In Cate Kennedy’s short story “Cake,” Liz is a new mother struggling to adjust to leaving her 18-month-old son, Daniel, at daycare and going back to work. She experiences intense, all-consuming guilt when she drops Daniel off at daycare and her feelings of inadequacy shape the entire day, from her interactions with coworkers to a conversation with her husband about finances when she finally returns home. No matter what Liz does, she is plagued by uncertainty about her decisions as a mother. Her desperation for more time with her son constantly conflicts with the messages she receives from her husband, her coworkers, and an informational pamphlet for new mothers, all emphasizing how much she should want to go back to work. Her guilt illustrates how financial and societal pressures force mothers to make decisions that may conflict with their true desires and needs, which inevitably results in a sense of failure.
Liz’s feelings of guilt are most pronounced at the beginning of the story, when she drops Daniel off at the daycare center, Kidz Rezort. Her strong urge to run back inside and take him home lays the foundation for the clash between her decision to go back to work and her need to spend more time with her child. Her sense of uncertainty is highlighted by her frequent self-questioning. “Nobody looks guilty, do they?” she thinks about the other parents outside the daycare center, wondering if anyone else is “eating themselves alive,” like she is. Later, contemplating the eight hours that Daniel will spend at the facility, she worries, “That’s a long time for a baby. Isn’t it?” She becomes even more miserable as she imagines the charges of Kidz Rezort to be “bereft” without their parents and her own son to be “miserable and bewildered” when she leaves. She believes she has “abandoned him to a room of rampaging strangers,” and that she is a neglectful mother. Later, when she caves to her anxiety and calls the daycare center to check on Daniel, she alternates between feeling embarrassed for calling in the first place and wanting to call a second time. She tries to convince herself that she is being unreasonable by repeatedly pressing the delete key on her computer as she works, as if this can somehow erase her fretful actions and thoughts. In addition to feeling guilty about leaving Daniel, she feels guilty about feeling guilt in the first place.
Liz also feels as though she is failing to socialize appropriately when she returns to the office, adding another layer to her guilt. When her female coworkers Julie, Stella, and Caroline share their memories of relief at returning to the workplace after the monotony of staying at home during maternity leave, Liz says that she actually enjoyed the experience—and then instantly feels she has let her coworkers down when she senses “that this is not the answer they wanted.” Later, when her coworkers take her out for lunch to celebrate her return, Liz reenacts Daniel’s response to the song “If You’re Happy And You Know It.” She sings for too long and notices her coworkers’ awkward expressions “get a little stiff.” She realizes that she has disappointed them and likens her performance to that of a lackluster comedian whom “they expected to be entertained by, who doesn’t actually have any new material at all.” Her embarrassment at the thought of being a social disappointment when she doesn’t want to be back at work in the first place compounds her guilt about Daniel, exacerbating her feeling of failure as a mother.
Kennedy also uses the fraught act of breastfeeding to highlight the conflict between Liz’s desires to maintain this connection with her son and the external pressures she faces to wean him so that she can go back to work. When her colleagues discuss how early they weaned their children in order to return to work, Liz can’t help but feel a fresh wave of guilt when she thinks about how Daniel has been “looking at her and the bottle in her hand with a baffled uncertainty that stabs at her heart.” When she returns home at the end of the day and Daniel grasps for her shirt, she feels as though something is “tearing inside her, slowly and deliberately, like a perforated seam.” This tearing refers to the incompatibility of her desire to connect with her child and the necessity of weaning him so that she can return to work; she can either bottle feed him and feel like an inadequate mother, or she can breastfeed him and feel like she has failed to commit to her work. She can’t escape the knowledge that “giving in will only make things worse tomorrow,” when she gives in and breastfeeds him.
The conflict between Liz’s return to work and her overwhelming urge to stay home fuels her sense that she’s “too needy.” While her husband, Andrew, refers to her “decision” to return to work, Liz’s compounding sense of guilt and inner conflict reveals that she has acted out of obligation, not desire. Just as Liz’s coworkers don’t want to be forced to stay at home, Liz does not want to be forced to go back to work. With this, Kennedy makes the reader question the validity of holding mothers to a single standard of living that involves both work and childcare.
Guilt 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.
‘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.
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.
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.’
‘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.