Mealtimes are very important to me. A couple times a day I sit with my kids to eat, and a few times a week we sit down to eat as a family. I love planning our meals, I love putting my creativity and time into cooking them, and I love sitting down and connecting with Pete and the kids, lingering with them at the table, and prodding them all to teach me about their worlds. It is a beautiful, daily process that we have made an integral part of our family culture. Mealtimes are one of my favorite things about our family.
And, like all routines I come to love, I feel like the kids threaten to destroy them.
It all started a couple of weeks ago when, after eating for a few minutes, Baby Moe began whining and grunting while pushing her tray away. Over the next several days, she continued to do so sooner and sooner with each meal. Last night I didn’t even get to sit down before Moe dumped her food overboard onto the floor. As I leaned down to pick it up, another handful of food landed on the pile, barely missing my head. She arched her back with all her might and pushed her tray away, trying to bust out of her highchair safety belt. I started to take her tray away, which seemed to obviously be what she wanted, but she pulled it in again. So I gave her more to eat and started to attend to the big kids. Moe let out a high-pitched squeal and zealously signed “all done” over and over and over. Completely baffled, I got her out of her seat, gently put her on the floor, and sat myself down in my chair. She crawled right over and pulled herself to her feet next to me, holding up her arms and whining.
I looked at her. I looked at the big kids. I realized that Plum has discovered that she wants to be a mad scientist at the table and do all sorts of gnarly experiments instead of eating. It is creative, yes, but in this moment it drove me nuts. She was smashing her food into a myriad of three-dimensional shapes; she was mixing and stirring her dinner into her water to concoct a variety of nauseating drinks; she was building towers with her solid food and pouring sauces all over the top. In short, she was getting food everywhere: her hair; her eyelashes; her underwear; all over the floor, table, and counter. Then I stepped on a squishy piece of soggy, disgusting remnant of the meal I had spent hours planning and preparing.
I lost my cool. I gave it to her straight: “Plum, I want you to have lots of opportunities in this world. I want to be able to take you to restaurants and I want people to invite you over for dinner. I love how creative you are with your food. But the table is just not a place for experiments. You can experiment in the bath, in the art room, in your room, in the yard, or on a towel in the kitchen. The dinner table is a place to eat and talk! Just eat normal!” She sat there quietly and listened, her eyes welling up with stoic tears. She was deflated, and instead of feeling relief, I felt awful.
But these kids are stealing my time to linger with them! Don’t they understand that?!
A couple days after I lost it, the big kids pulled out their ever-expanding array of tea party sets. I watched them being precise and careful and delicate and calm in a game all their own. They were having such an elegant tea party. This inspired me.
At breakfast this morning, I sat Plum’s plate with a tea pot of water, a tiny tea cup for her to keep refilling, and a fork, spoon, and knife. She spent the meal cutting her bananas and toast into the neatest shapes and arranging them with her fork and spoon, carefully eating a piece and then rearranging and cutting the rest to make them into something else. And pouring: she loved filling her tiny cup again and again.
I gave Baby Moe a miniature place setting too. It turned out she just wanted to eat with her own cup, her own plate, and her own utensils. I gave her the entire yogurt container and she sat and ate, proudly savoring every bite, and I got to savor being with her.
It turns out that my kids do not want to take away the routines I love, especially the mealtimes. We all love being around the table together. Our mealtimes are as important to them as to me. They simply want to do all the things they see me doing. They want to linger with me, showing me all the creative things their brains and bodies are learning. For them, every day includes a new discovery of what they can accomplish, so no routine is ever really routine.
It would be as if I woke up one morning with big, majestic, dragon-like wings and the ability to soar through the clouds — and was then told to “just be normal.”
As they become more autonomous and powerful every day, I need to remember that their worlds are expanding and they are looking to me for guidance as they soar. I will try to support their novel experiences, rather than protect my expectations and routines. We can all keep growing together — and eating together — at the table.