An e-mail showed up in my inbox this week that shocked me in ways I didn’t expect. It wasn’t bad news or even so-so news. It wasn’t any news at all, really. The subject line simply said “Bake Sale,” and though I have received, over the course of having elementary school-aged children for five years, endless notices about bake sales and plant sales and give-us-all-your-old-sh*t-so-we-can-hawk-it-to-unsuspecting-kindergartners sales, I have never been the mom in charge of the sale before.
I tend to take on school projects that require a little bit of creativity and a whole lot of time at my own desk in front of my own computer, not ones that require meetings and the subsequent begging of other moms for Rice Krispie treats. The things I volunteer to take on appeal to me as a mom and as a writer of books for kids. Parents as Reading Partners? Sign me up.
But this year is different. This fifth grade year—my first child’s last year at our beloved elementary school—is a big one for both me and for her, given the big transition ahead of us. It will be filled with homework and tests and after-school activities, of course, but also spirit nights, a big fifth grade trip, graduation, a wedding-worthy fifth grade party and—ahem—a whole lot fundraising to pay for it all.
That brings me to the bake sale e-mail that would likely mean nothing to a regular, task-oriented person more comfortable with the assignment than I, but which for me requires a re-evaluation of my own childhood, my own single mom and the mixed-up nostalgia I have for my Little League cheerleading days.
At the ripe age of 7 or maybe 8, I joined the cheerleading squad for our town’s pee-wee football program. In our red skirts, white wool sweaters and saddle shoes (for real), we were pretty darling. S-P- (clap clap) I-R- (clap clap) I-T- (clap clap)! This was Pennsylvania in the early ’80s, a place with from-scratch bake sale moms toting fold-up lawn chairs, extra blankets and intact marriages. They would arrive in a brigade, unwrapping their tinfoiled baked goods and unlocking a sweetness that cut through the late fall air, a sweetness that makes my jaw ache even as a write this.
Forgetting that, for me at that age, the cupcakes themselves—yellow ones, with chocolate icing and sprinkles—were a huge distraction from the actual cheering at hand, the other memory for me was that my mom was very much not a member of this brigade. She was at work. Or maybe not. Maybe it was a weekend and she had errands to run and my brother to cart around to his activities. I don’t know exactly, but she was busy—flitting in and out of my cheering practices and, later, soccer games and other school events with enthusiasm, but only when she could, and certainly never on official PTA business.
She was a particular kind of feminist, my mother: a political activist, a medical professional and a sometimes-critic of a system she believed was designed to get a whole lot accomplished on the backs of educated women willing to work for free. That’s a lot for me to take on here, but it feeds into the identity crisis I feel when I tell my mom I have a PTA meeting to attend, a book fair to work and, now, a bake sale to arrange. I feel and sometimes actually hear her say, “Don’t you have better things to do? A book to finish? An article to write? A perfectly balanced, farm-to-table meal to prepare for my exceptional grandchildren? Anything?”
And I do have things to do. Lots of them. We all do. I have friends who work full-time in huge jobs or multiple jobs because they want to or because they have to. I have friends who show up to every last classroom moment and friends who send grandparents or babysitters in their place. Some of them feel guilty and some of them feel satisfied.
The thing is, when so much is asked of us—when the schools need time and our effort more than ever—we all have to participate in ways that suit us, whether by manning a table, sending an e-mail or shoving two bucks in our kids’ pockets for popcorn Fridays. Some of us can and really should participate more. The system is set up this way for a reason, after all. Some have more time and more money, some have less time and less money. Most find themselves somewhere in the middle, scrambling for bake sale money or sending in store-bought cookies because they ran out of energy (or are short on butter) and want to be at that table no matter what.
This all makes me wonder who those cheer moms and their tinfoiled treats of my childhood really were. Maybe they worked an early shift at a job I didn’t know they had. Maybe they had an identity crisis on the way to the game, too. Maybe they had a flask under that plaid flannel blanket. Is this who I am now? Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe it was exactly as it seemed: a productive group of women, set up for bake sale success on behalf of the kids, the school and the community.
(I want us to ponder all together why there are no dads at the table—why so few of them are called upon to send an e-mail or sell a cupcake, but that’s for another time.)
Here is what I have discovered about myself in thinking about all of this: I am okay with a whole lot of bake sale e-mails directed to me specifically as the Bake Sale Mom. I like being on the ground at my kids’ school. I like the smell of pencil sharpeners and dry-erase boards and cafeteria fumes. This whole thing is a privilege. To have a flexible enough work life, to have the time and perhaps the need to wear this particular hat is exciting to me and gratifying in ways I can’t begin to list, starting with the smiling faces of my own kids when they see me working at a school event and ending with the actual funds we raise which give a boost to our schools and to our community. This is grassroots organizing. Small potatoes (or brownies) organizing sure, and it very much is done on the backs of women willing to work for free. But I do a lot of things for free and for lesser causes.
So, okay, is this who I am now? Yes, among many other things, it is.
Also, I love to bake. So there.