They’re 18 and 23, and they don’t live with me anymore, but if we’re eating together, or worse yet if I’m simply watching them eat, I’m compelled to get involved.
Aren’t you going to finish that?
Do you want more butter?
Does that need to be heated up?
Don’t you like the soup?
And it’s not just loving, motherly attention I’m expressing, but anxiety. PTSD even.
As a mother of two, and as a lifelong early & elementary educator, and as the oldest of 8, not to mention being born FEMALE, I’ve attended to children at mealtimes since I was old enough to talk—from bottle-feeding to spoon-feeding to fixing meals and to taking my youngest siblings (and later nephews & nieces) out to Pizza Hut long before I had any kids of my own.
Over the weekend my husband and I went out for brunch–with our grown kids–and we were seated near two different tables, each holding a mother and a young son and no one else. It was adorable.
At the table closest to us, the mother had a fruit cup and her child had waffles or pancakes or french toast (I can’t remember which). At the other table, it was the child who had the fruit cup while the mother had yogurt with granola. I noticed this and something else on my way to the bathroom.
The child with fruit was on a device.
“Did you see those two tables?” my husband later said as we were walking to our car. “I felt so sad about the mother who missed out on talking to her kid.”
I paused before I replied, and then I suggested that perhaps my husband had a gender bias/blindness, unaware of how demanding it is on mothers to eat out with their children.
My favorite scene about this parental gender differential is one that takes place at the dinner table with the Incredibles. For years, I dropped this phrase on my husband:
BOB, it’s time to ENGAGE.
“Maybe that mother and child had a really good connection before breakfast,” I said. “Maybe they’re going out for a hike afterward. Maybe this was her only quiet moment of the day.”
Our own kids were device free and maybe that had been a mistake. Maybe I would have been more relaxed if they were more fully occupied without my attention at the table.
That said, I have two lasting memories of eating out with my youngest son when he was a boy: There was the morning I had tea and he had waffles at the restaurant attached to the Butterfly Museum (because we had mistakenly arrived before it opened), and there was the first time he tried sushi and to my surprise loved it.
I remember being in Japan for work and dining at a traditional restaurant where no one spoke any English and I was served a breakfast on a tray with a dozen ceramic dishes of mostly unrecognizable foods without any directions on how to use or not use the accompanying condiments.
I took cues from the small children at the table across from mine, thinking it more acceptable to stare at them then at a table with only adults.
They ate, like everyone else in the restaurant, almost silently, without a fuss, tasting everything on the tray, for a meal that lasted as long as a fancy dinner might.
Maybe my husband was right. Maybe that other mom was missing out. Maybe she was on the road and needed a break. Both mothers and sons seemed to enjoy a relaxing meal. I admired them both and was grateful to be eating with grownups.