Welcome to The Small Stuff, a sporadic series about liberating ourselves from the (often dumb) parenting habits we hate.
I have entered the phase of married life where some of my friends’ first marriages are beginning to fall apart. Statistically, we’re right on the money; most American divorces happen before the eighth year of marriage, and it’s been about eight years since that one summer when my husband and I attended seven weddings. I’m noticing that we have also crossed into new territory when we’re talking about our marriages, too. Now that most of my friends who are going to have kids seem to have had them, there is a new frankness about how hard marriage can be. Perhaps the presence of young kids makes it easier to admit to struggles between spouses. “It was easier before the kids,” people often say. “Remember adult conversations?” Rather than blaming yourself, which sucks, or blaming your spouse, which seems self-serving, you can lay your marriage woes at the blameless feet of your children, who mean no harm but inflict it relentlessly.
Blaming your spoiled little kids for your decaying marriage is outrageous. As far as I’m concerned, they are the only blame-depository that is off limits. Blaming your kids for your crumbling marriage is like blaming the Kardashians for the existence of narcissism. Your children are symptoms of a society that puts children before adults; they did not cause these circumstances. One of the parenting ideologies that has brutally hamstrung well-intentioned middle-class parents is the Redemption Myth of the Family Dinner. Family dinner: Eat it and be healed! And while eating dinner as a family is important, it has become so central to the notion of “good parenting” that it has, in many cases, bulldozed over opportunities that adults previously had to relate to one another. A fixation on a strict allegiance to things like a family dinner is partly to blame for some of these failing marriages.
When family dinner is the zenith of a young family’s measurement of its own functioning, it can put limits on other kinds of socializing that once happened around mealtime. For example, the presence of non-parent adults—even grandparents!—who want to hang out. Often, mealtime in middle-class families with young children involves rules and structures that function like authoritarian tactics, pushing people from outside the immediate family away. Adults without kids tend to avoid mealtimes in the homes of their friends with young kids. Have you ever found yourself still at a friend’s house when the ratchet-strap of family dinnertime starts to crank down? The air pressure inside a house can seem to plummet as the toddlers are hustled to their Stokke highchairs. Meanwhile, the moral cudgel of middle-class life dictates that one can never criticize a friend’s parenting, let alone acknowledge that it might be nice to have an adult conversation. These kinds of utterances are the stuff of friend breakups, so usually, people without kids will opt to hang out with their parent-friends at less emotionally loaded times. Like after the kids are asleep.
There seems to be a pattern to the way that middle and upper-middle class parents apply the recommendations of experts. Often, social science research is done with the intention of helping marginal or overlooked populations—people who lack the resources or background to know how to, say, prepare a healthy meal for their kids, and share it with them in a healthy way. Or people who were raised to think of breastfeeding as unclean, rather than as a sometimes-convenient option for feeding one’s baby. Bourgeois Americans have been worshipping at the altar of the family meal since before Margaret Visser wrote her seminal 1986 book on the socio-cultural history of dinner rituals, Much Depends on Dinner. Social scientists’ recommendations about why we should all eat together was never really intended for middle-class families who already tend to eat a family meal.
And yet as research has been published on how family dinners can help children do better in school, thrive emotionally, and build stronger ties with their families, middle-class families have taken these recommendations to their limits. Dinnertime for young middle-class families has become, like, for example, breastfeeding, a site of anxious self-assessment. Are we Doing This Right? Are the kids eating well? Are we duly device-free, and making meaningful eye contact? Are we socializing the children to be good listeners? Have we name-checked the CSA so the kids remember that food comes from farms? In yet another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, middle-class couples are forsaking opportunities for connection in the service of managing their squalling, uncooperative toddlers through a highly scrutinized ritual that ends up being devoid of pleasure.
“Having kids who have really good manners at dinner, and who love kale, for people today that’s like what having a Jaguar was like for people in the ’80s,” says Fred Morin, a chef and co-owner at Montreal restaurants Joe Beef, Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillon. Morin has three kids under the age of 10, and he eats dinner with them when he can, but he recognizes that the importance of kids who love adult food is as much tied to adult narcissism as it is about raising healthy kids. “Listen—I want my kids to like stuff that’s sustainable, that’s not garbage. I want them to eat mackerel and like it. But I mean, is it really worth the wasted food trying to teach your kids to eat stuff they won’t eat?”
High pressure and social isolation reinforce the rigidity of mealtime in young middle-class families. No one is going to drop by and interrupt you—they wouldn’t dare. And so parents are isolated for this supposedly convivial evening ritual, focused on their kids, annoyed with each other or at the very least indifferent. Family dinner has become a moral ritual as much as a social one.
When my first son was a little baby, I was very dedicated to the family dinner ideal. I was on board for the basic togetherness reasons, but the food dimension was also of great importance to me. In my 20s, I was working toward a career as a cook, and I was fully committed to what you might call the “first wave” of 21st century Western food fetishization. You might have said that I was about that nose-to-tail life. My early-20s probably-a-mistake tattoo was (okay, is) of a bunch of goddamned asparagus. As a new mom, I was a Mark Bittman-loving, my-own-baby-food-making, family-dinner-having true believer.
But my resolve could not withstand the decivilizing influence of my young child, and then my second, even younger child. My husband and I wanted to be able to talk to one another, or to just sit quietly. Our children made this very low bar that we had set impossible to reach. By the time my first son was about six months old, we had started eating dinner after we’d put him to bed. It’s now been six years, and we still do this. Every year or so I say to him, “Let’s start eating with the kids. It’s time.” But I’m not sure how much I really want this yet, and when he reminds me that our younger son is still only three, and that their mealtimes are still pretty chaotic, I’m not hard to convince.
It’s not that we’ve cast aside all ritual when it comes to their dinners; it’s just that we don’t put food into our mouths at the same time that they do. While the kids eat, we sit at the table and talk to them. We try and get them to tell us about their day; we try and get our younger son to eat his dinner. Sometimes we drink an alcoholic beverage, or a cup of tea. (I hate tea—it’s my husband who drinks the tea.) After the kids are in bed, sometimes we eat the same thing that they ate a few hours earlier, but more often we make ourselves a different dinner, and then the following day the kids eat our leftovers. This means that we eat dinner kind of late by North American standards—usually between 8:30 and 9:30. This is fine with me—my kids are both clawing at my legs for food at 5:30, when I am not ready to eat dinner.
I do not think that my kids are growing up without a sense of the importance of sharing food. Their table manners are not awesome, but I don’t think it’s because we eat later than they do. Once they’re a little bit older and can wait until 7 pm without melting down, we will all eat together. We’ve also tried this approach while having friends with kids over for dinner, and it’s a hit. We gather the kids together, feed them, and then release them to play or watch a movie while the adults eat together in peace. Since we’ve started doing this, we’ve been seeing more of our friends in the evening. It’s been really nice. It’s made me look forward to when my kids are older, and they can join our conversations, and we can all eat together, like the family we are hoping to someday become.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton lives in Montreal with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @KJezerMorton.