An unidentifiable piece of plastic crap. A squashed piece of birthday cake, wrapped in a soiled serviette that will remain uneaten for a week before you throw it in the bin. A tiny bag of Haribo sweets to rot your child’s teeth. A cheap yoyo to add to the 50 other cheap yoyos already sadly languishing in your kitchen drawer. A lollipop (more teeth rotting), and a fake tattoo so your child can experience the joys of channelling David Beckham/Jordan at the tender age of three. All lovingly encased in a shiny plastic bag. These represent (though not always) the average contents of the children’s birthday party bag. I have heard tell of middle-class oneupmanship, where competitive mothers slip in iPods, Diptyque candles, Jojo Maman Bebe cashmere blankets, but I have to say that down my way it’s all multipacks of bubbles (we now have 14 of these in our kitchen drawer next to the yo-yos) and glittery sticker sheets. Thank God.

Like cracker gifts at Christmas, noone really wants or needs a party bag. Yet I’m absolutely not knocking them. They are an essential part of the birthday party experience. They hold such promise. The little bag of fun, those shining little faces grabbing them after the party, peeking inside, all expectant and hopeful. Will there be a Playstation? A Ben 10 figurine set? Or will there be a cheap glider that will manage one inaugural flight across the living room before nosediving and irreparably snapping, and some truly horrible chewy sweets? Even my son, who isn’t yet 4, and still thinks he’s got one over on me because I give him the occasional chocolate coin as a reward, knows the drill now. Eat the sweets fast before mummy confiscates, stick the plastic crap in the relevant toy tray with all the other plastic crap, leave the cake to ossify on the countertop and spill the bubbles. Truly a bag of fun.


If cupcakes purely had an aesthetic function and were not designed for eating, I’d perhaps have less of a problem with them. After all, they do look so pretty. All those lovely pinks and powdery blues, and twinkly sprinkles and pure indulgent frothiness. As the girl whose ex-colleague one day turned round out of the blue, after I’d come in wearing yet another floral frock, and said to me, ‘If you were a shop, you’d be Cath Kidston’ (I was mortified and kinda pleased in equal measure), it would be churlish not to confess to a certain affinity for all things comforting and nostalgic and lovely and girlie and escapist. After years in jeans, these days I only do dresses. I do spend an unhealthy amount of time fantasising about tea cups and teapots. Afternoon tea is my favourite meal of the day. And, yes, I count it as a meal. A day without tea and cake at some point in the day is a sad one indeed. I have watched the Great British Bake-Off unironically.

But tastewise I’m just not keen. For cupcakes patently taste awful. . They reek of awful cloying overwhelming sweetness, the kind that sets teeth on edge, with the icing-to-sponge ratio far too generous in the former and lacking in the latter. Give me a good old-fashioned fairy cake with a blob of icing and a decent buttery base any day of the week.

But more than the mere taste, it’s what cupcakes have come to represent that I can’t bear. Their  representation of a certain kind of awful Sex and the City-spawned female indulgence. They are sickly in every sense of the word. I know I’m clearly not alone in this, as the anti-cupcake movement/cupcake backlash has been going for quite some time now.

It’s also as if there’s a truth universally acknowledged that every women’s latent cupcake gene springs into action once she becomes a mother. That while you might have previously been the kind of woman who subsisted on KFC buckets and Gregg’s sandwiches, or liked to read The Economist, and only had the vaguest acquaintance with lighting the oven, the minute you have a baby you’ll find yourself flouncing into the kitchen in a floral pinnie to rustle up some some butter icing, clearing the cake decoration aisle in Waitrose and spending £300 on a KitchenAid (a contraption that basically does what people have been doing for centuries with a whisk, wooden spoon and a basin bowl, only without the ensuing tendonitis afterwards).

How many new mothers start doomed cupcake-making businesses? How many flyers for cake stalls, and children’s birthday cake makers are there in your local coffee shop? How many times have you bought a cupcake (and some them cost £3.50-plus each), then felt distinctly queasy before you’re halfway done?

I have a confession, however: though I hate cooking, I do like to make cakes. I like to make them, even though I’m totally rubbish at it. I like the fact that you have to follow a recipe to the letter, as I find going off piste from any recipe at all unnecessarily stressful and unsettling.

Even so, despite the following-to-a letter, my cakes still generally burn, collapse, crumble, are raw in the middle and singed at the edges, or have a distinct teeth-cracking, rock-like consistency. I never EVER remember what time I put them in the oven. If they’re initially undercooked I inevitably put them back in and then end up leaving them too long so they burn anyway. They taste of disappointment. They are the embodiment of failed ambition, of slovenly domesic ungoddessness,

They never look remotely like the picture and often they’re not taste sweet enough, because I’ll get to the cupboard and realise that I don’t have one of the ingredients and as I’m too lazy to go the supermarket, I’ll substitute with the wrong kind of sugar (which might work with a curry, but not with a cake, which is all about the science of proportions or so I am led to believe).

I have woefully inaccurate scales and basically just none of the right equipment or Nigella-friendly accoutrements – Bundt tins, icing bags, spatulas, proper vanilla essence, those funny little gold and silver balls. I don’t even have a cooling rack. And I can’t decorate to save my life – I just find myself getting insanely bored and impatient while I’m doing it, making even basic icing sugar, which as we all know any 3-year-old can manage (my icing is always without fail way too runny and thin, like a very cheap paper glue, or mortar-like like an unpleasant yeast infection). I even manage to fuck up those supermarket fairy cake kits where all you need to do is chuck in an egg and stir, while you give your child the fleeting illusion that yes, mummy can cook actually. (A Halloween kit for bat-shaped biscuits by Dr Oetker last year moved both me and my son to tears as the pastry refused time and time again to stick together and roll out. God, I felt like a failure.)

Recently, I had a crazy thought. I saw an ad for a cupcaking decorating class. For a split second, I seriously considered going along, overcoming my phobia of using palette knives, and getting creative with some lovely pastel combinations of sprinkles and buttercream.

Then fortunately my sanity returned. I thought about the cupcakes stands you now get in corporate environments like Westfield Stratford. And I realised I’d rather stab myself in the eye with a silver-plated pastry fork. I’m afraid to say I still can’t endorse cupcakes in any shape or form

I’ll never forget the day that I wrote the cheque for my NCT Class. Two-hundred-and-how-much to sit in a stuffy sports centre conference room with a bunch of other nervy first-timers sporting enormous bumps, and their quivering husbands, who all did something in IT?

Like every other vaguely middle-class mother, I had heard the stories about NCT Classes, both the good and bad. The good involved making friendships that lasted a lifetime, and learning the right way to do your ‘kegels’, so post-birth your pelvic floor muscles didn’t permanently collapse and die. Some said you even got the occasional tip on good positions to give birth in, and what type of pain relief to go for on the big day (meant to be the real point, but everybody knows that’s just a cover-up).

The bad stories involved feeling overwhelmingly pressurised into having a natural birth and breastfeeding till age four, and rejecting taking anything more than a paracetomol and a spritz of Rescue Remedy on the big day. And that the group would consist of aggressively competitive, Boden-sporting women who all lived in bigger houses than you, and would spend the rest of you and your child’s days making you feel miserably inferior about the fact that your baby reached every single milestone later than theirs did (weaning, walking, talking, getting into the right nursery, signing up to a major league junior football team, the whole shebang).

As with most things in life, the reality was neither one thing or the other. No, I didn’t meet 11 like-minded soulmates who I’ll share my darkest secrets with till the grave, but most of the women were reassuringly uncompetitive and actually rather nice. During the actual lessons, I remember doing something alarming with a bucket (don’t ask), learning how to ‘breathe’ (which I naturally forgot the instant I went into labour) and listening agog while our teacher held court and described what it was like to eat her friend’s placenta at a dinner party. But otherwise it was OK (though worth £250? Still not sure if I’d have been better off buying a Nintendo Wii).

Like most women, my main motivation for going was simple though. It was, quite simply, an opportunity to meet other women at a similar stage in pregnancy – I feared that if I didn’t go, after having my baby I would sit at home alone, friendless and isolated, up to my elbows in baby poo and crying in front of Homes Under The Hammer , my single opportunity to meet other local mothers permanently squandered.

For this reason, my main source of stress initially was signing up to the right class for my area – neither one that I was offered was particularly close to my house, and in the end very few of the people in my class lived in my immediate area anyway (and some of the ones that did moved away).

In the months that followed I realised that it wouldn’t really have mattered if I hadn’t gone, though. Most of the birth stuff covered was in the books I’d already read, online or in a not-dissimilar-but-free NHS class I attended (though this one was in a bleak chamber above a doctors’ waiting room, noone said a word to each other and the nurse who hosted it seemed to be intent on terrifying us new-mothers-to-be into early labour, by passing around an assortment of different sized forceps and, also, a catheter. (I also seem to remember a frighteningly bloody video of childbirth, not unlike one I’d seen at school 20 years earlier which made me vow never to have children for about the next 15 years).

Anyway, after having my son, I met another post-natal group – for free! – who were friendly, reassuring and nice and and who became as much ‘my’ group as the one I spent a small fortune on. But then, I guess, I’d never have heard that story about the placenta.

When I was pregnant, there they sat in great dusty piles by the side of the bed, willing me to read them while I studiously ignored them. And as I got bigger and bigger, so did the pile.

I had all the usual suspects – What To Expect When You’re Expecting, The Rough Guide To Pregnancy, plus a fair few wackier purchases made on Amazon and Ebay in those desperate, early hours of the morning: paperbacks on natal hypnotherapy and hippy homebirths and spiritual midwifery. Quite frankly they all equally scared the hell out of me: the chapters slowly counting down the weeks towards D-Day, and bringing up horrible topics like pain relief choice and how to dodge episiotomies, when I’d rather have been thinking about floral maternity dresses and sweet-smelling pregnancy massages and eating cream cakes. The hippy ones scared me in a different way to the anatomical – however, hard I tried I couldn’t imagine ever being as sanguine as the women pictured in these books, with their bottles of lavender essential oil, and loose white yoga trousers.

Then there were the graphic pictures showing me the stage of development of my unborn foetus (in short, yuck), and the myriad birth positions my husband could hoist me into if he was so inclined. Did I really need all this information, and all this fodder to feed my neurosis? Wouldn’t my body just get on with it like they did in the old days, before the advent of mummy internet forums and parenting manuals? If I knew that this week it was all about growing eyeballs and livers, did it really make me feel any better? No, it just made even more worried about all the things I didn’t do properly in the early days when I was pregnant but didn’t know it.  (Folic acid supplements from week one? You must be kidding.)

Indeed, my hunch that all that methodical preparation first-timers do – birthplans with complicated footnotes, hiring birthing pools – would be hilariously irrelevant faced with the reality of  overcrowded hospitals, bad-tempered consultants, overworked midwives and the fact that most of  us just don’t possess the right physiology to just slip one out in 45 minutes in our back living room, was confirmed after a 24-hour labour that culminated not in a peaceful water birth while listening to Mozart sonatas, but a traumatic forceps delivery, the finer details of which I still don’t really care to share with the greater universe.

Then, of course, when baby arrived, I graduated onto the new mothers’ manuals and the dusty pile grew higher. The first few weeks of my son’s life was (rather predictably) spent reading Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby, The Baby Whisperer and What To Expect: The First Year at 3am in the morning as I attempted to breastfeed. I dumbly read a book on co-sleeping from cover to cover even when my son was already in his own room, and I had no intention of taking him back into mine (I enjoy sleep too much). But I also had an admittedly slightly outdated Miriam Stoppard charity shop book that literally taught me how to change a nappy, and how to wash a newborn – with no mother or mother-in-law to help me, it was a lifesaver.

And now. Well, even now the pile continues to grow. Can a manual really help you be a better mother? I guess it can have a jolly good try.

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This blog is currently dedicated to stuff new mummies like. As opposed to stuff mummies of teenagers like. That's because we don't have teenagers yet. Give us a few years though. We're told it goes pretty quickly...

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