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The Birthday Cake Experience


How Moms Honor Our Life

I was doing some research for my business last week. I was using Google to understand how prospective clients understood the value of a man’s “experience.” I was trying to learn whether prospective clients care about a man’s job experience in the 21st century when making insurance choices. One of the Google search returns was about “the birthday cake experience”. It merges well with how I see Mother’s Day.

In the history of these United States our economy has gone through several changes that reflect on how we might “experience” the important events in our lives. Celebrating birthdays has remained constant in our culture in our history. I have dozens if not hundreds of photos of birthday parties in my family. It is probably the biggest reason we had for a gathering of friends and family. One thing that has changed about celebrating birthdays is the way that our Moms and Dads pull it off. For almost all of us, the central prop in the birthday cake experience is the cake itself. And Moms are the main person involved in celebrating our birthday. From the outset of time and eternity our Moms celebrate our birthdays to commemorate our life. In Western cultures a birthday celebration is common and the birthday cake experience is commemorated by a cake.

Two hundred years ago the economy of our country centered on agriculture. Moms and Dads worked hard day in and day out to generate the fruits of their farming life and invariably Moms mixed products they produced on the farm – flour, sugar, butter and eggs –  into a cake baked from scratch ingredients. Celebrating a birthday was made possible by the hard work and the birthday cake was a reward and a treat. Mom was central to these efforts and celebrations as the consummate home maker. The cost of our birthday cakes in money was mere pennies but, hours of Mom’s and Dad’s labor to produce the ingredients.

Eventually our agrarian underpinnings in these United States gave way to the “goods based” industrial economy of the late 19th century. Machines were created to do more of the labor in commerce and industry. That included ordinary farm and household chores. Labor saving devices gave us more time and more choices. Eventually companies were formed to box or can common household goods for easier acquisition and distribution. Mom’s became convinced to buy boxes of premixed cake ingredients to save some time. The boxed cake still required mom to mix and bake the cake. However, for less than a dollar, the convenience of the boxed cake mix has made the birthday cake experience easier for Mom to deliver. Birthday cakes were still a labor of love by our Mom’s celebrating our life with something sweet and tasty. Hard working Moms and Dads were the reason for the cake but, especially Mom through her labors and love, did we continue to enjoy celebrating our birthday.

That said, time knows no obstacles and marches on with an even greater urgency. The march of time brought on a faster pace of change. Our industrial productivity brought on the goods-based economy of the 20th century. The goods-based revolution continued well into this century but by the late 1950’s our economy was set to shift into another era that influences the birthday cake experience once again in small but important ways. Americans were enjoying more discretionary income. Boxed cake mixes have given way in part to pre-made cakes bought from bakers and bakeries. Moms and Dads could now splurge and by a pre-made and decorated cake. The advent of the services-based economy brought us providers like the baker who can more efficiently bake cakes and decorate them better than Mom could. It gave our Moms and Dads the opportunity to buy a cake that can be personalized and decorated prettier than Mom could deliver. The birthday celebrants barely noticed that the cake was a little stiffer and the frosting tasted different, lacking Mom’s special touches. Nevertheless, for under $20 Mom or Dad could bring home a cake that was pretty, sweet, and a suitable substitute for the scratch cake.

The services-based economy that marks the last half of the 20th century finally has given way to the “experiences-based” economy. This economy is exemplified by the rising up of theme-based venues that immerse us in experiences that we might not otherwise get to experience. Today, it is all about the “experience” of having a birthday party. It seems the birthday cake experience has evolved to the point where time-crushed, two income households are substituting a unique “experience” for the labor of pulling off the traditional birthday cake experience at home. Today it is about the immersion into an experience parents can’t deliver well at home. The rising up of venues like Chuck E Cheeses, the Discovery Zone, and other businesses that deliver an visceral experience to birthday celebrants might be the point where Moms and Dads have lost sight of why the birthday cake experience was so special in the first place. For a few hundred dollars, Mom and Dad can buy a birthday experience for their child that is an experience like no other. Most of the time, the cake is thrown in. It isn’t particularly tasty or attractive and is just one more of the props of the experience. Mom and Dad sit on the sidelines texting, reading, or chatting as the venue goes about the job of delivering the birthday cake experience. What happens when we run out of “experiences” to buy?

With Mother’s Day here upon us I look back on the childhood my Mom and Dad delivered to me. I don’t mind saying when I was young I didn’t appreciate their effort with the same appreciation as I do today. My fondness for the special childhood times I was granted grows on me more and more every day. I did grow up and enjoy some very special times in a period of history where (as a culture) we hadn’t yet taken away and marginalized the love and devotion and involvement our Moms and Dads had in our lives. I’m sure I am being unfair to parents raising kids these days but I can’t help but reflect on my childhood and compare it to the one facing children today. There are lots of reasons I say this but I’ll take my childhood any day if I was ever given a choice to live my life again. The time I value today almost above everything else, is the time, love, and dedication my parents gave me to make sure I had everything I needed or wanted in order to have a chance to succeed in life. I wish I appreciated this better back then!

The difference for me in the birthday cake experience is that my Mom and Dad didn’t just pay for the ingredients that helped create the experience. For me, they were the experience along with cherished friends and family. The cake was still the prop back then as it is today. I may not have appreciated the effort it took to deliver my birthday cake experience but my parents were involved. Even if it has taken me a lifetime to realize the effort it took to pay for and deliver, I realize my parents were involved in the most important way in the experience. In a culture that values materialistic things and more and more outlandish experiences so much more than the quality time spent together, thank God I’ve grown up to recognize and value the two people in my life that have given me everything, especially their love and devotion (and largely at their own sacrifice). My Mom (and Dad) are the birthday cake experience I remember the most all these years later. Maybe for the good of our nation and our culture, we need to get back to valuing the simply luxury of a good, stable two parent family life like most of us enjoyed in simpler times. Regardless if a household has one parent or two we should all be concerned that our children are enriched by the time we spend with them rather than by what we can give them materialistically.

So it is the reason I say THANKS MOM, on this Mother’s Day, for loving me enough to have me, raise me, dote on me, to stick with each other through thick and thin, and for loving me despite all the work and trouble I put you through. I realize today that it is a family that raises children, not a village. Don’t be confused by this common misunderstanding. When the fun and frolic of the birthday cake experience become nothing but a memory, I can say that what shines through my memory is the love of my Mom and Dad.

To my Mom, and Moms everywhere, happy Mother’s Day and for the birthday cake experiences that helped me build a successful life.

About "Terry McCarthy"

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