Perfectionism and Birthdays

I’ve started several blog posts in the last few weeks, yet I talked myself out of finishing every one of them. I told myself that writing blog posts about quotidian things is frivolous during this pandemic. If you are writing in these difficult times, you need to have something profound to say. The news is serious, life is serious, people need succour. But lately I have realized that our small everyday acts of creativity are far from frivolous—they nourish us and keep us sane. So bring on the poems and the sewing, the novels-in-progress, the drawings, the baking, the quilts and the aprons. The blog posts. And all of the mistakes we make as we create. All of it is keeping me going right now. 

Having a Hallowe’en birthday is special because birthdays are special. My mother acknowledged the Hallowe’en side of my day of birth by buying a pumpkin-shaped cake for my first birthday, and later on by decorating with orange and black streamers, putting a jack-o-lantern on the table, or letting us bob for apples. Later, when I became a mother, my own birthday was eclipsed by trick or treating, which was absolutely fine. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about perfectionism and birthdays, and how perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect, and about how children’s birthdays can be a breeding ground for perfectionism, which is a soul-killing characteristic that I wish to banish in my life. 

For some reason, it was important to me—to my very identity as a mother—that I design fun, exciting, wonderful birthday parties for my kids. Decorate your own cupcake with five colours of icing and a dozen candy toppings. The year I made a cake from the pages of Women’s Day magazine featuring a swimming pool made of blue Jello and a path made of chocolate covered ladyfingers. We rented a Bouncy Castle twice—had it set up in the back yard for the August birthday one year and the front yard for the September birthday a few years later. We didn’t have lots of money, but I always figured out a way to pay for extras like that. We put on a teddy-bear tea party one year (bring your teddy-bear!) and  a trip to the reptile zoo another year (poor reptiles! What was I thinking?).

Oh yes, the year of the hockey card cake—I painstakingly cut the players from hockey cards then glued the cut-outs to popsicle sticks so they could skate across the white icing on a sheet cake. That was also the year we hired John Demers, a children’s musician (kind of a low-rent Raffi, but actually better than Raffi) to play his guitar and sing in our yard for the children. There was a magician one year. I’ll never forget the tears I cried over making the bright yellow Big Bird cake—I borrowed the cake tin from a friend and worked so hard to get the icing the right colour. All this effort for a one-year old child who didn’t know the difference! Who probably just wanted to lick the bowl, that would have been enough. There was the year Greg and I blew up something like a hundred balloons so the boys could fasten paper bags on their feet with rubber bands and play the “stomp the balloon game.” I’m sure my fancy birthdays drove Greg crazy! 

And then as the kids got older and grew into adults, I upped my cake game and kept trying to perfect the Butter Brickle Cake, the recipe from Dufflet’s Bakery in Toronto. Three layers of pecan meringue with caramel sauce and whipped cream. I experimented with baking the meringue so it wouldn’t stick to the foil. Spray it with Pam first? Maybe parchment paper instead of foil? Higher temperature? Lower temperature? Maybe bake them a bit longer?  Was the caramel sauce too runny?  

The famous Butter Brickle Cake (recipe below for all of the stalwart bakers who wish to try)

All of this work at making birthdays wonderful is fine and beautiful. A noble intention: I wanted my kids to feel special, happy, and loved. None of this is wrong. But what gets me is how I tried so hard. The anxious perfectionism driving my doing is what I’d like to eradicate. I think I took a neurotic pride in these exertions, looking down my nose a little at the families who ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut and an ice-cream cake from Dairy Queen and let the kids play in the yard for a couple of hours and called it a birthday party. But at the same time, I envied the relaxed looks on those parents’ faces—they were enjoying themselves, sitting in their deck chairs drinking beer and laughing while the kids made their own fun. No need for hired entertainers, fancy party bags, or even paper invitations. Just call a few friends and tell them to come on over. No need to try so hard.


The word perfection comes from the Latin noun perfectio and the adjective perfectus, both of which are derived from the verb perficere, “to complete.” So perfection is tantamount to wholeness, completeness, and—to use the Buddhist concept—suchness. Something is perfect simply because it is. It is perfect just as it is, mistakes and flaws included. (p. 29)

When I read this paragraph yesterday in Vanesa Zuisei Goddard’s book, Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion,  I felt a click of recognition. My therapist has been talking lately about Madeline at capacity. Being all of myself, allowing all of myself to be. To feel my suchness. That’s perfection. 

I wish now I’d been a bit more relaxed as a mother. Perhaps more “being” and less “doing.” More carefree. Welcome the mistakes. Don’t worry so much. Only make a fancy cake if I felt inspired to, not because I was driven by a Women’s Day image of what good mothers do.There’s no shame in buying a cake.

If I have an intention for the year ahead, it is to stop trying so hard, to relax deeper into my suchness. Instead of pushing myself into each new day with a list of “shoulds,” I plan to pause and see what emerges from my depths. What do I, in my perfection, want to experience today? 

Butter Brickle Cake 

This cake, by Dufflet Rosenberg, is a sensational combo of pecan meringue, rich caramel, and whipped cream filling.

Pecan Meringue

6 egg whites
1.5 c. white sugar
4.5 oz. toasted pecans, finely chopped (you can toast in a cast iron fry pan on top of stove, or in oven for a few minutes)

Caramel Filling

1 c. white sugar 
.5 c. buttermilk
.25 c. butter
1 tbsp. corn syrup
.5 tsp baking soda
few drops vanilla

Whipped cream filling

2.5 cups whipping cream 
.25 c. dark rum OR a tsp. of rum flavoring

Meringue: whip the egg whites in large bowl til soft peaks form. Add 2 tbsp of the sugar and beat until stiff peak forms. Fold in remaining sugar and pecans. Line baking sheets with parchment paper, and spread three 9-inch rounds on the paper. Bake in 200-degree oven until firm.  

Caramel filling: in small heavy saucepan combine all ingredients. Sir and cook over med. heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils. Boil without stirring until mixture reaches soft-ball stage (236 degrees – if you’re not sure about what this is, look online or in Joy of Cooking).  Remove from heat and cool 2-3 minutes. Spread mixture evenly over meringue layers, reserving .25 cup for decoration. 

Whipped cream: whip cream until stiff, fold in rum or flavoring. Spread some cream on each layer and then pile the layers up. Cover top and sides with remaining cream. Decorate with butterscotch swirls and pecan halves. Refrigerate until serving. Makes about 12 servings. 

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