Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Treat Cure

I occasionally, um, lose my head. Motherhood has done this to me. I used to be so calm, so in control, so cool (not cool as in hip, mind you, but cool as in, shall we say, unperturbed). I used to answer every email and return books to the library on time. I did yoga and jogged and sometimes even tried on several outfits before deciding on one, considering all angles, lingering in front of the mirror. I had time and space and--Ahhh....just thinking about it makes me feel relaxed.

Certain things were predictable before I became a parent. In the same way snow once fell every winter, I used to dependably face challenges with composure and optimism. Now it's not unusual to see confused bulbs blooming in January, while on a daily basis I seem to utter something straight from the script of those moms I used to judge in the grocery store, barking irrational, unbecoming threats at their children in a vain attempt to win cooperation.

Time was, my temper rarely approached even a simmer. And now...well, sometimes I fume. Sometimes I yell. Occasionally, a spoon gets torpedoed into the sink with a good, satisfying clatter. Once, I even broke a bowl, sort of by accident. (N.B.: Don't empty the dishwasher angry.) On good days, I just sigh a lot, and Gabe asks, "Mommy, are you VERy FRUStrated?"

I have read that I am supposed to count to ten when I feel my fuse begin to spark. But here is the one way in which the angry me resembles the always-cheery Owie: I can't get past two. For me, there is a better solution, which restores peace and contentment in less time than it takes to take a deep, yogic breath. If I had to sum up my strategy in one word, that word would be: cupcakes.

Of course, homemade cupcakes themselves take some time, though not very much. In this case, it's the mere word--spoken like a mantra, a promise, a sacred vow--that changes the game. The kids' ears perk up. My heart rate slows. As if a cosmic wand has just come down and smoothed us each with a dab of buttercream, we all get a little bit sweeter.

I discovered the Treat Cure in my teaching days. When struggling with a problem--a troubling class dynamic, an ill-conceived assignment--the best thing to do was to return my focus to the kids, to ask them for help, or just to give them something they would love. I needed to conjure and commune with their best spirits, thereby restoring my own. The treat for them might be a creative assignment lacking the strictures of traditional academic writing, or perhaps a game, an outdoor expedition, or a day to just put our feet up and read quietly. (I was also not above just bringing in a pan of M&M brownies. This worked, too, big kids being no less susceptible than preschoolers to the charms of sugar.) Whatever form it took, the treat would always succeed in restoring a frayed relationship and reconnecting the class to its root purpose: joy.

Now before you suggest that I reread those parenting manuals full of admonitions about counting to ten and speaking softly, let me assert that my technique is validated in one of my favorite books for moms: Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children by Sarah Napthali. You will have inferred from the scenes noted above that I am no Buddhist, at least not yet. But the book contains wisdom from which parents and non-parents alike can benefit. When faced with a problem, she explains, Buddhist teachings encourage us to "train our minds to be flexible and supple," searching for new perspectives and alternatives to our negative thoughts. Instead of dwelling on what troubles us, she writes, we must ask ourselves questions like "What is required of me?" and "What opportunities does our problem provide for us?"

As you can see, I have discovered some very tasty ways to answer these questions, and to transform negative energy into positive, sugar-fueled fellowship. When all my instincts are telling me to lock the boys up in time-out for the next six years, the better answer is always to kill them with kindness--by which I mean cupcakes. Or cookies. Or a walk in the park. Or whatever it is that will make all three of us smile at each other again.

So if you happen to be walking by and hear a clatter, or a shout, or perhaps just a very loud sigh, don't be deterred. Wait a few moments, and then come on inside and join us. Chances are we'll be sitting at the table, licking frosting-crusted fingers and dwelling in a rare and welcome moment of quiet, the calm encircling us like a smoothing winter snow.


Apple Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Leite's Culinaria
> Makes 12 cupcakes or one loaf
If you prefer something less sweet, try baking this in a buttered loaf pan for 50-60 minutes. I have substituted whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour with good results, and I suspect a handful of rolled oats would produce a pleasing bite and reduce the guilt factor just a tad. If you don't want to use the frosting, make a topping by blending softened butter with brown sugar, flour, and perhaps some rolled oats until you get a crumbly texture. Sprinkle this on before baking. Or just go topless, as we often do (ahem, with the cake, that is, er, well, you get the idea).

2 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups (12 oz.) unsweetened applesauce
1 stick butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place cupcake liners in a 12-cup muffin tin, or butter lightly. In a small bowl, whisk dry ingredients, and set aside. Combine eggs and sugar in a mixer and beat until pale and thickened, 2-3 minutes. Add the applesauce and beat until blended. Scrape down the bowl and add the butter and vanilla, beating until thoroughly combined. Add the dry ingredients and mix just until the batter is relatively smooth. Don't worry if there are a few lumps. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. I prefer short cupcakes, so I fill up each cup only a little past halfway. (This means I often have enough batter left to fill a mini loaf pan, which I bake for 15 minutes longer than the cupcakes.) If you like something with more stature, fill the cups 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cupcakes are lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the cupcakes from the pan and let them finish cooling on the rack.

8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 stick butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Using a standing or handheld mixer, combine all ingredients until smooth. Spread on cupcakes using a knife or small spatula. You might have some leftover frosting, which will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator.


  1. I laughed along with this one, Lis. "As if a cosmic wand has just come down and smoothed us each with a dab of buttercream, we all get a little bit sweeter." Very true! We made cupcakes this past weekend (not from scratch, though) and Jay spent 20 entirely contented minutes frosting them. It made me think we should give him something to frost everyday.

  2. Thanks, Kevin! Yes--I didn't even get into the calming potential of frosting, the verb. Cooking has a way of refocusing us. I have always felt dough has special powers as well, but I have not tested its effectiveness as a discipline or anger management tool...yet.

  3. I laughed out loud at the idea of time out for six years :)

  4. Lis, you'll probably laugh to hear that you are a model to me of calm, patient parenting. I'm sure Q will love these. I'll tell him that he has Auntie Lis (or is it Gabe?) to thank.

  5. Thanks, Dionne! Yes, Q can thank the boys for inspiring this post. It's comforting to think that their sometimes-crazy behavior is making it possible for children everywhere to have applesauce cupcakes!

  6. lis, i loved this. if i lived with you and you made cupcakes when angry, i would want you to be angry all the time! ;) i completed related to this post, and i too LOVE Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children!

  7. Michelle, thank you for your comment! We'll have to discuss the book some time. Glad to hear it's been a resource for you, too. I have to pick it up every couple of months, reread marked passages, and remind myself not to "cling." : )