by LAUREN INCOGNITO
Several scenarios come to mind when I think of what constitutes torture for me but none so much as mealtime with my kids. There is nothing relaxing or leisurely about dinner in our house, quite the opposite.
There is no chewing or sipping of drinks; there is no stimulating conversation about political candidates or global warming. Eating a meal at our house is like being in an evacuation; I never know whether to pick up my fork or the emergency backpack. The last time I chewed my food entirely was circa 2011. Most of my meals are swallowed whole or ripped apart the way an anaconda might gag down an alligator carcass. I don’t recall the last quiet, mess-free meal shared by my family.
Someone is usually getting yelled at, typically my daughter.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve pleaded with her hundreds of times to sit correctly in her chair, or simply sit. She’s up 42 times throughout dinner for a drink or a napkin.
One of my sons is a chronic beverage spiller, usually coinciding at the exact moment some other chaos is unfurling around the table.
If I was blindfolded and three states away I could still tell where my son ate based on the crop circle of food left in his wake.
Knowing this, I still attempt to take my family out to eat despite the failure I know awaits us. I want so desperately to be the parent who can take her kids anywhere. I imagined life with kids would be a Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” … the theater, any restaurant, all the museums. The closest we’ll ever get to Disney World is the grocery store on Queen Street with a play area for kids. Nonetheless, I continue to be optimistic and I think, “It’ll be better tonight; they’re older, they’ll be okay.”
A week ago, I spoke these words to my mother as I ushered my kids into the car for dinner out somewhere. I clicked the last seatbelt into its buckle as a visceral feeling stirred in my gut. Instinctively I knew the experience would be awful, but I was committed to following through after weaving some tale to my mother about my kids being older and more aware of their behavior in public…
We made it just long enough for the waitress to take our order.
One son was licking the salt shaker. The other son was under the booth.
And of all the restaurants in town to choose from I picked the one with nary a drop of alcohol. Eating out with my kids is no different than sharing a meal with three Dalmatians. Our food never reached the table. I chased down the waitress and asked her to plate everything in Styrofoam containers and then tried hopelessly and, not very convincingly, to feign the role of the exasperated mother who sympathetically and calmly ushers her children out the door with a gentle, encouraging, “Oh well, we tried” hand on the shoulder.
It’s a wonder I didn’t crack any teeth on the way to the car whispering through my clenched jaw that I would withhold television, toys, Kindles, food, water, and air and that the next time they ate out in public would be the day of my funeral.
I’ve come to understand that we are simply not “good restaurant people” and that by forcing the issue I’m only setting myself and, my kids, up for failure. Really, let’s face it, at the end of the day, the only way I’m going to maximize my restaurant experience is if my kids aren’t with me, so I’m spinning my wheels for nothing. It’s ridiculous to be annoyed in public and to spend $65 at a restaurant to feed all of us when I can just as easily be annoyed at home over a $7.99 frozen pizza. I’m happier and I’m sure my kids are happier.
Dinner at home is any scene from “American Horror Story, Asylum.”
But it’s also the time I get to hear about what interesting or funny thing happened at school. It’s the time, against a backdrop of food on the floor and an overturned glass of milk, I get to marvel at my son’s tiny white teeth as he’s laughing with his mouth wide open. It’s the time I get to watch my daughter twirl in her sparkly skirt from behind as she waits for her cup to fill from the water dispenser at the fridge. It’s the time I get to listen with humility to the profundity of my other son’s explanation that the world would be a happier place if people just lived in “love and beauty and treated each other kindly.”
Nice restaurants have their appeal, but they can never trump the stories that are told or the sound of my kids laughing around our milk-soaked table.
Lauren Incognito, a Plainville resident, is a freelance writer for The Observer.