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I don't know how the birthday business got out of hand - it just did. I ended up baking three cakes for one 5-year-old.

First, there was the Power Rangers cake. "I want one just like the bakery makes," she said, fixing her huge cow eyes on me. "Except I want you to make it, Mommy."Who could resist? Flattered, I drove 27 miles to a bakery-supply store and bought edible decals of Kimberly (the pink Ranger) and a 12-by-18-inch pan. I'm talking 50th-anniversary size: 102 slices.

I also felt compelled to buy an elaborate set of pans that produce a checkerboard layer cake. Checkered cake sounded like a fine birthday tradition to establish. You can't have too many traditions.

Then, of course, the child needed a birthday snack to take to her preschool classmates. "What about those big chocolate-chip cookies decorated like cakes?" I asked.

"I want one of those," she said. "But one that you make yourself, Mommy."

It wasn't hard, really, once I got the two boxes of chocolate-chip cookie mix and the pizza pan and the tubes of icing.

The morning of the big day, my daughter walked into the crepe-paper-festooned dining room, saw my beautiful checkerboard creation (which had taken only an hour and a half, tops), and said with barely veiled disgust, "You know I don't like cake."

Did I collapse in sobs? Did I send her straight to her room to reflect on her selfish attitude? Nope. Had I been concerned only with giving my daughter rich memories, I would have been devastated. But I wasn't the least bit put out. After all, I wasn't doing all this for my daughter. I was doing it for me.

I was more interested in making the cake (I like to cook) and in the public relations value of having made the cake (I like to talk about what a fine cook I am) than I was in whether she actually wanted the cake.

Does this make me a bad parent? Hardly. Pride in one's work is the hallmark of any skilled craftsperson. If I didn't care what kind of mother I am, I wouldn't be a very good mother. And even more than being a good cook, I want to be a good mother.

Did I say good? I want to be a great mother. June Cleaver at least, maybe Mrs. March from "Little Women." To this end, I have worked hard. I have become a French-braiding, Sunday school-teaching, cake-baking, book-reading, proactive, overachieving mother-machine.

Do my children notice? Not really. To the extent that my excesses mean that I care about them, they are aware that they are loved. But if there's not a lot of applause, well, that's the way it should be. Virginia Woolf said her mother was the air she breathed. Nobody claps for air. If my children mostly take me for granted, that alone is proof that I'm doing right by them. Reassured by their disregard, I am free to amuse myself by baking elaborate cakes and cutting out construction-paper collage material for them - or for me.

It's fun. I know a woman who took off a whole week from work when her daughter turned 1. One. Among many, many other endeavors, she made a cake topped with a barnyard full of sugar-cookie animals. Coconut grass, licorice fences, horses, cows, pigs. This wasn't just a cake - it was Old MacDonald's farm.

"Slow down," I warned my friend as the birthday girl pulverized a cookie horse. "At this rate, you'll burn out before she can appreciate what you're doing."

"Are you kidding?" said the mother. "I waited 10 years for this child. I'm not going to miss a single thing."

I know the feeling. When I became a mother, I virtually stopped traveling. This was not a great career move, but I figured my children needed stability more than I needed glamorous business trips.

Besides, I was sick of business trips, which were kind of old hat. Sacrificing travel was no sacrifice at all. On the rare occasion when I did leave the girls, they barely noticed my absence. I, on the other hand, was beside myself. The kids didn't need me 24 hours a day; I needed them.

And that's OK, because I understand what's going on. The worst thing I could do for my children would be to make a lot of bogus sacrifices and then spend the rest of my life reminding them about it. Confusing my motives now might lead to confusing my life with theirs down the road.

We all do lots of things in the name of our children, who are at the very least extensions of our egos. Are we doing these things out of pure unbounded love or as a way to avoid 14 other tasks that are waiting? Which is it: motherhood as the great calling or motherhood as the great excuse?

There's no answer, of course. In the end, the motive matters less than the result. So I keep overbaking and overproducing and overachieving, but I don't overmother. My kids give me the opportunity to bake the cakes; I must give them the freedom to reject them. Because, finally, it doesn't matter why I bake the cake, as long as I don't get so wrapped up in baking it that I forget the point: my child.