One lunchtime, as my daughter Ali consumed sloppy forkfuls of left over spaghetti, she begged me to read her a library book. Apparently her friend Ashley’s mom made a habit of reading to her kids during meals.
I shook my head. “If I read to you, then when do I eat?”
“Ashley’s mom never eats,” my daughter replied.
Her comment brought to mind my college roommate, who used to complain that she rarely saw her mother eat. She said her mom was always hopping up from the table to refill a glass or heat up seconds for her family. On the rare occasion when her mom did eat, she always picked the fried egg with the broken yolk, the burnt toast and the bruised fruit, even when there was plenty of undamaged food to go around.
Let’s not become mealtime martyrs, my roommate had made me promise.
Fortunately, my husband, the cook at our house, took my vow to heart. At dinner, he insists on my choosing the best piece of meat or nicest-looking ear of corn before serving our two children. He wants them to see that their mom ain’t chopped liver and martyr isn’t spelled M-O-M. My mother-in-law also reinforced this, instructing me, “Don’t be a garbage disposal for your children.” So with this in mind, I always fix a plate for myself instead of eating the scraps off my children’s plates.
Still, none of my “training” prepared me for the time my kids and I were invited for “an easy dinner” at my friend Linda’s when both of our husbands were away. No dinner with five elementary-school-age kids is easy but Linda made it look that way, expertly rolling out homemade pizza dough, sprinkling one pie with extra cheese and artistically arranging cut-up veggies on the other as she and I stood chatting.
When the pizzas emerged from the oven, Linda settled the kids at the kitchen table, deftly poured the drinks and handed me a slice of the gourmet pizza on a pretty china plate. Then, to my astonishment, she ate her slice while standing over the kitchen sink.
It felt too awkward to suggest that we sit down, so I ate my pizza standing next to her. I watched in amazement as she finished off her second slice while simultaneously clearing the dishes, wiping the kids’ faces and excusing them from the table. The meal was over in minutes.
Later, it occurred to me that I’d eaten plenty of meals at the sink – not generally with a dinner guest but certainly in front of my children. Eating on the go is part of American life, after all. Just look at those awful stand-up tables in food courts. Consider the restaurants with arcades so that kids can get right back to playing. Naturally children think it’s their right to be entertained at mealtime. But what kind of example does it set when moms are so busy catering to everyone else that they don’t attend to their own nourishment?
So here’s my new policy: other parents can read stories at mealtime, but not me. My kids will need to wait for seconds until I’ve ingested a reasonable portion of my entrée. They may need to arm wrestle me for the last dinner roll. The menu will stipulate “no substitutions.” Maybe if I care for myself in this one small way, my children might appreciate that moms are people too and we deserve as much respect and chocolate cake as anybody else.
By Mary Alice Cookson, associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.