December 12, 2003,
I might as well admit straight out that our family has a terrible record of eating together.
Oh, we tried, in the early days, but it was always a disaster. My husband and I would sit dispirited at a table strewn with sweet corn and toddler-flung bits of steak, while a happy baby gurgled and dumped pasta on the floor. On weekends, still in thrall to the mad idea that having children wasn't going to compromise us, we tried restaurants: Waiters smiling in bland alarm at our approach, children fretting, ice water splashing, brioche hitting the floor, children weeping all culminating, eventually, in a scuffling retreat and the disingenuous "bye-bye's" of relieved maitre d's.
Then one day an Irish friend, John Stewart, happened to remark, "I didn't dine with my parents until I was fourteen, and it never did me any harm."
That was enough for us.
Consequently for nine years I have cooked two suppers every evening. At the first sitting, children sup like miniature aristocrats while I scurry around making sure everyone has enough Ovaltine. Their manners at these kitchen-table affairs are impeccable: "First one with napkin on the la-ap!" Paris will crow. "Please may I have more rice?" Molly will ask, and "Please may I have a lollipop?" Phoebe will try, and Violet will say, "May I please not eat the red stuff?" Invariably I feel a little surge of pride at their pleasant ways and ask if anyone will take another morsel of broccoli. Oddly enough, they always say, "No."
The cuisine in the second sitting is more sophisticated and the conversation of a higher order. Also there's wine.
"How about those employment numbers, up 7.5 percent for the quarter!"
"It's excellent news," my husband will agree, to the subdued clink of silver upon china.
As fun as it is to cook and load the dishwasher twice every evening, which is fulfilling, as any woman will tell you, I would be willing to give up this culinary apartheid. The truth is, I yearn for jolly family dinners. It would, sadly, cut down on my kitchen duty, but it would also ensure that we raise happier, better-looking, more deft conversationalists. Pediatric researchers will tell you that children who dine with their parents outstrip their neglected peers in charm, wit, and repartee. It is possible that they have happier mothers, too.
The problem is that I don't think my husband could survive it. Give him a napkin and a plate of food, and you could not ask for a more delightful dinner companion. Add a child or four to the seating plan, and the poor fellow turns instantly into his father, a ferocious enforcer of infant table manners who, I am bound to say, is otherwise a character beyond reproach.
Despite all this, and in the face of grim experience, we try once a week to eat en famille.
"Yay! It's family dinner time!" the children cry.
My husband's shoulders immediately droop. As the children gaily arrange place settings and I carry heaping platters to the table, a pall settles over the household. We take our seats with minimal squabbling about who gets to sit where, and the ordeal begins:
"Ugh, what's in this?" Paris may ask suspiciously, his kitchen-table good manners evaporating in the unaccustomed air of an actual dining room.
"Lamb sausage, couscous, and vegetables, it's delicious," I tell him lightly, my whole heart willing us to have an easy, hilarious supper like Italians always do, in the movies.
"Children," my husband begins, "please don't slouch over your food like barbarians "
"So, Violet," I say a little too brightly, "Were all your friends at school today?"
"What are the green bits?"
"Parsley. Just eat it, Paris, and stop leaning back in your chair "
"Everyone except Katie Butler. She was poorly."
"Poorly!" I tinkle falsely, "Ha-ha, what a charming Victorian locution, and does she "
"Phoebe, take your fork out of your milk."
"I don't like lamb sausage!"
"Mummy, what are we doing this afternoon?" Molly asks, conversationally. She wants to have a cheerful family meal, too, but she is vulnerable because
"Molly, please stop talking with your mouth full."
"Doggies go zoo," Phoebe announces, poking a finger into her couscous.
"Use your spoon," Molly reminds her.
"Well, we could go to the zoo, I suppose, or a museum."
I catch sight of the cumulus mounting on my husband's face.
"But perhaps Daddy would like to do something else?"
Daddy isn't saying. Daddy is chewing sullenly, resolutely. For Daddy, dining with the children is like being Howard Dean at a cocktail party for Campus Conservatives. He can scarcely speak, so great is the degree of his aesthetic suffering. Like many a clever wife before me, I see that Daddy had better get some fresh air, fast ideally on his own and preferably in the Outer Hebrides.
"Why don't I take the children out after lunch," I offer hastily, "And you can read the papers or go for a walk or something."
He perks up: "Yes, I might do."
And at this point a small voice will ask, tactlessly, "Mummy, if I don't eat the squishy stuff, do I still get dessert?"
The understanding has always been that "once the children are civilized" we can have more regular family dinners. But if we wait until Phoebe has developed exquisite table manners, Molly will have left for college. So I take this argument to my husband, and with only mild reluctance he agrees that Molly and Paris are old enough to join us. Two nights ago, in a kind of dress rehearsal, I sit down to dinner with the older children after the little girls are in bed. My husband is still at work.
"Where does the baby come out when a baby is born?" Paris asks abruptly, a little wild-eyed. He is not used to eating so late and his blood sugar is down around his ankles.
"Out of the Mummy's private parts," Molly tells him.
"Well, yes," I admit.
"Wow," he says, shaking his head. He chews thoughtfully for a moment, and then asks, "Can bears retract their claws, the way cats can?"
Daddy gets home halfway through supper and joins us. And, do you know, there's a glimmer of actual, mutual enjoyment? Perhaps it is the absence of the food-flinging little girls, perhaps the gastronomic stars just happen to be in alignment, but Daddy is strangely composed almost as though he is making an effort to be good company and not point out every manners infraction.
"See, Daddy?" Molly says, as we're tidying up the kitchen, "It's not so bad having dinner with children."
"No, darling," he grins, "Not so bad."
Perhaps there is hope for us, after all.
Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit. Her NRO column, "The Fever Swamp" appears weekly.