Noelle’s 4th birthday cake

When I left journalism a year ago, I thought I had quit the rat race for good. No more jostling for promotions, salary increments, bigger headlines and all that tiresome stuff. I was now a full-time mother. The world I was moving into was a fluffy cloud of organising saccharine playdates, strolling down supermarket aisles with my singing kids in the trolley, and picking them up from school in sunny beachwear — the very look of Perpetual Holiday.

Or so I thought.

I didn’t know there existed a sport called Competitive Housewifery. And the first time I realised was when we went to Noelle’s playschool to attend Sports Day. While most families turned up wearing whatever they could rustle up on an early Saturday morning, a few families descended on the school compound all wearing the official sports day T-shirt. It must’ve been the mothers’ idea because the fathers looked bored and sheepish, like they were pulled out of bed just 10 minutes before and had the T-shirts dragged down on them. The mothers, it appeared to me, had ordered all those T-shirts because they wanted the family to come as a team. And they wanted to kick ass at velcro darts.

I’ve learnt that what clothes you put on your kids is of huge significance in kindy-land. For Chinese New Year, for example, the dress code was red. So I made Noelle wear her favourite stripey red T-shirt, never mind the collar was over-stretched and it looked ready for Salvation Army. When we got to school, it was like stepping into the movie set of Baby Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. There were mini red cheongsams from every known Chinese dynasty. There were flowery headgear of imperial concubines fighting for space against Chow Yun Fatt satin caps on the boys. Poor Noelle looked like some impoverished chambermaid sent to scrub the floors of the Forbidden City.

So the next time the school called for fancy costume, I wised up. It was Character Parade Day. The kids were to be dressed up as their favourite book character and the costumes were to be made from recycleable materials. I didn’t care what it took, I was gonna bring home the trophy for Noelle. Her favourite book that school term was The Hungry Caterpillar, and she wanted to be a strawberry. But no, I would not allow her to be just some pedestrian strawberry. I was gonna make her the strawberry that was being eaten by the hungry caterpillar. So I cut up some cardboard, crushed up old newspaper, painted and – voila! – Noelle was a strawberry that had a caterpillar poking out of her stomach. Tell me we’re not gonna win.

We got to the school, and there were some good, but non-threatening competition out there. But when I saw little Lauren’s costume, I knew we were doomed. She was dressed as a pink princess, and she was walking inside an entire pink castle — made of cardboard complete with fortified walls, spires, turrets — that was strapped niftily over her shoulders. In situations like this, only this Singaporeanism would suffice to adequately express my pain: Win already lor.

We came in second behind Lauren. I felt beaten, but it thrust me into full competition mode. The next time the school called for fancy dress, I’m gonna take no prisoners. So for the National Costume Day, I went for gold even though it was a friendly event with no prizes in store. While everyone was reprising their Baby Crouching Tiger costumes to represent China, I went for the farthest country I could think of – Greenland. My kid was gonna be an Eskimo.

Not only did I go to the supermarket just to get cotton wool to stick onto Noelle’s hoodie and gum boots, I made her a fishing spear out of our Magiclean mop and stuck on a cardboard fish for added effect. I arrived at the school feeling absolutely smug and triumphant. That’s until I caught sight of the Tan siblings. All three of them came in resplendent, impeccably fitting Indian costumes which their mother no doubt got custom-made in Little India. Their beautiful hair clips and bangles sent more stabs at my heart.

Crestfallen, I thought, Darn it, I’m gonna pick my battles more shrewdly. From now on, I’m gonna compete in categories where I know I can’t be beat. And that’s how I came to make a toadstool cake for Noelle’s birthday party in school last week. All birthday kids could go to school in a special costume so Noelle chose to go as Snow White. So what better cake to make than a matching forest-themed cake populated by toadstools, grass, flowers and ladybugs?

Everything was handmade from sugar and even the flowers were coloured the exact shades of blue and yellow as those on her costume. Beat this, fellow housewife contestants.

There was no trophy to be won that day but check out the look on Noelle’s sleepy face on the morning she dashed into the room to see the finished cake. This I gotta say, Win already lor.