Sharing a table for Sunday family dinners adds a whole lot more than just seats
by Anita Price
Photograph by Casey Chapman Ross
SINGLE PARENTHOOD LOOKS AS MUCH like the “Gilmore Girls” as the average female body looks like Barbie. That’s what I learned from binge-watching all seven seasons with my daughter when they came out on Netflix earlier this year. And at no point in my day are the differences more stark than at dinnertime.
If there were a recipe for most weeknight dinners at my house, it would be something like: “Take a small table. Add a 12-year-old with lots to say about video games. For texture, chop in a 10-year-old who appreciates shock humor. Mix in the sarcasm of a teenaged girl for acidity. Combine with the fluid movements of a working single parent and bake at 76 degrees in a tiny house.”
With three kids in the throes of adolescence, our weekday dinner vibe is definitely more “Hunger Games” than “Gilmore Girls.” But once every couple of weeks, dinner is different. For the past seven years, on most Sundays, my kids and I create a little more space for ourselves by being part of a tradition bigger than our family. With two of my closest friends, Rebecca and Le, their kids and husbands, we participate in the planning and execution of a meal as a group. Surrounded by this tribe built on friendship, I get closer to fulfilling the potential of dinnertime as a chance to let everyone be seen and heard.
The tradition started not long after my son Arlo began pre-K and became friends with a cherubic kid named Sam. I got to know Sam’s mother, Rebecca, and in a year of firsts, she and I jumped at the chance to reinforce our boys’ special friendship. Our low-pressure family dinners together allowed us to socialize with kids in a controlled environment. By the time we got to know Le, whom we met volunteering at our kids’ school, Sunday dinners were a comfortable habit. Seven years later, they are an institution.
At the big, indestructible, concrete-and-wood table around which we gather, kids get to weigh in on big topics alongside adults. I get to watch my kids talk to other people, and I watch for clues about how they are experiencing and making sense of the world. Sunday dinners have helped my kids feel more at ease when talking to adults, at the table and elsewhere.
Perhaps more than anything, Sunday dinner is when I am able to model for my kids the most powerful force in my life: friendship.
I am not too proud to admit that Sunday dinners feature “wow moments” that I cannot reproduce at home. Le’s homemade ice creams and her husband Gary’s paella, for example, are beyond me. But the best moments are often mishaps. Rebecca’s husband may never live down the failed “grilled pizza experiment,” no matter how long his run of perfect follow-ups continues. For years, every dinner began with fashion shows put on by the kids, and let’s just say that most of those trends never exactly caught on. Finally, no history of Sunday dinners would be complete without a mention of the police coming to the door during dessert when my five-year-old experimented with calling 911.
But it’s not all laughs and easy conversation. Sunday dinner is where my daughter was finally able to tell me about her struggles in middle school. And when I didn’t immediately know what to say, it was Rebecca and Le who asked the first gently prodding, thoughtful questions. Sunday dinner gave my children the opportunity to process the loss of the only dog they’d ever had, with a designated lap for every kid as they cried. And at our last Sunday dinner this summer, we took turns spending time on the floor with Rebecca’s dog, who died quietly days later. She had been an energetic puppy when Sunday dinners began, and saying goodbye to her was a heartbreaking reminder of how long these dinners have been a fixture in our lives.
Perhaps more than anything, Sunday dinner is when I am able to model for my kids the most powerful force in my life: friendship. Le, Rebecca and I have supported each other as mothers through some of life’s most trying milestones: divorces, job losses, dying parents, sickness and every parenting challenge you can imagine. I have always had great friends and enjoy the traditions and habits that buttress long-distance friendships. But Sunday dinner has been a unique convergence of personalities and proximity and gives my kids a sustained view of how friendship makes us stronger.
The more complicated motherhood becomes, the more I need these sustaining relationships and the rituals that make them real. That’s what the “Gilmore Girls” gets right about being a single mother. Your village is everything.
Read more from the Style Issue | September 2016