I read a piece the other day that keeps clicking at the inside of my brain. It’s an honest piece from a mother who believes in family dinner but doesn’t share it with her family very often. Why? Well, she writes that her two kids both play club sports and her son is in choir as well. “Some seasons, one or the other of them will have a weekday or two off, but I never do. The schedule is intense, relentless and year-round. I can’t say, ‘This will be over in three months,’ because it’s never over. Once a week, from now until forever, my son has 20 minutes to eat his dinner in the car between activities. We’ve had maybe two weeknight family dinners in the past two years.”
Now, I taught high school for years, and I was always concerned with how over-busy my students were, how soccer practices and debate tournaments and musical theatre and volunteering at the local hospital to acquire enough hours for their resumes for college kept them exhausted before they even sat down to read the two chapters of The Great Gatsby I had assigned them to read for the next day. I’ve thought often about how little I want my daughter to be over-scheduled and stressed out before she even hits 18. This piece, The Busy Trap, encapsulates how I feel about this quite well. “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”
So I read the family dinner piece and thought about what it might like to have a teenager or two in the house, and how Danny and I want to encourage Lucy and whatever kid comes after to slow down and put some space in their days. And then I read the family dinner piece again. Her kids are both in elementary school. From the wording, it sounds like they are in the 2nd and 5th grade.
They haven’t eaten dinner together more than twice in two years.
I thought and thought about writing this piece. I hesitated because I don’t want it to sound as though I’m judging that mom. There’s enough judgment of moms in this culture, and particularly on the internet. It’s clear that she is doing what she can to keep her family happy and moving.
Our kid loves to move. She never stops moving. She dances and spins and leaps and shimmies. Last night, she said to me, “Mama, I’ll wait for you. I’ll sit down and I’ll dance as I sit.” Damned if she didn’t plop herself down on the bathroom floor, twist her shoulders around to some internal rhythm and pout her lips in time to the beat she heard in her head. She loves to dive under water, sleek as a seal, kicking her feet to swim to the other side of the pool. She taught herself to swim when she was under 2 by requesting to see videos of “kids splashing” on YouTube. Every once in awhile, we’d let her look at our phone and then we’d watch her study and study those backyard pool videos. The first time we took her to a pool, we put water wings on her arms and then we watched her dive in. The swim coaches sometimes watch her as they yell out instructions to the kids on the swim team, churning up white water behind their feet. Several times they have said to us, quietly, “Please say you’re going to keep bringing her.” So we do. We three swim nearly every afternoon together at the athletic club pool. We have a lot of dance practices and swim team meets ahead of us.
So I don’t want to judge. And I’m not judging. I don’t know what it’s like to have a 5th grader whose internal rhythm insists that she swim and dance and play soccer and sing her heart out at choir practices. I want to give Lucy the world.
But I also want to give her dinner with us. I want to give her some space at the table that isn’t about moving and competing and doing better. I want to sit with her, laughing, saying why we are grateful that day, in that moment.
Look, family dinner isn’t always lovely and peaceful. Sometimes we light candles and Lucy tells us the stories of her day, making us laugh. Sometimes she eats three bites of food reluctantly then stands up to start spinning, opens the door to the porch, and begins dancing out her story on the deck. We have to gently remind her to come back to the table. I ask her, “What is your body telling you? Close your eyes. Are you really full?” About half the time, she’ll admit she’s still hungry and sit down. The other times, she says, “Nope! I’m full!” We ask her to take her plate to the kitchen and we sit talking with each other as we finish our dinners and watch her dance in the gloaming light outside.
But whether the time at the table is good or bad, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just like sitting meditation for me. There is no good sit or bad sit. My butt is on the cushion and I’m doing it. I want to be here. And for us, being here means sharing some time at the table together.
It could be that in 4 or 5 years, someone will remind me about this post and I’ll wince. Maybe we’ll be running for the ferry for the next swim meet when I’ll see a reference to this in an email on my phone. Maybe I’ll be home writing while Danny takes her to the swim meet and I’ll eat some food at the computer as I try to finish a deadline. Man, I hope not.
I want to be here. It doesn’t have to be dinner. Lu’s an early riser. Breakfast together is just as good as dinner, even if it’s at 6:30 in the morning. I want to choose our lives so that we’re walking more than running, telling our stories instead of talking about the next thing we have to do, and laughing instead of trying to work out how to make it all happen.
We can’t have it all, people. It’s just not possible.
Virginia Woolf, one of my writing heroes, wrote that writing a novel requires a lot of sitting and staring out the window time. She also wrote this: ““One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Dining well doesn’t have to mean lavish meals at five-star restaurants. I think it means breathing while eating.
Danny and I are both going to make sure that Lu has the chance to follow her passions. We also want to make sure that she’ll be sitting at the table with us as often as we can make it happen.
We ate oatmeal with cherry-ginger syrup Sunday morning, and then we had a lot of leftover oatmeal. Danny threw some dried cherries and coconut into the pot, and then patted it into a hot-dog pan we have. The next morning, we had long rolls of chilled oatmeal. He and Lucy surprised me with a little oatmeal french toast for breakfast.
Now, because the oatmeal was in big rolls, he fried them in an inch of hot oil, which made a crisp crust. Goodness! However, if you pat your leftover oatmeal into a square pan, and had inch-thick squares, you wouldn’t need that much oil. Just make oatmeal french toast.
- 3 cups cooked oatmeal, chilled in 8x8 pan overnight
- 2 to 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup milk (you can use your favorite non-dairy milk here)
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- pinch ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 140 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour (you might need more, so leave it out on the counter)
- 1/4 cup oil (sunflower, canola, or coconut oil are good)
- Preparing to cook. Cut the oatmeal into squares. (You can do whatever shape you want, of course.)
- Whisk the eggs with the milk, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla until they are frothy. Set the bowl of eggs next to the bowl of flour.
- Dredging the oatmeal squares. Dredge an oatmeal square in flour, then coat it in the egg, and dredge it again in the flour. If you don’t want gloppy hands, use one hand for the flour and the other for the egg. Continue until all the oatmeal squares are ready.
- Cooking the oatmeal french toast. Set a large skillet — Danny prefers non-stick here — over medium heat. Pour in the oil. When the oil is hot, add 4 or 5 dredged oatmeal squares to the skillet. Do not crowd the pan. Cook until the bottom is browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Flip them over and finish cooking. Repeat until you have cooked all the oatmeal squares.
- Makes 9 to 12 pieces of oatmeal french toast, depending on how large you cut the squares.
Be sure to use certified gluten-free oats to make this dish, if you are making it for someone who needs to be gluten-free.