At the start of my career, when our children were young, being present for them was a constant struggle for me. Whether it was working late, traveling, job transitions for both my husband and me, or one period when our family actually lived apart, feeling disconnected caused a lot of sleepless nights and tears. As I continued to pursue my career, the challenge did not get any easier.
From the time they started elementary school, our son and daughter also had very full lives. Both were active in activities outside of school. Our son played football and took karate. Our daughter took dance and gymnastics lessons. My husband and I were constantly running from school to work to after school activities. We also had our own obligations outside of work. He and I were both active in our church and the community. On top of all that, I had just taken the first of several steps up the corporate ladder. So our lives were busy.
One night, after a couple of particularly fretful weeks, my husband and I had a conversation. I was unable to sleep because I was beginning to worry about my family. I told him how concerned I was that with my new job and the growing demands of our kid’s lives we would start to lose our closeness as a family. My husband has always had this way of saying everything will be alright. And that night was no different—he reassured me that would not happen. I appreciated his assurance, but I needed a plan. Call it my type A personality, but plans make me feel better. Lists make me feel better.
There we sat in bed, with pen and paper, and made a list of things about our lives we did manage to control.
For our part, my husband and I owned the time we spent together. We made a conscious effort to maintain our closeness. We implemented date nights. We had our favorite television shows that we watched together. We attended Sunday service together. We knew it benefited our relationship. But as we talked we realized that didn’t always extend to our time as a family. So, we made a plan.
We decided having meals together was the solution. The ideal would have been breakfast and dinner together every single day. But we had to accept that, given our busy careers, that was unrealistic. So instead of making a hard and fast rule about what meal we ate together, this is what we wrote—our commitment going forward. I came to call them our guiding principles for family meal time.
Just having it down on paper made me feel better. When I went to sleep that night, my body already felt more relaxed. I slept like a baby.
It worked for a few years. If the meal was morning breakfast, no matter how harried we were to get out the door and start our busy days, we were intentional about making it happen. Most mornings, I cooked a hot breakfast. It wasn’t a huge task for me—breakfast meals were easier than others to prepare. I could do it in about a half an hour. It was perfect to get everyone up, dressed and at the table together by 6:30am. We would always start the morning playing music to wake up the house—music that got us dancing and singing so that by the time we got to the breakfast table all the morning grumpies were gone.
These times were so great for me. I love cooking. Preparing meals is one way I express my love to others.
In the times when an evening worked better, we planned and would make that happen instead. Our daughter enjoys cooking too and for dinner she often joined me in the kitchen. She is actually a great baker, which is a part she didn’t get from me. It’s something she learned spending time with her grandmother. That time in the kitchen was our mother-daughter bonding time. She enjoyed it and so did I. My husband and son cooked too. As the kids got older, they rotated Fridays preparing dinner for the family.
Mealtime became exactly what we wanted it to be—an atmosphere filled with love. Crowded into the kitchen. Scooting past each other. The sound of pots clinking. The rush of water in the sink turning on and off. Stirring what was on the stove. Countless trips to the refrigerator. My husband turning on some music or starting our favorite show on the DVR. My son standing over the shoulders of whoever was cooking to ask, “What are you cooking?” or “Can I taste test?” The occasional spill. Each of us finding the appropriate dishes to fix our portions of the meal. Setting the table. Calling each person by name, rattling off beverages in the refrigerator, asking, “What do you want to drink?” Sunday evenings, we would plan which meals we’d have together according to the upcoming week’s schedule.
But as happens in life, it sometimes gets in the way. As the kids got older, our lives got even busier. Despite what had been until then a successful plan, and even though we wanted to have meals together on a regular basis, there was a period of six months when we hardly had a single meal together. Sure, we ate, but it was on the run. We would stop at a fast food restaurant when we were leaving dance practice. It was not uncommon to text my son and instruct him to pick up something to eat for himself.
Our schedules had grown so chaotic between our children’s activities and our own careers, we lost ourselves in the grind of life. Even on weekends, we would sleep in. As we each got up, we would take care of our own breakfast.
Being that my family was a top priority for me you would think the disconnect would have bothered me. I guess that it didn’t speaks to just how busy I had become.
One day, my daughter and I were out running errands. Many times we used car time to chat about random things. We were waiting in the drive-thru line to order. I took advantage of the lag time to check my phone for email, text, and social media updates. My daughter had her face in her phone as well.
All of a sudden, she said, “Mom, why did we stop having family meals together?” It took me a minute to register what she had said. An immediate feeling of guilt rushed over me. “That’s a great question,” I finally replied. It was my way of stalling until I could come up with an answer. As I inched forward in the drive-thru line, my first thought was Well we are still together. We watch a show together regularly. But what she seemed to suggest is that just wasn’t the same.
After sitting in silence for a moment, I tried to offer an excuse that—even as I said it—I realized wasn’t enough. “You know, we have just gotten so busy that family meals have taken a backseat.” She looked at me. “We should bring them back,”she said. “Good point,” I responded.
Then we picked up our food and drove home. She seemed to accept this brief exchange as sufficient, because our conversation turned to her educating me on the latest pop music as it blasted from the radio. But her question stuck with me. Later on, I decided to ask my son how he felt about family meal time. He agreed with his sister.
So we made a renewed effort to bring them back.
I came to understand just how much our children had grown to enjoy family meal time—maybe even saw it as a necessity for their well-being. They were able to feel connected to us just as my husband and I wanted to with them. Family mealtime remains a priority for us today. Our son is away for his sophomore year in college. I am away for work in Chicago during the week. However, when we are all under the same roof, it’s back to the table to share a meal and catch up.
Mealtime is still an opportunity for my husband and me to connect with the kids. We learn about the important things happening in their lives. We share some details of our lives with them too. But mostly, we use the time to talk about anything the kids want to discuss. It is not rare for a high-five (or two, or three) to fly across the table during family meal time. We also used the time to talk about social issues or news topics.
I encourage all families to find what works for them. Family meal time worked for us. It was something we could control and plan as our family’s routine evolved.
As a busy professional whose days always mean some sort of multi-tasking, I came to see family meal time that way too. I am feeding my family, having meaningful dialogue, and connecting with the heart of who they are all at the same time. That’s what managing multiple priorities is all about—finding activities and actions that will accomplish multiple things at once. But I had to admit one major difference. When it comes to family, it’s not so much about the quantity, but quality.
Something my son said that day when I asked him about missing our mealtimes perhaps captured it best of all. “Mom,” he said, “we have fun together. We laugh.” In the end, is there any better way to connect?