“Cake” depicts Liz, a new mother, in a difficult transitional stage: leaving her 18-month-old son, Daniel, to re-enter the workforce. Kennedy centers Liz’s maternal emotions and her coworkers’ experiences as mothers throughout the story. As Liz goes throughout her day, she cycles through intense guilt, anxiety, anger, and joy as a result of her role as a mother. Through Liz’s less-than-joyous return to work, Kennedy suggests that while motherhood should perhaps be about solidarity and community, in reality it is usually a lonely, isolating experience.
Liz’s fellow working mothers Julie, Stella, and Caroline are eager to hear about her experiences on maternity leave and see pictures of the baby. But while Liz’s female coworkers initially seem to offer her a source of solidarity and community, this quickly dissolves. When these women arrive at the subject of returning to work, they do their best to be supportive initially, but they only want to hear stories that validate their own experiences. “When I had Toby, I couldn’t wait to get my brain working again after all those months home bored out of my skull,” one comments. Another reminds the younger women that when she had kids, “there wasn’t any of this going back to work. You were just stuck there, getting driven up the wall.” When Liz does not indulge in maternal horror stories of “midnight feeds and daytime television and projectile vomit,” and says meekly that she actually enjoyed staying home, she notices that there is an “alliance that wavers and falls at her words.” Rather than allowing her to bond with her coworkers, her attitude towards motherhood sets her apart from them. Returning to work, far from providing her with a sense of community, only makes Liz feel alienated from other women in her position.
The men at Liz’s office don’t even offer the pretense of solidarity, making her feel even more isolated. While the women crowd around her asking for stories, Liz notices “something pass between Tim and Dave—an eyeroll, a resigned grin. Then the faintest headshake, unmistakable to her. Disdain.” Desperate for comfort after lunch, she mistakes her boss’s questions about her feelings regarding a business meeting for questions about coping with being a working parent, and feels embarrassed after she responds emotionally about how hard it was to leave Daniel at childcare. Even her husband, Andrew, offers little sympathy, chastising her for complaining about her difficulty adjusting because they agreed she had to work to pay off their mortgage. Liz notices how casually he reacts to seeing Daniel come home from daycare, thinking begrudgingly, “For him, this is normal.” Since he is used to leaving the house and returning to Daniel in the evening, he can’t relate to her experience of having to leave her child for the first time. The men she interacts with throughout the story react to her experiences of motherhood with disdain, apathy, and judgement, increasing her sense of isolation and incompetence.
Rather than questioning the source of her frustrations, Liz directs her anger and sadness inward. She blames her “baby brain,” and surging hormones for the intense emotions. When Julie makes a remark about the importance of weaning and preventing babies from “dictating” one’s “own life,” Liz’s anger quickly morphs into self-loathing. She reminds herself, “No point aiming this seething fury at anybody but yourself.” Liz believes a cocktail of maternal hormones and personal weaknesses are to blame for her maladjustment, but in reality she is faced with peers who invalidate her feelings and judge her approach to motherhood. Liz’s approach to motherhood brings her both joy and sorrow, creating a close bond with Daniel but driving a wedge between her and other adults, especially other mothers. Her coworkers and husband react to her motherly emotions as if they are a sign of weakness, but it is only when she is able to spend time with her son at the end of the story that she feels a sense of strength. With this, Kennedy suggests that while motherhood can involve a deep, loving connection with one’s child, it can also be a painfully lonely and alienating experience.
Motherhood 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.
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.’
‘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.