His hair is still damp from the shower. I can smell the faint scent of watermelon shampoo. He is wearing his favorite “jammies,” the Pokemon ones. They’re the black jammies with the yellow wrists, not to be confused with the fuzzy blue Pokemon jammies, which he absolutely does NOT want to wear — don’t even try it.
“Hop in your bed,” I tell him. Although I’m charmed by his 6-year-old sweetness, I am ready to flop on the couch alone, blessedly alone, and spend a good two hours wasting my life on Pinterest.
I have things to DO. I’m punching my card, do y’all hear me, kids? Mom is OFF THE CLOCK.
My husband and I are in the last moments of the day’s parenting shift, all four kids nearly tucked into their respective beds.
“I’m hungry,” the 6-year-old tells me.
I pretend not to hear him and start pulling the blankets up to his chin.
“Mom. I’m HUNGRY,” he says.
I let out a long sigh. Of course he’s hungry. OF COURSE he is. We just ate dinner less than an hour ago, but it’s bedtime, the time when children all over the world discover they are absolutely famished.
It makes me positively batcrazy.
“Nope,” I tell him, my voice firm. “Nope, nope, nope. You’re going to sleep. You had the chance to eat dinner, but instead you…”
I’m actually not sure what he did instead. Pushed food around his plate, perhaps. He spent some time complaining about the quality of the food. A few times he got up from the table and ran laps around the house, like you do.
His three siblings joined in, and just like that—family dinner had dissolved into chaos.
“Are you done eating? Are you done eating? ARE YOU DONE EATING? NO? THEN WHY HAVE YOU LEFT THE TABLE???”
I know family dinner is important, a special time to bond and connect—that’s what the experts say, right? But I’m not feeling bonded to children who are nyah-nyah-ing each other at the table and dropping peas all over the floor. And why do they take bites of food and then leave the food item on the table? Do you know what I’m talking about here? Like, they take a bite of fried chicken, but they don’t return the chicken to the plate. They set it on the table instead, right next to the plate. Why? I don’t know, other than to DRIVE ME NUTS.
Some dinners are better than others, but most involve some level of GET IN YOUR SEAT. It is unfun. But my husband and I persevere with family dinner because it’s important, and we don’t want the children to become criminals. Family dinner is supposed to help with that, we hear.
We try to stay positive and cheerful, but every dinner involves a stern warning.
“This is your dinner, do you understand me?” we ask all four of them. “There will be no second dinner. THIS IS DINNER. NO MORE.”
They’re totally cool with that, they say, assuring us they’ve had their fill and aren’t hungry anymore. Plus, they have running and hollering to do, because it’s bath time, and that’s when you run and holler.
Eleventy billion years later they’re in their beds, which brings us back to the 6-year-old’s hunger crisis.
“I’m so hungry,” he whines again.
“Do you remember what I told you at dinner?” I ask him. He looks blankly at me. “Do you remember???”
“Can I have a cheese stick?”
“NO SECOND DINNER!” I tell him.
“But I’m HUN-gry!” he says. “I just want some FOOD!”
As if we starve him. As if we keep him from food. I do a quick cost/benefit analysis re: giving in to the cheese stick, and I finally decide whatever, I’m tired. I wave him toward the kitchen for the cheese, and I wonder why nobody around here ever takes me seriously. Hmm.
Fast forward a week later, and we’re at Wednesday Night Dinner at our church. I overhear a father at the next table saying to his kids in a stern voice, “This is dinner. There’s no dinner at home. THIS is dinner. Y’all got it?”
The children nod dutifully, eat pretty much nothing, and then run off to the coloring table.
He looked torn, that young father. On one hand, the children were happily coloring at another table, and for the moment he could enjoy his own dinner in peace. On the other hand, he knew what was in store for him later—a cry for second dinner. He looked tired.
I wanted to give him a pep talk. “Be strong, man. Don’t give in when they beg for the cheese. There’s NO SECOND DINNER.”
If only we lived in that world, with one dinner, united. I dream of that world where second dinner doesn’t exist, where children go to bed full and happy and very, very sleepy. In that world, I would never find old, dried up cheese sticks under a child’s pillow.
In the meantime, we make it through this world as best we can. Though the shadowy threat of second dinner looms nightly, it will not break us. We will persevere, holding fast to the hope of one dinner, united.
Dare to dream. But stock your refrigerator with cheese sticks, just in case.
(Betsy Swenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)