Not all that many things have improved on the home front for working mothers over the last couple of decades, but until the other day it seemed to me that at least one bright spot was that no one invokes the litmus test on cupcakes any more.
I was wrong; some people apparently never let go.
Twenty years ago I wrote a how-to book for working mothers ("The Working Mother's Guide to Her Home, Her Family and Herself," Random House). The writing skill reflected the first effort that it was, but many women (and some men) apparently found the information useful, and the book led to a nationally syndicated column that I wrote three times a week for five years (For Women Who Work, Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate).
The book (and the columns) differed from almost anything else on the market at the time. "Women's lib" and "bra burners" and "macho pigs" made hotter copy then, but I had four children and found it tougher to cope with those responsibilities than with my boss or my bra.
It has been years since I've written a word on the subject. Family matters, much worsened in many ways, have become major political issues and working mothers are a potent part of the labor force. I had forgotten about, or time had papered over for me, the cupcake syndrome. Recently, in a chance encounter, it all came back -- the hostility that some women held toward their go-to-work-outside-the-home sisters.
The librarian handed me the reference book I had requested, looked at my card, and said, "I remember you -- we were room mothers together." A few pleasantries followed on how time flies, and as I turned to leave, she asked, "Would you like to know why I remember you?"
How could I resist? Do tell me.
With a smile on her face, she let me have it. It was the book I had written on working mothers. "I stayed HOME to raise MY children," she said, "but I read your book. It certainly explained a lot." It seems I had advised mothers who went out to work to find mothers who stayed home as their home-room partners, the implication being -- freeload any way you can.
I stood stunned, unable to imagine I could have advocated such a stupid, reprehensible, not to mention dangerous, tactic.
But she had more.
"Your son had to make his OWN cupcakes. HE MADE his OWN cupcakes."
Did I have an answer for this verbal body-slam? Of course not. I clutched the edge of the counter, the old automatic guilt already in overdrive, trying desperately to remember when and why the crime had occurred, how on some occasion I could possibly not have made the required cupcakes myself.
What a scheming, irresponsible beast I must have been, dumping my homeroom duties off on a stay-at-home mother while I flounced out to my job.
At home, I fished down from the top shelf a copy of that earnest, organized as hell, from-the-heart book of mine, and leafed through to find what comments I might have made about room-mothering.
Well, not so bad. Don't wait to be asked for help at school; volunteer. Be honest. Say what you can't do, but offer what you can.
There was nothing on cupcakes, per se. But cupcakes were big deals then. They were called for on all kinds of occasions in the classrooms; birthday parties, holidays, scout meetings, PTAs. And there were rules. They had to be homemade; they could not be store-bought. They had to be frosted with the appropriate colors for the occasion -- orange and chocolate for Halloween; red and green for Christmas; pink for a girl's birthday. It was okay if you used a mix, but you didn't tell anyone you did. (I learned once in an interview with a General Mills rep that the industry had early on figured out that while they could make a mix that included the eggs, it was better to leave them for the homemaker to add because it made her feel less guilty if she contributed something more to the outcome than just stirring and baking.)
I was still gnashing my teeth when a favorite visitor arrived.
"Why are you so mad?," he asked me.
"A lady at the library told me that your Uncle Hank had to make his own cupcakes to take to school."
The dear little boy turned a quiet, matter-of-fact face up to mine and said, "So?"
Now why didn't I think of that?
Alice Skelsey is a writer living in Annandale.