The Cakes That Bind Us

The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

The Cakes That Bind Us Im1

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.


My mother always told me my birthday was a celebration for her too. I’d come from her. Neither my son nor my daughter came from my body, because we’re a blended family. They spend weekends, Tuesdays, and week-long interludes during the holidays with their dad and me, and the rest of the week they’re with their mom. We do our best to be as involved as we can, often going all out on holidays and birthdays.

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

It was the end of a busy semester and my inner pastry chef yearned to break loose. What better excuse—it was my then-boyfriend’s daughter’s birthday. I mused over this cake, carefully constructing it in my mind until I was ready to embark on my great creation. Three towering layers. Devil’s food would alternate with pink and purple vanilla cake. The outer layer would remain snowy white, maybe with some chocolate shavings for elegance.

Only two years out of his divorce, and not a wizard cake-maker, my future-husband’s cupboards were not equipped to handle my project’s needs. I lived between my roommate’s and his place, therefore my cupboards were also barren. He an entrepreneur, and me a broke student, we turned our pockets out to make multiple trips to the grocery store. Cocoa, whipping cream, stabilizers, butter, food colouring, bricks of chocolate, and the list went on.

The tiny galley kitchen afforded me little room to work, his dented stainless steel bowls were not ideal for mixing, and he didn’t have a single mechanized way to whisk the whipping cream. I assessed my tools and MacGyvered to the best of my ability. His daughter looked on with awe.

If I think back now I can only imagine the production I must have put on for my almost seven-year-old step-daughter. The organized chaos of a veteran baker who didn’t have access to a dishwasher: batter splattered spoons set aside and elevated to be used later, whisks whirling and bowls turning in opposition. Items in the freezer, and other items in the oven. A carefully timed cacophony.

“What are you making?” she asked carefully.

“Your birthday cake,” I said.

It had been a year-and-a-half-long budding relationship. Their father had met me two months after his divorce, we’d become friends, and then we had become something more. When he originally introduced me to his children they stormed into his home elated to be visiting Dad, and hazarded me no more than a passing glance and a hello before mutilating the art supplies he’d recently picked up for them. As time progressed I began to appear at more events. I was invited on an outing to see their grandmother. Soon I was accepted as Dad’s girlfriend.

“That’s not my cake. Mom got me a cake. It’s ice cream,” she stated firmly.

“Well, that cake will be for your birthday at Mom’s house, with Mom’s family. This cake is for your birthday with Dad’s family.”

Her eyes lit up. She looked around for a second time her mouth opening slightly and her face changing as the nature of blended family birthdays struck her for the first time, “I get TWO family birthdays?”

“You bet.” I said, and as charming as her excitement was, I was suddenly struck by the enormity of my task. I’d been making a cake for the sheer fun of it, with the excuse of her birthday. Suddenly I realized, this was so much more. I whisked harder.

“And you’re making it?” she said cautiously. We looked at each other.

“Yup. That’s what all this is for,” I said, aggressively attacking the task of hand whipping cream.

A spark lighting in her eyes, she chirped, “Can I help?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I was making the cake for her. I’d spent hours developing the plans. “I guess,” I said. I relinquished the whisk, and instructed her on how to beat the cream over the ice without it slopping over the sides.

It slopped over the sides.

I showed her how to drizzle chocolate without blotches.

There were blotches.

Soon her brother and father were taking turns with the whipped cream, all of us rubbing our forearms by the time the task was fully accomplished. As our cake stacked higher and higher my future step-daughter and I gleamed with identical maniacal glee.

“It’s huge!” She said, thrilled.

“It is huge.” My vision had been realized, but only kind of. It was gaudy, with a clutter of decorations that veered wildly from my original idea. It tilted ever so slightly. We placed the chocolate initial that I had shown her how to create on the top of the cake, and wrote her birthday message in red gel icing on top. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, but I was slowly falling in love it.

We were finished.

“How are you two going to get this to Granny’s?” her father asked.

We froze.

It’s safe to say that the cake made it to Granny’s. Perched on my lap it was dangerously close to the car heater, the gel icing running until the perky red we’d chosen to write “Happy Birthday” in looked disturbingly like blood. The chocolate initial had condensation on it. Before it was served I carefully did my best to make touch ups, afraid that the little girl who it was intended for would be disappointed. I shouldn’t have been concerned, because when it came time to sing Happy Birthday there she was, sitting at her grandmother’s dining room table—too excited to sit still. She blew out the candles and declared, “Susan made this!” to the room of individuals who I’d later call family, “And I helped!”

It’s four years later, and a week before her eleventh birthday, “Do you know what kind of cake you want?” I ask.

She chews on her lip, “I can’t decide, here’s what I was thinking,” she thrusts her iPad at me and we scroll through images of gummy-bear pool-party cakes, fondant iPad cakes, cakes more complex than the me of four years ago could have imagined—I blame Pinterest.

“I’m not working with fondant,” I say smiling.




We scroll together, taking note of the cake elements we like and don’t like before settling on this year’s winner. It’s our family tradition now, we find our cake and we make it deliciously real.

Many years, and many cakes on my step-mom resume, a ring on my finger, and a baking cupboard bursting with supplies, these are only a few of the things that make my family mine. Cakes baked in ice-cream cones, Kit-Kat cakes, dirt cakes: we’ve made them all, together. What my mom said about birthdays still resonates with me, but for our family it’s a bit different, birthdays are another way for us to celebrate our unique way of becoming.

Susan Currie is a stepmother of two living in Vancouver BC.



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He had ample opportunity to hate me, but he didn’t. He stuck with me until I learned to be a good stepmom.


Brian and I married 13 days after Brian’s son Spencer turned three. On an evening soon after our wedding, Brian and I were entwined on the couch when Spencer asked me, “Can I call you Mommy?”

“Oh, Spency-bird, that’s so sweet you want to call me Mommy. It makes me happy, but Mommy is a special name for your own mom. You can call me Adrienne, or you can make up a different special name to call me, OK?”

Spencer considered for a minute, pooching out his lips the way he did when he was thinking hard, then cackled, “I’ll call you Carrot!”

We all laughed and Spencer called me Carrot for a day or two before he forgot about it and returned to calling me Adrienne.

I begin with that story so that, when I tell you the next story about how radically I overstepped every reasonable step-parenting boundary, you’ll know it wasn’t because I didn’t care about Spencer’s mom’s feelings.

 *     *     *

A few weeks after Brian and I married, I took Spencer to daycare and when we got to his classroom, the teacher was sitting at the desk, staring into space while the children watched cartoons. She neither greeted Spencer nor looked in our direction so I gathered Spencer up, stomped out, and called both of Spencer’s parents at work and said we had to find a new daycare immediately.

Brian agreed readily enough, but Spencer’s mom was less eager. “We work weird hours,” she said. “We need evening and weekend care sometimes and that’s the only daycare that offers it.”

“Well, I don’t work weird hours so there’s no more need for that,” I said, and remembering that conversation, I feel my face get hot with shame.

I tell you that story so that, when I tell you a story about Spencer’s mom, you won’t think I blame her for what came after. I’d hate you to think I believe myself innocent.

*     *     *

When Spencer was four, his preschool teacher asked each child’s parents to bring in a family photo. Brian sent Spencer to school with a copy of the studio portrait we’d had taken on our wedding day of the two of us with Spencer and my two children.

That evening, Spencer’s mom called to tell Brian that we had to come to her apartment right away. When we arrived, she slammed our studio portrait down on her dining table and said, “This isn’t Spencer’s family.” Next to our wedding picture, she laid a portrait of herself, Brian, and Spencer, taken when Spencer was a baby. “This is Spencer’s family. We can get a new portrait with all six of us if you want but this,” she indicated our wedding day photo, “will never be his family.”

I tell you that story so that, when I tell you how badly I messed everything up, you won’t think I was the only one making mistakes.

 *     *     *

I resented many people, especially Spencer’s mom for her intrusions into our lives and my husband for not putting a stop to it. Instead of handling my feelings as an adult does, I was petulant and unkind. Worse, I chose a child as my target. I was impatient with Spencer and dismissive of his feelings. If he said his bath was too cold, I told him he was fine. When his mom was late to pick him up, I let my unhappiness about that situation bleed into our time together. When the kids argued, I was quick to assume Spencer was at fault.

Eventually, as I treated Spencer evermore harshly, his behavior deteriorated. A child will live up or down to a caregiver’s expectations, and I was setting a very low bar for him. We churned against each other, me trying to discipline him with ever sterner correction, him doing as he pleased because he couldn’t make me happy so why try?

I tell you that because, as shameful as it is, the truth is inescapable, and because Spencer deserved better.

 *     *     *

I heard or read somewhere that you can induce warmth for a person by faking affection, so when Spencer was seven I decided I would smile and request a hug every time I saw him. This wasn’t without its amusing moments, as a surprised Spencer was greeted with a hug whenever he moved around the house.

It worked, and thank God because had it not, I’m quite sure we wouldn’t be a family anymore. The more often I hugged him and smiled at him, the more willing I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to let little things slide, or to pour his milk instead of insisting he do it himself. I set aside some spaghetti sauce before I added the zucchini because I knew he hated it and let him stay in the bathtub until his fingers pruned because I like the sound of him chattering to his bath toys.

I tell you that story because you might know someone who you wish you could feel more warmly toward.

 *     *     *

This summer, Spencer will turn 18. In spite of our expectation based on his diminutive size in his early years, he’s grown to six feet tall. He’s gracious, kind, and intelligent, and our relationship is among the most vital in my life. I admire his steadfastness and his peaceful spirit and I am grateful down to my toes for his presence in my life. He had ample opportunity to hate me, but he didn’t. He stuck with me until I learned to be a good stepmom.

I love him.

I tell you that because it’s true.

The Judgment That Wasn’t

The Judgment That Wasn’t

toddler Abbie

We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them.


I cringe a little when I’m with a group of moms and the hot baby topics come up. You know the ones: breast or bottle; home or hospital; disposable or cloth. The decisions that, when we are parenting brand new people, are so vital and consuming. We fret over them. We go to playgroups where all the moms do the same things we do, and discuss them, and defend them, and it all feels so important.

Now, from the distance and experience of many years as a mom, I know these conversations by heart, and I know the defensiveness that comes if I reveal that I had my youngest child at home, or that I breastfed and used cloth diapers for all three of my babies. Immediately, the explanations begin to pour out as moms defend their need for a C-section or an epidural. They explain their inability to breastfeed and I want to shrink into a corner because I hate that our culture has done this to us. I hate that we feel we must defend ourselves so much that we engage in these wars.

My home birth is not a judgment of anyone else’s birthing choices. In fact, I wouldn’t describe myself as a home birth advocate at all. I am an advocate for every pregnant woman and her family having access to the best possible medical care and the birthing environment that is safest and most comfortable for her and her baby. I’m not an advocate for breastfeeding as much as I’m in favor of babies being fed. I want all the babies to have their milk delivered to them while they are snug in the arms of someone who knows they are feeding a miracle. As to the diapers, I didn’t choose cloth for any noble reason. I was too poor when my first two children were born to buy disposable diapers, and by the time my youngest was born I was used to it.

We have become a culture that questions every decision a parent makes, from where they are born to whether or not they should be allowed to walk to the park to how involved parents are when their children are at college. We judge each other and we judge celebrity parents and when something goes wrong, we immediately look to the parents to find a place to lay blame. Likewise, when a child gets accepted to a great university or lands a dream job, we congratulate the parents, assuming they must have done well to produce such a successful person.

The problem with all of this is our children are not products and we are not half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be. I wish the whole world could take a collective deep breath about kids, take two steps back, and re-evaluate everything.

Parenting matters. Good parenting is vital to a child’s healthy development. They need to be safe and loved. Every child needs at least one person who thinks he or she is absolutely the best person who has ever happened in the history of people. Babies need full tummies and dry bottoms, and toddlers need someone to patiently teach them to use a toilet. Preschoolers need someone to read them stories and let them help in the kitchen even though they make a mess. Grade schoolers need reassurance that even though they are beginning to move into the world, away from their families, they will return home to the same loving arms that embraced them when they were small and helpless. Teens need to learn so many things, I’m amazed most of them manage to fit it all into the few years they have, and they need parents who will still receive them with those loving arms when the world is overwhelming. Small children need a great deal of care, and older children need a great deal of guidance, and while it’s a big responsibility, there is no single decision that will make or break a child.

When my second child, my daughter Abbie, was three months old, I became very depressed and needed to take anti-depressants. It was 1996 and my psychiatrist and Abbie’s pediatrician insisted I must wean her before I took the medicine. I was devastated at the thought of giving her formula, but I was very sick and I knew my children needed me to be well and happy, so bought some bottles and formula and weaned my daughter.

I made a good decision based on the best information available at the time, but I was terribly ashamed. I was embarrassed to give my baby a bottle in public, as if the way I fed her said something about my character. Of course, in our culture of hyper-awareness and judgment, we assume that how we feed our babies does speak to our character. I beat myself up for years for weaning Abbie so young, even as the girl herself stood before me, shining and healthy.

As my children grew, life got very complicated. I divorced their dad, then remarried and my kids gained a new stepdad and stepbrother. I had their youngest brother who has multiple disabilities, and finally my eldest two children’s dad alienated them from me and robbed us of five years together. By then it was almost too late, but I finally understood that the only thing that truly matters is the relationship. We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them. Good education is important, and feeding our kids well protects their health, but what they need most is loving parents who are interested in them, curious about them, and willing to be their safety and warmth in an unpredictable world.

I took too long, was too focused for years on doing parenting the “right” way, and beating myself up because I could never meet the false standards I created for myself. I am fortunate to share my life with my children and I wish I’d known sooner that I could set aside the weight of responsibility sometimes and simply be with and know them. I’m glad to know it now.

The Family I Thought We Would Be

The Family I Thought We Would Be


Figuring out the expectations and realities of merging two families.


I’ve been married to Brian for fourteen years and 24 days. We were both 2 years out of our first marriages. The joke we told for ages was that he had a mildly pleasant marriage and a dreadful divorce, while I had a dreadful marriage and a mildly pleasant divorce. There was a kind of buoyancy to our early relationship, as if we weren’t only newly in love, but also recently released from prison. I might have taken that as a sign that we weren’t ready if I wasn’t so delighted to be with him.

In the summer of 2000, when we married, we had between us three children. My son Jacob was 6 and my daughter Abbie was 4. Brian’s son Spencer was 3. They were bright, charming, delightful children, and Brian and I knew just the kind of family we would make together.

Ay de mi, can I even bear to tell you about us and how we thought it would be?

Our family, we decided, would be just like a traditional nuclear family, except our children would spend some of their time with their other parents. Brian and I would love all the children the same, and treat them the same, but we would never make the mistake of expecting the same from them. We would never put any of them in a position to feel torn between mother and stepmother, or father and stepfather. We would hold ourselves to a very high standard, and expect nothing of the children except a moderate level of respect.

It was all a very Dr. Phil-esque kind of self-abnegation that began to implode almost immediately. Our plans and expectations contained no acknowledgement that we were human, and newlywed. We failed to predict the deep influence our children’s other parents and our extended families would have on our fledgling familial unit and all the complex relationships therein. We were so blinded by early love and outrageous optimism that we scarcely registered we parented orthogonally to one another and our children would notice that.

But love! Oh, love!

Brian and Spencer moved into the house that my ex-husband and I had bought a year before we divorced and we started being a family together. It took us about 4.2 minutes to run into the first wall, which was sleep for the kids. I was very strict about bedtime and naps, and Brian and his ex-wife had always been a bit flummoxed about how to get Spencer to bed so they usually bribed him with food. Actually, my strictness and Brian’s laxity were the sparks that ignited dozens of arguments. I expected he would see the superiority of my methods and change. Brian thought his son was just fine and I should lighten up. Spencer couldn’t understand why this strange woman in his life was being so mean and making him go to bed when it wasn’t even dark out yet.

We went on like that, five sets of expectations banging against each other and the walls, all of us hoping to have our needs met, and neither Brian nor I precisely sure how to make that happen.

In the meantime, other people had expectations, too. Brian’s ex-wife seemed to take his remarriage personally and my involvement in Spencer’s life as a personal insult. My ex-husband didn’t seem especially bothered but he stopped paying child support almost immediately. My parents and Brian’s parents had pre-existing relationships with their grandchildren and we couldn’t seem to communicate in any gentle way that none of them could lavish gifts on one or two children and leave another out. My in-laws didn’t much like me, and my parents didn’t really understand my husband, and the messier it all got, the more defensive and unpleasant Brian and I were with each other, the children, and everyone.

I could draw a map of all the expectations, resentments, and hurts that travelled among us but it would be nothing but an unintelligible tangle of lines before I was half finished. I was happy to resent my father-in-law, and miserably ashamed to find that I resented my stepson. It felt hopeless and ugly and I couldn’t imagine we’d ever find our way our. It almost finished our family, except for once Brian’s and my mutual stubbornness worked for good instead of ill and we hung on.

We’d been married for about four years and I was reading a memoir by a woman who had several sisters, and she confessed that while she loved all of them, she really only liked one sister. I had an epiphany. “Brian,” I said, “I don’t love Spencer the same way I love my kids.”

These would have been fighting words in the first year of our marriage, but Brian responded, “No, I don’t love Jacob and Abbie the same way I love Spencer.”

We stayed up most of the night that night, discussing what this meant for us, and how this revelation (it really seemed like a revelation, though now it all appears very simple and obvious) would change our family, and what we might do differently to make life better. That night was mostly about relieving one another of responsibilities and expectations. We determined that we would stop trying to parent each other’s children and act more like friendly aunts or uncles: we would stop negotiating with each other’s ex-spouses and parents; we would, basically, retreat to our corners and hush up, except we would keep talking to each other.

When I was a little girl, my parents used to take my sister and me backpacking, and I loved the feeling I had when I took off my heavy backpack. The release of pressure made me feel like I was floating just above the ground, and the feeling I had in the weeks after Brian and I admitted our family wasn’t working out quite like we’d expected was psychically similar. I was so relieved I was nearly giddy.

We’d done a fair amount of damage in our floundering and confusion, and there have been more (and much bigger) roadblocks on the journey than blending our families turned out to be, but damn, I’m glad I’m not on this scary road without Brian and Spencer. We had to start from scratch and define for ourselves how our relationships would work, but I’ve decided in the meantime that relationships work better that way anyhow.