When I picture family dinners at my friends' or sister in law's home I see everyone sitting in their chairs around a nicely set table, colorful healthy food resting in matching bowls waiting for the evening prayer to be said before it is consumed in a tidy manner by a thankful husband and sweet, cherubic children. When I start our dinner every evening, usually before all the men in my life descend upon our home, I am still picturing this bucolic scene. Our large dark wood kitchen table is empty and wiped clean, with only the wooden tray holding a bowl of apples and a candle sitting in the middle. The counters are spotless, waiting for me to pull out the bowls and cutting board and pans to create another healthy dinner for my family. My favorite apron is wrapped around me and I am ready to step into happy homemaker mode. But somewhere between starting dinner and leaving the house to pick up the boys from daycare something changes. In a big big way.
My tiny toddler is the king of witching hour meltdowns. He will single- handedly take down dinner prep with his demands for food, which, if left unmet, will eventually reduce both him and me to tears. I know all the tricks- offer him a part of his dinner to eat while the rest of the meal is cooking. And I do this. But the problem is that he eats it quickly and demands more, which means he won't eat the rest of his dinner. Sometimes I bring a little snack with me to daycare pick up so he can eat it on his way home. Which helps, occasionally. The only tried and true way to prevent total chaos at dinner is to have everything ready to go when they walk in the door. Which is a great plan, as long as I am not the one doing the daycare run. On the evenings when my husband brings the boys home and I can have dinner on the table the moment they walk in the door, my tiny toddler walks in, drops his coat and climbs up into his new booster seat, all smiles, ready to eat. My sweet tiny toddler, happy and well fed.
So the dinner time chaos begins when we all arrive home and doesn't end until the tiny toddler has been released from his booster seat not once, and sometimes not even twice. He either eats or doesn't, and eventually attempts to climb down, often getting wrapped up in the seat belt. He might wander around for a while, playing with his brother or attempting to turn on the TV, and then he will meander on back to the table and climb back up into his seat for another bite or two. Up and down. Up and down. Which, truth be told, is not what makes our evening dinner time so chaotic. At least now that we have a booster seat for him he actually sits. We never used a booster with our big four and a half year old. He climbed out of his highchair and onto a regular kitchen chair, where, except for falling off every so often, he stayed. The tiny toddler, on the other hand, climbed out of the same highchair and right onto a kitchen chair, where he did less sitting and instead used said chair as a launching pad to slide his tiny body across the kitchen table. Nightly. No need to ask for help! Want the grapes sitting across the table by your older brother? Just climb on up and launch your body across the table to get them for yourself. Never mind the drinks spilling, the silverware clanging to the floor. So the booster seat, which I didn't think my tiny toddler would accept into the small inner circle of items he allows, was a lifesaver.
It's pretty clear that our dinner hour doesn't match the scene in my head. Add my husband's potential downsizing into the mix and I can just put my dinner time conversation on a loop.
"We will be OK. You'll find another job, if you have to." "Forks are for eating with, not for banging on the table." "Are you allowed to stand on your chair at school?" "We'll be fine, honey!" "Sweetie, don't pry the top off your sippy cup with that knife." "How did he get your knife?" "You don't need more ketchup, look how much you already have on your plate." "Please don't worry about this, honey, we will be fine." "Seriously, dude, chairs are for sitting, not standing!" "That bite is too big!" "Use your napkin!" "Where is his napkin?" "Everything is going to be OK." "You are going to fall off your chair if you keep doing that!" "I told you you would fall!" "We will be fine!" "Why are you under the table?" sigh.
Food in mismatched bowls on the table and food on the floor. Silverware and paper towels everywhere. Total chaos. But it's not so far from that bucolic dinner scene. We all sit down together every night, which is more than many families. We say grace before we eat, albeit a little differently than most, I would imagine. My big four and a half year old is in charge of saying grace, and he has two very sweet little prayers in his repertoire. One is a song, complete with hand motions that he has taught his younger brother. Lately both the song and the spoken prayer have taken on a lilting, jazz style beat that some might find sacrilegious but I find sweet in his exuberance and joy. Maybe I have to remind the big four and a half year old to be thankful for his food, despite the fact that I didn't serve him chicken nuggets, the only food he feels qualifies as a true meal. My husband is thankful, though, and his boys will learn at his knee how to be thankful and how to treat women and will one day walk in his footsteps. The meal is usually home cooked and nutritious. And my children? Whether clean and shiny or crawling under the table covered in ketchup they are always sweet and cherubic.
The truth is, what I have every night, the noisy, messy, chaotic meal with the jazzy undertones, this is my new "perfect". They say the grass is always greener on the other side, but from where I am standing, it's just green enough. There might be some brown spots that need more water, or some totally bald spots that need a different type of seed planted, but the rest of it? Green enough for me.