the girls has callously removed the doll’s arms from the torso and stuck them into the cake skirt. The result is a freakish representation of the female body, a surreal piece of artwork of which even Salvador Dali would have approved.
I think back to the moment when my daughter looked at me with those trusting brown eyes and asked for a princess birthday cake. I knew next to nothing about cake decorating, but how could I say “No?” She believed that I was capable of creating magic. I wanted to believe I could, too. Caught up in her unquestioning faith in my unproven abilities, I went off to the craft store to purchase cake-decorating supplies, wondering why it is always up to me to orchestrate celebrations. Though I wanted to wilt under my overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, I plastered a smile on my face for her sake and pretended to know what I was doing.
My compulsion to provide the perfect cake overtook all rational thought. I stayed up past midnight the evening before the party, baking the doll’s cake skirt in a special Classic Wonder Mold pan. Early the next morning, I rolled up my sleeves, took a deep breath, and began the task of adorning the cake with a loaded frosting bag. After an hour of extruding hundreds of pink frosting flowers onto wax paper, I shook the cramps out of my aching hand, stepped back, and surveyed the pristine, immaculate rows. A quick glance at the clock revealed that time was running out. I worked quickly to frost the cake skirt and doll’s torso. Why didn’t I just buy a princess cake? Why am I pressuring myself to be super mom again? Who really cares about all this effort I am going to and what am I trying to prove, anyway?
Minutes before the guests arrived, my daughter skipped into the kitchen and lurched to a stop in front of the finished cake.
Her eyes opened wide. “Oh, Momma! She’s the prettiest princess ever!” She threw her little arms around my waist, then ran off to meet her cousins at the door.
The personal cost of the past forty-eight tedious and stress-laden hours was suddenly forgotten. My frazzled nerves, frayed emotions, and throbbing headache had been laid on the altar to give my daughter the “happy” in “happy birthday,” and she was pleased.
* * *
In spite of the birthday party’s success, the image of the marred princess cake continues to haunt me. Days, weeks, and even months later, the pathetic, bizarre figure subconsciously works its way into my psyche. Birthday cakes are meant to be eaten and enjoyed, so why am I so troubled about its demise?
“Woman instinctively wants to give,” says Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “yet resents giving herself in small pieces . . . giving herself purposelessly. What we fear is not so much that our energy may be leaking away through small outlets as that it may be going ‘down the drain.'” Painstakingly, lovingly, I had poured myself wholeheartedly into creating something magical, and it was obliterated in ten minutes. I don’t want to admit that, after 13 years of dedicated motherhood, I am the mangled cake incarnate, disjointed and stripped of distinctiveness. I have given myself away, piece by piece, until my personality, my individuality, and my uniqueness has become obscured behind diapers, laundry, and meal preparation. Some days, in the midst of raising four children, I feel like nothing more than a live-in servant, a human Kleenex, a biddable genie whose own dreams and wishes are set aside time and time again. Even as I make the effort to do something for myself, to build and mold myself into a commendable person, I am being dismantled day after day, torn between my own desires and my family’s needs. All of my attempts to beautify and adorn my inner life seem futile against the onslaught of daily superficial tasks that eat away at my time and abilities.
Before I had children, I had ambition and talent. I was two years into a Music Performance degree — a promising bassoon student on a full-ride scholarship. But from the time I was a young girl, I also knew that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. So when I married at the tender age of twenty, I willingly left behind my musical aspirations and moved with my husband to another state. The music professor who had groomed me to be his prize student wrote me several letters imploring me not to abandon my musical talent, whatever else happened in my life.
At the time, I didn’t understand what motherhood would require of me. Now, years later, I am second-guessing myself. Although I readily chose motherhood over finishing my degree, a part of me has never acknowledged the loss of what I might have been, nor come to terms with the cost of my personal sacrifice. Langston Hughes could have been writing about me when he penned his poem “Harlem:”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore . . .
Over the years, I have moved through alternating cycles of personal neglect and nourishment. Sometimes it is just easier to give in and allow my life to become utterly consumed by the menial and the trivial than to justify or assert my individual needs. Then, disgusted with my malaise, I rise up, spurred to action by a resurgence of energy, determined to find new ways of incorporating creative expression into my life without upsetting the domestic applecart. Like a salmon’s impulse to swim upstream, the urge to improve my mind and keep my brain stimulated with fresh experiences and challenges seems innate, almost primal. Struggling for my inner life, I know I have to keep oxygen flowing through my intellectual gills or I will die. Pushing against stagnation and opposing currents, I swim for mental survival, obsessed with reaching some instinctual goal and preserving my sanity.
* * *
One day, in the midst of my identity crisis, I pull the Wonder Mold box down from the cupboard. My eye catches a phrase printed on the side of the box: “Create the doll of your dreams!” I turn the box over slowly in my hands, looking at the photos of the Prom Queen, the Bride, the Mermaid on her seaweed-covered rock. I realize I have forgotten something vitally important: a woman can remake herself in an infinite number of ways.
* * *
Months pass and I am sorting the mail. I spy a flyer advertising community enrichment classes. As I flip through the pages, my eyes rest on the description of a beginning adult ballet class. My heart flutters hopefully, like a butterfly’s wings on an airy spring breeze. From the time I was a young girl, I have harbored the secret wish to be a ballet dancer. I want to register for the class, but I am afraid and insecure. I’m thirty-six years old, far too old to begin ballet now. Then George Eliot’s words, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” tease at my thoughts. I pick up the phone and sign up for the eight-week class. I have watched my two daughters dance for years. Now it’s my turn.
Giddy with elation, I invite my girls to accompany me to the dance store to purchase dancewear. As we enter the store, they immediately begin rummaging through the clothes racks.
“Oooh! This one would look good on you, Mom.” My older daughter holds up a plum-colored leotard.
“Will you try that one on, Mommy?” My youngest points to a pink dress with a long flowing skirt.
Before I can answer her, a sales clerk approaches us.
“Can I help you find something today?” she asks.
“Yes. I need to purchase some ballet slippers.”
Her gaze instinctually shifts to my daughters’ faces. “For your girls?” she asks.
“No, for me.”
After an hour of shopping bliss, we leave the store with my new dancing attire. I can’t resist taking the ballet slippers from their box and sniffing the soft pink leather soles. Dreamily, I revel in the smell of expectancy.
Several weeks later, I arrive at the ballet studio for my first lesson. A bell above the door jingles merrily as I open the door and walk in. The studio’s walls are painted a warm buttery yellow and are covered with whimsical bric-a-brac. Hesitatingly, I follow six other women of varying ages to the back dressing room, where we change into our ballet shoes and dance clothing.
When we return to the dance floor, we are greeted by our instructor, a fresh, energetic young woman named Jenny. She leads us through a warm-up at the barre, instructing us how to properly stretch our bodies. My muscles, taut with stress, begin to relax. It is good to reach for a dream, I assure myself. Our instructor tells us to breathe in. Air fills my lungs. It is okay to focus on myself for just this one hour. I turn inward to the barre. Just below eye level, resting on a window ledge in front of me, is a framed quote by Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action — and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique — and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.” I turn this new thought over in my mind, believing.
* * *
After a year of hard work, Jenny informs us that our class will get to dance in the spring recital. Each week when I return home from class, I show my daughters the dance I am learning. Together we practice relevees at the kitchen countertop and pique turns down the hallway. In between vacuuming and scrubbing toilets, I practice my pirouettes, over and over. Mundane housecleaning chores no longer seem a burden. I am no mere servant girl. I am Cinderella getting ready for the ball.
The evening of the performance, my family members wait in the dimly-lit auditorium. In a back dressing room, I practice my tombe, pas de bourre, glissade, assemble combination and hope that years of performing in front of an audience as a musician will help me stay composed now that the moment to prove myself is here. Jenny gathers our class together and leads us backstage where we wait until it is our turn to dance.
Silently, we follow her up a side staircase. Pushing through black stage curtains, abruptly, I am thrust into a dazzling flood of white light. For a brief moment, I am disoriented, but eventually I find my place onstage. A cool panic seizes my muscles. The song is only three minutes long. I can do this, I reassure myself. The music begins and my frozen muscles begin to thaw. I am relying on body memory now, my arms and legs on automatic pilot. As suddenly as it began, the electrifying experience is nearly over. I land my final pirouette, bow to the applauding crowd, and exit the stage, savoring the intoxicating taste of euphoria on my tongue.
* * *
Two weeks after the recital, I discover I am pregnant with my fifth child. My ballet instructor encourages me to continue dancing, but deep down I know that having another child will mean having to relinquish ballet. I am thrilled to be expecting again, but it nearly breaks my heart to leave behind something I have come to love so much. I savor each remaining lesson, continuing for another three months, until my expanding abdomen makes plies too difficult and awkward. The reverence is ending. I curtsy out of respect to the dance and to the body. As I leave the studio, my hand rests lightly on the doorknob. I take one last look around the room, then turn to see the melancholy autumn wind jostling the faded leaves across the parking lot, prodding them ever forward. When I am ready, I inhale deeply and walk out knowing I may not return this way again.
* * *
Several months later, my daughters and I sit in a darkened theatre at Christmastime watching Act II of “The Nutcracker” ballet. The Sugar Plum Fairy escorts Clara and the Nutcracker to her candy castle where she entertains them with a medley of dancers. Suddenly, a clumsy, towering form is wheeled onto the stage. It is Mother Ginger — an oversized puppet woman atop a gigantic hoop skirt. The boisterous music starts and from beneath her skirts 18 unruly children pour out. They begin tumbling and skipping around Mother Ginger while her arms wildly flail the air. Waving and blowing kisses to her children, Mother Ginger beams with matronly pride but is powerless to join them in the farcical dance. After several minutes of their rowdy antics, Mother Ginger beckons to them and like a mother hen draws her chicks back under the protection of her skirt. My girls and I laugh and clap as the bonneted contraption is wheeled offstage.
After the performance, my daughters and I walk out into the unseasonably warm winter day. We hold hands, swinging our arms freely as we talk about the flexibility of the Arabian dancer. My unborn son suddenly bends and twines in my womb, a hard knot forming where his tiny heel stretches my flesh to capacity.
“Ouch!” I cry out, instantly releasing my daughters’ hands. Drawing my hands upward to caress the sore spot on my belly, the image of the doll cake, restored to wholeness, flashes briefly into my mind. In that moment, I realize how inextricably connected to my maternity are my mind, heart, and hands. I smile, finally accepting that all of these disparate parts, essential to the core of my identity, comprise who I am.
“What are you so happy about, Mama?” asks my youngest daughter as she tucks her hand back into my palm.
“All the possibilities,” I reply, deftly spinning her outward into a lithe orbit around my promising axis.