You think you and your husband are compatible. Then you have a kid and try to feed him.
My husband and I had very different childhoods. I was raised in a middle-class white family, German-Jewish on my dad’s side, Scottish on my mom’s. My parents divorced when I was 10, and my little sister and I went back and forth between our parents’ homes, and dinner varied greatly.
At Dad’s house, I recall making TV dinners for us if Dad was out on a date or working late. We would sit on the orange carpeted living room floor in front of the television, my sister with her Swanson Fried Chicken and me with my turkey and fruit compote. When our dad was home, he occasionally cooked, and when he did it was a big deal. He would make coq au vin or ratatouille or something that equally fancy. There would be dirty pots and pans everywhere, lots to clean up, but we had a tasty meal for one night.
On weekends he would sometimes make pancakes. They were usually undercooked and we learned to enjoy and expect them that way. We’d put our forks into them and batter would come oozing out.
Sometimes Dad would come home from work and say, “Hey kids, let’s go out to dinner,” which usually meant Chinese food or Friendly’s. At Friendly’s my sister would get the New England clam chowder and I would get a cheeseburger and a chocolate shake. These are all fond memories for me, even the TV dinners. Dinner was not something you planned. It just happened. And sometimes, if it wasn’t happening, you made yourself cereal or eggs and called it a night.
At Mom’s house, dinner was more typical. She cooked most nights, and we were expected to sit at the table and eat together. My mother got remarried (to the man she’d been having an affair with during her marriage to Dad) so we had an instant stepdad. He was controlling of my mother and often critical of my little sister, so dinner was tense and not something my sister and I looked forward to. Sometimes my stepfather would turn on the small TV in the dining room and focus on watching the news, and we would be left alone. I remember a huge fight that ensued when my sister accidentally poured too much salad dressing on her plate.
At Thanksgiving or other big dinners, my stepfather would say we should thank him because he paid for the food. I felt like we should thank my mother, since she had spent all day cooking while he watched sports on TV. But I never would have said that.
Not surprisingly, I much preferred the casual eat-whatever-you-find style at my dad’s house. And this is the style I adopted for the majority of my adult life. I can enjoy a nice sit-down meal complete with protein, carbs, and vegetables, but a bowl of cereal or eggs is also sufficient for me most nights of the week.
My husband, on the other hand, was one of 10 children raised by his mother, a recent Mexican immigrant left on her own after his dad abandoned the family. She and his older siblings had worked their way up to the Central Valley of California picking in the fields. He was the first of his siblings born on this side of the border. They were poor but they did have papers. And no matter how poor they were or how hard she worked, his mother always cooked dinner. Even if it was just beans and hot dogs, there was a hot meal for her children every night.
When we met, my husband insisted that he had never wanted to marry a woman like his mother. Although he obviously loved her and respected her immensely for all she had done, he wanted a liberated woman who embraced her sexuality and threw off convention. That was me alright.
We often picked up dinner on our way home from work, something ready made. We had a good vegan friend who enjoyed cooking. We usually went to his place on Sunday nights, when he would cook us a delicious vegan meal to combat the Sunday blues we all had. Then on Monday night we would go out for sushi to combat the Monday blues. Dinner was never an issue.
Then, about eight years into our relationship, a funny thing happened. We had a baby together. As our son began to grow up, my husband’s notion of what makes a proper dinner began to emerge. While for me, toast with peanut butter and honey, an apple on the side and a glass of milk seemed a perfectly good option, he wanted our son to have a proper home-cooked hot meal. I had no idea how deep my husband’s relationship with a home-cooked dinner was until we became parents. It is the one thing we’ve fought most about.
I worked part-time and was often home before my husband. I would fear the dreaded question when he came in the door: “Has he eaten?” It felt less like a question than an accusation, because if I said no, I was in trouble.
Suddenly I felt like he did want his mother after all. He would have loved to come home to a pot of beans cooking on the stove, along with some meat, rice, and tortillas. I wouldn’t mind coming home to that either. It’s not that I don’t like cooking; it’s just never been part of my daily routine. I cook for holidays and special occasions. I enjoy it when I have the time set aside to do it. But it’s not a priority every day. I’d rather spend that time at a yoga class or taking a walk around the neighborhood. So I offer my child something at least semi-nutritious to put in his belly, and I grab a bowl of cereal, and we both have time to do other things.
But what of all of those studies that say sitting down to a family dinner keeps your child off drugs and away from god-knows-what other kind of trouble? Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I’ve always resisted that theory. Since my memories of forced sit-down dinners were less than enjoyable, I don’t see the inherent benefit. I see the benefit to spending quality time with your child as a family—but does it have to be over a meal?
I’m not saying that food can’t be a special way for someone to show how much they care for their loved ones. It is a form of nurturing and I admire people who take the time to create a healthy and delicious meal for their loved ones. I wouldn’t begrudge any family their dinnertime rituals. But does it have to be my ritual too?
Once in a great while, I bake a special dessert and we spontaneously end up seated around the kitchen table together enjoying bowls of warm chocolate banana bread pudding. Instant quality time—but then so is our regular “dance party,” in which we all pick songs, designate a DJ to keep the music going, turn the lights low and tear up the living room with our moves. Quality time doesn’t have to revolve around food.
My husband teases me because I often eat at the kitchen counter. It’s something my sister and I have done since we were kids. I can even remember my dad scolding us: “Girls, get a plate for god’s sake,” he would say if we were standing at the counter picking at something.
My husband and I have finally stopped fighting about feeding our son. He’s accepted that if he wants our son to have a hot meal, he can cook it. So he does. And I get to enjoy the leftovers at the counter.
Maya Silver is the pseudonym of a sex educator living in Northern California.