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Ask Ellen: Cupcake Crisis

Q. When I got home from work at seven o'clock last night, I found on my answering machine the following message, which had been left at nine-thirty in the morning: "Hi, this is Cheri, a room-six mom. We need thirty cupcakes with candy hearts on them for a Valentine's Day class party tomorrow. In the beginning of the year, you volunteered to help on the school sign-up sheet. So this is the call! Thanks, bye!" Grrr! I called Cheri back and said: "Sorry, I need more notice. I can't help this time." Whoa, did I get attitude: "Well, let's sure hope someone else can," Cheri snidely answered. "Otherwise, your daughter's class won't have cupcakes tomorrow." Then we both hung up, angry. How else could I have handled this sticky moment  -- such an unwelcome, last-minute, be-a-good-mom request?

  -- Nobody's Cupcake

A. You know, Cheri's the one who should be writing for etiquette advice. Oh sure, we need to contribute to our kids' schools. But calling you, in effect, at seven at night (when else were you going to get the message?) and ordering you to produce the major element of a party is pushing it. I know that room mothers log many hours for the class, but puh-leeze. Parents have limits. When a request is out of line, then "Sorry, no can do" is as kind and reasonable a response as one can offer. It is a phrase good moms use in the house and out, and they should not be stomped on for employing it. When next you run into bossy Cheri, say: "I was so sorry that I couldn't help. I know how much you do." Let sisterhood reassert its bonds. (If her face darkens, work through another room mother.) And good luck with all the cupcakes I know you'll be baking sometime after receiving a decent amount of advance notice.

Ellen Welty, who has been dispensing advice for years to friends, family, and the readers of many national magazines, lives in New England with her husband and two children.

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