If you want to see evidence of how parenting has changed in the last generation, look no further than your kitchen table. We grew up drinking Kool-Aid in the heat of July, moms waving us back out the door to busy ourselves in the blazing sun of those wide-open hours of summer. We ate orange-tinted macaroni and cheese, grabbed from a store shelf and flung into the cart alongside Stovetop stuffing and Hamburger Helper. Bologna sandwiches for lunch, Eggo waffles for breakfast.
Now our grocery runs are tinted with the confusion of a million choices: organic strawberries or regular? Lentil crackers or quinoa crisps? Is organic beef good enough, or should I splurge on grass-fed? A few hours in the deep hole of Netflix food documentaries and you emerge somehow simultaneously empowered and confused.
This is how I managed to find myself in the aisle of a specialty grain supplier buying large buckets of organic wheat kernels to grind with my own appliance purchased solely for that purpose. Saturday mornings found my own mother sleeping late while my siblings and I poured overflowing bowls of square cinnamon cereal sparkling with visible sugar crystals. Meanwhile I am up with the sun watering my lettuce plants on the patio and grinding wheat for my family like we are nineteenth-century pioneers.
As mothers, our purpose is to nurture our children, and sometimes food becomescentral to this calling. We all want to rise above mediocrity and provide the best, thesafest, the most nourishing. I developed this fascination when I was a stay-at-home mom to two kids, and when I went back to work in the years that followed, I maintained the same demands on myself. Spending idle Sunday afternoons freezing bone broth and chopping vegetables to help me with the chaos of a weekly grind consisting of an exhausted mom, two rambunctious kids, and a traveling husband.
But with wine in hand and garlic sizzling in a pan, dinnertime was the hour that it allfell away. The kids would create chaos and mess as they played, but they were happy, and so was I. I’d see firsthand in that hour each night as we talked and ate around our shared table that I was somehow doing it. I was juggling all the balls we carry, and we were making it. Bellies full, connections nourished, and a sink full of dishes as I loaded the kids in the bath each night. To me, the dinner hour was evidence I was doing something right.
But sometimes we feel like we are doing all the right things, and it still falls apart.
Last winter had me moving one baby step at a time until I found the kids and me in a new place. I was starting over in a way I never expected, just the three of us. Divorce shatters lots of things – hearts, families, expectations. My entire idea of what makes me “good enough” was turned on its head. All of these tasks I demanded of myself – the clean house, the coordinated outfits and folded laundry, the dinner menu –didn’t seem to matter much anymore. I was emptied of everything I once was and given the task of filling it up again in an entirely new way.
I felt foreign, and everything was unfamiliar, including the food I’d once prepared so enthusiastically. We’d hurriedly eat pizza among moving boxes, or we’d have spaghetti for the third time that month which never brought complaint from the two little people in front of me, but it didn’t nourish my own soul in the way I craved.But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see our dinners as they once were. I couldn’t see my own reflection as it once was either.
One of the most unfamiliar experiences of single motherhood was the vast amountof alone time I suddenly had. My first summer on my own brought stretches of days at a time when I was alone in my quiet house, feeling my way around the loneliness like a dark room I’d never entered before. And no moment highlights this solitude as heavily as the dinner hour. Sitting down at a table for one felt haunted and was enough to make me lose my appetite. Cereal or a quick sandwich seemed like good options. Chinese take-out on the couch if I was feeling indulgent.
It’s hard to pinpoint exact moments when a shift occurs in our lives. Most changes happen incrementally in ways we hardly notice. But I can remember one moment,that first summer alone, when I found myself at the stove stirring shredded zucchini in a pan and chopping mushrooms, making myself real food instead of cereal. As the months have rolled by, I’ve developed a knack for adapting recipes and quantities to fit my table of one. Sometimes I even light a candle and pull a linen napkin from the china cabinet, a ritual that nourishes far more than just my physical frame. Treating yourself as the treasure you are begins with what you put inside your body, and that simple action heals you in countless ways. This is something I’ve come to know firsthand.
As the months rolled by, our table set for three began to feature the same favorites from years past. Slow pots of homemade soup that simmer all day on a weekend,fresh whole wheat waffles topped with fruit and maple syrup, the sizzle of roastedvegetables waiting in the oven. The dinner hour is still often the moment in our day that nourishes our spirits as much as our bodies.
I’ve changed though. I turn off the food documentaries now, and I refuse to holdmyself to impossible standards. Remembering that what nourished me most as a kidwere the hours spent at the kitchen table, not necessarily the organic perfection on aplate in front of me. In short, I see that there are a million ways to be a good mom and no one way to be a perfect one.
On one particular night this winter, a full year after I split my life apart and put it allback together in a new way, I picked up pizza on the way home from my son’sspeech therapy appointment. It was already dark by the time we got home from ourWednesday after-school obligations. I placed the box on the kitchen counter and filled three water glasses. Not a single healthy vegetable to be seen, we ate it with one hand, standing up. I fed the dog and as I went to take him out, I heard laughter inside and turned around to see my glass patio doors framing our little table like a movie scene as it was light inside and dark out. Both of them laughing, mouths open,chasing each other around the table and holding pizza. I guess it was the bitter cold outside and the light and warmth inside, combined with their little laughing voices.But it looked like perfection when I know what it really was – an exhausted mom,tired kids, a long day, and a $9 dinner.
And to their little eyes, I think it looks much the same as that view I held from the outside gazing in. There’s more than one way to feed the soul.