Six o’clock was dinnertime in my suburban Wisconsin home in the 1970s and ‘80s. My working mother, a socialist ahead of her time, made sure that we all participated in a collaborative menu-making session every other Sunday so that the collective decisions were reached by majority vote and therefore less likely to be boycotted or spur a mutiny. It was always completed two weeks in advance, and posted on the fridge.
The rule was: the first one to arrive home was responsible for cooking the family meal, since she had ensured that all ingredients were already in the house. Thus I knew how to cut up a whole chicken, season it, and throw it in the oven by 4:30. I also knew to involve myself in a bazillion after-school activities–enough to avoid the responsibility, placing it squarely on my sister’s less intrinsically manipulative shoulders. I am the typical youngest child.
The wisdom of the day–and in fact, the wisdom of today–strongly espouses the distinct and varied advantages of a consistent family dinner, including lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. For the children.
But what about the parents?
Dinner with my 9, 6, and 4-year-old sucks even though I have made a concerted effort to teach table manners in a country where I might be the only one to have ever bothered with such a thing. Dinner still sounds like this:
Cut my meat.
I need more milk.
He took the last roll.
I didn’t want pasta.
No toys at the table.
Finish your chicken before I’ll give you more rice.
My foods are touching each other.
How many bites before dessert?
I am half waitress and half dictator. Which I get, because I had three kids in five years, and they have to eat, every damn day, and I have to cook non-processed, homemade meals for them, every day. Yep, I signed up for that and I’ll do it. I get the value and the importance.
But I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to sit and eat with them.
Food, for me, is pleasure. The whole concept surrounding food: the planning, the shopping, the creation, and the relaxed consumption of a meal… it’s an event. Why would I be interested in sharing this pleasurable experience with (even well behaved, even my beloved own) Lord of the Flies candidates, especially when their palates are limited to ravioli, baked chicken (with no green stuff!!), quesadillas, and oatmeal?
Here’s the thing: both my husband and I work from home. It firmly plants us in the camp of Luckiest People Alive. He works upstairs and I work downstairs, neither of us has an office (at least he has a desk; I get the couch) but we’re home. My kids arrive home from school at 2 p.m. My flexible freelancer schedule revolves around theirs, which means I work in the mornings and evenings, spending afternoons with the kids. Even though my husband works full time, he is physically in the house, so he pops downstairs from time to time to grab a coffee or lunch and hug a kid (or referee one of the day’s 19 different Playmobil disputes). We have worked hard to establish this lifestyle, and are exceptionally fortunate to maintain it.
READ: Mama’s Dinnertime Rules
Unlike most families, our kid interaction hours aren’t limited to the 5 p.m.- 8 p.m. time slot. We are a non-screen family, so there are no personal devices, no video games, no TV, and movies are reserved for illness or incessant rain. We spend time together outside the holy dinner hour.
Since one or both of us is likely on a conference call in the evening, the other works until the first is finished. When all issues are laid to rest (those under 9 years old notwithstanding) we cook dinner together.
We drink cheap wine.
We hang out together.
Every. Single. Night.
We talk about everything and nothing. We walk through the inevitable logistics of judo tournaments and scouts overnights, we figure out when to go see Great Grandma and whether or not we have to call the exterminator. But we also talk about real stuff. We work through his baggage and mine, we talk innovation, politics, philosophy, and new inventions. We talk about his work and mine, about goals and progress, and we giggle. Like we’re dating. We tell horrible jokes and use lowbrow sexual innuendo. Sometimes, we’ll watch a “South Park” or a “Family Guy” and we’ve succumbed to the overwhelming recommendations for “Game of Thrones.” It’s taken us a year, but we’re on season two, episode two. We simply have too much to say to make the time for a series, it seems.
And while most of what we ruminate about is useless, silly, and unproductive, we chop and sauté, marinate and baste, double-boil and fry… and love each other.
I know that as the kids grow older, the 7 p.m. be-upstairs-in-your-room-quietly-so-Daddy-and-I-can-work is going to get harder to enforce. And we’re going to get cries of unjust and discriminatory behavior from the minions. Eventually, everyone tells me, I’m going to have to give in to the Have Dinner Together or Everyone Will Die pressure.
But I will resist. I will resist in the name of a healthy marriage, in the name of alternative child-rearing philosophies, and in the name of What Works for Me. Selfish or not, I’ve figured out how to have the marriage we deserve and I will protect it with Charlton Heston Cold Dead Hand vehemence.