Upon her return to work, Liz’s coworkers congratulate her on re-entering the “world of the living,” welcoming her with cake and their own stories about how they were “counting down the days” to go back to work. But while they see Liz’s return as a cause for celebration, Liz is clearly in mourning, devastated about leaving her son at daycare and unexcited about returning to her menial desk job. This tension between expectations and grim reality persists throughout the story, as Liz remembers other experiences that didn’t quite go as planned, like a lackluster comedy show she attended once. The constant dissonance in the story between attempted celebration and ultimate disappointment emphasizes the gap between the expectations Liz feels she must live up to and the stark reality she encounters.
The recurring symbol of cake, which gives the story its title, represents failed attempts at celebration and happiness in Liz’s work life. When she returns to the office, her coworker notifies her that everyone has decided “to have birthday and welcome-back cakes on the first Wednesday of each month.” Liz remembers these cakes from before she left as overly sweet and unappetizing, “cakes that you need to empty the remains of into the desk bin when nobody’s watching.” At the mediocre Italian restaurant she goes to for lunch, her coworkers’ mentioning cake on the dessert menu makes Liz think, “If anyone mentions fucking cake again today I’m going to burst a blood vessel.” Finally, Liz’s husband, Andrew, gives her cake when she comes home as a surprise “to celebrate [her] first day back,” after reminding her that she has no choice but to go to work. The presence of cake is linked to the false nature of these celebrations, which don’t actually bring Liz any joy.
Another failed attempt at celebration occurs when Liz’s coworkers take her out to lunch at an Italian restaurant. Liz takes a bite of lasagna and immediately recognizes that it is store-bought rather than homemade due to the amount of times she has eaten it at home on a tight budget, thinking, “those cheats.” Liz is uncomfortable throughout the meal and feels as though she must entertain the other women with stories about Daniel. Ultimately, she feels like a comedian who she bought tickets to see live with her friends even though “his stage act was almost identical to what they’d already seen him do on TV.” For Liz, lunch is riddled with awkwardness and disappointment, which is exacerbated by the fact that it is supposed to be celebratory and fun.
Everyone Liz interacts with throughout the story expects her to be happy to be back at work, when in reality she is miserable and wants to be with her child. The informational pamphlet that she reads in order to prepare herself to return to work does not speak to her experiences at all. The pamphlet states that staying at home with children is difficult for women “who have experienced the challenges of a satisfying job and the stimulation of daily adult conversation.” Liz, however, does not have a satisfying job—she finds her work meaningless and repetitive—and truly enjoyed staying at home during maternity leave. She also feels alienated from her unsympathetic coworkers. “How could she have forgotten this need for constant, ridiculous, social smiling?” she thinks after a particularly awkward interaction. Liz also notes that the model on the cover of the pamphlet has “no bra-strap showing through her shirt, no midriff bulge. Shiny hair,” sending the message that returning to work after maternity leave is easy and effortless, as if a woman could simply pick back up all of the pieces of her life—including her pre-pregnancy body—that got pushed aside for the baby. Liz, by contrast, struggles to fit into her pre-baby clothes and to find motivation in her job again. Liz feels so frustrated and angry about her experiences by the end of the day that she fumes “she’s been taken in by a stupid pamphlet.” This feeling of being fooled by the unrealistic expectations from the pamphlet mirrors her experience of feeling “cheated” at the restaurant.
Even though Liz receives the message from all sides that she should celebrate the end of her maternity leave and her reintroduction into the work world, everything about her return—from coworkers’ smiles to her lasagna noodles—seems fake and dishonest. Ultimately, Liz would rather be at home with her son than eating the sickly sweet cake her peers keep pressing on her. This gap between the expectations and reality of returning to work as a mother makes Liz feel anxious and frustrated, and she longs to approach motherhood in a way that feels more authentic to her, even if it goes against the grain of what society says she should want. With this, Kennedy suggests that motherhood often resists expectations and looks different in practice than one might expect.
Expectations vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Expectations vs. Reality Quotes in Cake
Nobody looks guilty, do they? Nobody else is eating themselves alive like this, trying not to run to that childproof gate and tear back in there, scoop up their kid from the floor of the Tadpole Room and run screaming out of the place.
And he’s in there, alone, where she’s left him. Abandoned him to a roomful of rampaging strangers: big, chunky, runny-nose buzz-cut boys in miniature camouflage gear, already seasoned commanders of the play equipment and the puzzles.
Another set of glass doors: her own boundary gates this time, back at her old office, still with the two dusty ficus trees in the foyer, unchanged; perhaps they’re plastic, she’s never noticed before. Her work colleagues all at the same desks, Stella at the front reception, same smell of cardboard and carpet vacuum powder; only the calendar has been changed.
‘I mean,’ she fumbles, feeling her face flush, ‘I’m very glad to be back, of course, but I actually like staying home. I’ve liked it, I mean.’ She senses, as they nod and smile, that this is not the answer they want.
These are the cakes that have marked each office birthday and celebration, cakes that leave a fur of sugar on your teeth and a pile of brightly colored crumbs, cakes you need to empty the remains of into your desk bin when nobody’s looking.
Being a stay-at-home mum can begin to seem mundane and repetitive to many women who have experienced the challenges of a satisfying job and the stimulation of daily adult conversation, it begins.
Liz fishes out her wallet and finds a five-dollar note, snaps it shut before she has to look at the photo of Daniel tucked in there. His shy smile like a boobytrap. He’d have his thumb in his mouth right not. Not smiling, that’s for sure.
And those conscientious exclamation marks, as if it all urgently mattered. As if it meant something, as if things would fall apart without her, as if anybody could give a flying toss.
Liz concentrates on swallowing the claggy paste of cheese and pasta in her mouth. God in heaven, she thinks, forcing it down, if anyone else mentions fucking cake again today I’m going to burst a blood vessel.
‘That’s what I mean. Having to walk into a room full of pretty competitive strangers, all with their own agendas. That’s a bit of a tough gauntlet to run, doing it cold like that, getting thrown into the mix.’
The day yawning ahead with tiny variations, the endless clock-watching dreariness of it. The salary. Eyes on the salary.
‘We agreed it was always only going to be a temporary thing, you staying home,’ he goes on in a low, reasonable voice, his back still to her. ‘Because, you know, we’re locked into this.’
Something is tearing inside her, slowly and deliberately, like a perforated seam. And even as she’s admonishing herself that giving in will only make things worse tomorrow, her hands are functioning outside her own volition again, unbuttoning her shirt.