I’ve been a parent now for more than seven years, which isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s long enough to have been told many, many times what a disservice we were doing to our child (and later, our children) by not having a “family dinner” where we all sat together and ate every night. This chapped my hide for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not a big fan of being told what I should and should not do when raising my kids—I tend to figure that it’s up to each family to decide what works for them.
For the record, here’s why we didn’t do the family dinner for a long time:
- Work schedules: Until this past year, Chris and I had to trade of childcare duties for me to be able to work—and we needed both incomes, so me not working was not an option. So Chris would work all day, and then he would watch the boys while I worked, from roughly 6 (when he got home) to 9pm. (Sometimes he would also watch the kids in the morning so I could work, before he started his workday.) Obviously, this did not allow for a sit-down dinner as a family, but Chris would sit with the boys while they ate, so it wasn’t as if we just threw food at them and told them to have at it.
- Sanity: One of our children, who I shall not name, had a lot of challenges with sitting down and eating. That particular son of ours is a wiggly sort who is all over the place all the time. The other child had some behavioral feeding challenges that resulted in a lot of tantrums and thrown food. So when we would try a family dinner, Chris and I couldn’t even really eat because we spent all of our time managing child behaviors. That’s fine—we are their parents, and we’re here to work on behavior, among other things. But it’s not so much fine when it means that mom and dad can’t even eat and are thus cranky and irritable from having low blood sugar and feeling like, “Is it too much to ask that I get to eat half of my dinner?!”
- An idea about priorities: Current parenting ideas often dictate that the kids are everything, it seems—the parents’ lives are supposed to revolve around the kids and doing everything with them. But back in the day, there was an idea that you put your spouse first, and that helped you keep a strong marriage foundation so that you could be good parents and a strong family. And personally, I think there’s some wisdom there. Our work-swapping schedule was ridiculously exhausting—we were on the go working and parenting from 6am to 9pm, nonstop. There was no downtime for me, and there was very little for Chris—and by “very little,” I mean that his downtime was while commuting home from work, which isn’t particularly restful. During the workweek, we hardly saw each other all together as a family—and Chris and I had even less time as a couple. So our dinners together, after the boys were in bed, were our way of keeping connected to each other on a personal level—completely separate from our identities as parents. It was a time when we could be together and enjoy a quiet meal in each other’s company, just the two of us. And I refuse to apologize for that, because I think it was an important part of us growing together as a couple, rather than just being parents.
But here we are, with boys ages 7 and 3.5, and life has shifted: Both boys have school during the day, so I’m able to work days. Occasionally I have to work at night, but not often. Bliss!
And mealtimes with the boys have improved. The formerly wiggly one is really working on remaining seated and upright during meals, and he has made major progress. (He desires to go to a five-star restaurant, so I think that may be part of the motivation for the positive change!) The formerly tantrum-throwing one has decided that although he is still an extremely picky eater, there’s no need to throw plates and utensils and food and scream at people when he’s not happy.
And we have a lovely deck in our backyard that is perfect for eating dinner—and somehow, everyone seems more relaxed and less edgy when eating outside than they do when eating in our little eat-in kitchen.
So now, finally, seven-plus years into this parenting gig, we have made our peace with the family dinner. And we’re enjoying it, actually. But do I regret the years when we did not do this supposedly necessary family practice? Not at all. You gotta do what you gotta do, you know? You won’t ever find me pointing a finger at an exhausted parent who says, “I just need to eat my dinner in peace after my kids go to bed.” I’ve been there, fellow parent! Soldier on!