I didn't breastfeed my babies. I didn't play any baby Mozart, "in utero" or out of it. I never once went to a "Baby and Me" class, and the thought of sitting cross-legged on a cold library floor listening to story hour, frankly gives me the creeps. I let my kids watch an inordinate amount of TV. Cereal without milk is a nutritional breakfast, and if it weren't for the cost I'm sure I would let them eat snacks regularly. On the mommy checklist, I'm not lagging behind - I have flunked. I have permanent marker red Xes all over the place. The newest thing to add to the list of things I don't do is family dinners.
A study done by the National (American) Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University makes a direct correlation between the frequency of family dinners and substance abuse. At first I understood that if one had too many family dinners, one would hit the bottle in an effort to dull the painâ€¦ but it turns out that it is, in fact, the other way around. Teens who have a minimum of three but preferably five family dinners a week will be less inclined to abuse drugs and alcohol. Go figure.
In fact, they say family dinners are so constructive that they have a positive impact on nutrition, verbal ability, mental health and worker stress. Who knew that the humble family dinner would be so significant? It's no longer the guilt dished out at the family dinner one need be apprehensive about. It is the guilt of not sitting together at all for dinner that one needs to hide, duck and run for cover from. I predict that in the coming years, family dinners will be the red-hot item on the mothering scorecard. For all you egalitarians out there, I say "mothering" as opposed to "parenting" because in the same study it says that women are responsible for 80 percent of meals at home; so equality is all well and good, but the culpability for this one falls squarely on my womanly shoulders.
After reading the findings of the CASA study, I became introspective. Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of the family dinner. Sure, I find the image irresistible of a family sitting around the table at the end of a long day breaking bread jointly, uniting against the evils of the world outside, seeking comfort in this intrinsic togetherness, while outside the picture window the world unravels. Regrettably, the truth is I can't sit and talk to anyone - regardless of the Kodak moment - between 6 and 8 at night. Everyone has their low point during the day, and that is mine. By six at night, I have been up and on my feet for the last 12 hours, I have served breakfast, packed lunches and made dinners, cleaned the house, driven car pool, done homework and so on and so forth, and all I want to do while my kids eat dinner is respond to e-mails, read or watch TV. So it turns out that it isn't my kids' busy schedule or even the lack of proper dinner fare that keeps me from the family dinner. It's me. Talk about guilt.
There is a movement that has captured the zeitgeist of my generation - Slow Parenting. It promotes quality over quantity in what you give your children, a focus on figuring out who they are as opposed to what they should become. It's less about overscheduling and more about time together just hanging out. The cornerstone of this movement is the family dinner. They say that if a family (read: mother) can organize itself to prepare a family dinner five times a week, it is an indicator that it can organize itself to take care of the small and large challenges that all families face daily.
I have a guilty conscience. Every time one of my babies got sick, I thought it was because I didn't breastfeed; any grade below 100 was because I denied them baby Mozart; every clumsy move is because I neglected "Mommy and Me."'
A sentence that started with "umm" and ended with "like" - the culprit? Me.
For not throwing the TV out of the third-story window? Me.
Head cold? Me.
And now I have to worry about verbal inability, mental health and worker stress caused by lack of family dinners. The strain of holding on to this much guilt is crushing.
While I sat down hyperventilating into a paper bag, I had an epiphany. What is a family dinner? This harbinger of all that is good in a family, this silver bullet that will cure all evils. It can't really be just a meal with all of us sitting around the table. If so, then I'll do it. I'll flake while the kids eat Sloppy Joes and bicker over who drank the last of the iced tea. It couldn't possibly be all that essential, could it?
This is what I think: The family dinner is about slowing down, about creating an element of structure within the house; a refuge, the ability for our children to know that as much as things change around them, there is a sameness to come home to.
I figured it's about getting together when it suits me and my family, not when someone at Columbia University says I should. It's not about a number to focus on, how many dinners did we have together this week (one dinner, one lunch and pizza in case you were interested), it's about the time we spent together whenever it may have been - walking to school, a drive to the store, a conversation before breakfast.
I think that, in the end, the cornerstone of Slow Parenting is not the family dinner. The cornerstone of Slow Parenting is the parent.