The other night I unwittingly created for my kids the "best dinner experience ever." Scott had a late meeting and wasn't going to be home until long past dinner, L. is still on Spring Break, and I had too much to do in the precious TV time leading up to dinner to even make dinner.
So I popped a Trader Joe's frozen pizza into the oven, and when it was ready the kids and I ate dinner while watching the PBS show that is the current favorite at our house: Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman (I love that Ruff Ruffman, with his NY cab-driver accent). And there were ice cream sandwiches for dessert AND we ate those while sitting on the couch, watching the final moments of the show.
That was the best dinner EVER! T. declared happily when it was done. Even L., who usually has very little enthusiasm for anything involving meals, agreed that it had been quite the dining experience.
We never watch television while we eat. Despite how chaotic our everyday lives are, we always--seven days of the week--not only eat together as a family, but we eat in the dining room. We never had a dining room before we moved to this house, and before Scott and I became parents we almost always ate our own dinner in front of the television when we were home. Sometimes we'd watch the news, other times we'd watch Seinfeld reruns, or old All in the Family episodes. We'd talk and eat and watch in companionable silence, and I distinctly remember feeling incredible regret when those days ended--when even dinners together became a temporary impossibility for the two of us. Just as we tag-team parent these days to manage our work lives, we tag-teamed many, many meals in those early months of parenting: I'd eat, Scott would jiggle the crying baby; then he'd eat and I'd jiggle, and so on and so on.
That was only the beginning of the downward spiral meals have taken since those early days. One afternoon, when L. was only about two months old and I was trying in vain to get him to nurse properly so he would stop fussing and fall asleep, I had a vision: I imagined him guzzling down an entire bottleful of formula--a full six ounces. The "milk" was white and frothy and I imagined it filling up his small tummy and creeping into his limbs until he would become overcome by its power and sink into an immediate and deep sleep that would last for hours and be so powerful that I would even be able to set him down (unthinkable!) into his crib and he would stay asleep. Maybe I would even read a book, or take a nap myself, or stare into space and just be me, myself, with my own private world of uninterrupted thoughts.
I had tried hard to breastfeed him, but he was a "difficult feeder" from Day One. He would nurse for seven minutes tops (yes, I timed him) and then be fussy and wriggly and unsatisfied. The other babies I read about would nurse and then fall asleep, sometimes even at the breast (again, unthinkable!). I was certain, of course, that I was to blame: I didn't have enough milk, he was forever hungry and edgy; someone asked me, are you sure he's getting enough to eat? and the seed was planted. Caving in to inner (and outer) pressure, I weaned him at three months and fed him his first bottle with bated breath. I was so ready to watch him drink down six ounces; I imagined how it would fill him up--at last, at long last, he would be full! Much to my disappointment, he only drank two ounces. And that was all he ever would drink. Two ounces here, three ounces there; he would snack a bit and fuss. Snack and fuss. I had weaned him for nothing. I was devastated.
Perhaps this is my particular baggage that I carry with me. My son still won't eat. We seem perpetually locked in a battle of wills, he and I. L. eats virtually nothing at home, and virtually nothing during lunchtime at school. He wouldn't touch a sandwich of any kind even if you promised him unlimited Playmobil action figures for a year; he won't eat anything cold, he refuses to eat cheese of any kind, or vegetarian lunch "meat" or crackers even, or eat fresh fruit that's been packed in his lunchbox, or even raw veggies cut up. Some of these things he eats at home (although none of the ones with any dairy or protein in them, alas), but there's something about the idea of eating lunch outside of his comfort zone that makes him unwilling to even open his lunchbox. I never imagined it would be so time consuming to pack a lunch consisting entirely of plain bakery bread (no sliced bread for him, he doesn't like the texture), and a chocolate soy milk box, or that I'd labor over dinner every night, trying to pack in as many nutritious bites as I can into a slice of homemade bread.
I can't say that every single mealtime is an enjoyable experience. Sometimes meals are downright unbearable and disastrous (having a kid with serious food issues will do that) and Scott and I can barely wait to clear the table and call it quits for the night. We seldom have stimulating adult conversations over dinner; instead we talk, over and over again, about L.'s preferred topics, ad nauseum, while he walks in circles around the table, until sometimes we're ready to cry. The kids might squabble and yell; the juice might get spilled. I often have vivid full-color flashbacks of dinners past--savored mouthfuls, gourmet food, and leisurely conversations. Yet still we go through our mealtime motions every night: T. helps set the table, we pour the juice, dish out the food; we use the time to work with L. (and with T., too) on the art of the give-and-take of dinnertime conversations, and on patience, and on the things that can or can't be said in response to other people's topics of interest. Some nights I mind the hard work dinner has become, but most nights I can count to ten, step back and see our meals for what they are: important stepping stones for us as a family, each meal a sort of rite of passage--or trial by fire--but oh so important all the same.