The cutting board is on the counter and I've already cut and transferred half a pork chop to the table, ready for the little bird lings that my children become at dinner time. I flutter, frantically - like a good mama bird - trying to meet every need, ever aware that my own food awaits, cold and uncut, while a frustration over the whole affair builds.
The rice is done, but I haven't yet scooped even a single serving from the cooker to cool. It's still too hot for the baby. If I give it to her now, she'll burn her mouth, reject it and cry through the rest of dinner. Mission failed. The kids still need cups of milk. I still need to decide which vegetable to cook. I was planning on asparagus but it might very well be rotting in the crisper as I think. And this is an easy dinner. Rice in the rice cooker. Pork chops under the broiler for five minutes. And some kind of veggie.
Then I hear the welcoming sound of Chris' key in the back door lock. Yippee yippee kai aye, Daddy's home, I practice in my head. Show enthusiasm, because Daddy's home. I think it and thirty seconds later I say it, all while regretting that I didn't yet unlock the door or turn the outside light on for him. Another task on my evolving to-do list. No need for a list app on an iPhone, it's all in my head.
Chris is tired, a full patient load today, but he needs to change out of his work shirt and the pressed pants that could last another day if we only preserve them from the hazards of dinner. I'd love for him to take a detour and go directly to the kitchen table, but he heads to the bedroom, as he always does, for a quick breath before facing a scene that is often just a hair shy of a food fight.
We both need a break right about now. Sometimes I ask for it and he graciously gives it to me. For twenty minutes while they eat - a mere fifteen feet away - I lay on my bed and read and re-read the captions under the cartoons in the New Yorker. I try to close my ears, first to the kids' inevitable screams and spills and then to Chris' pleading and threats. I'm well familiar. Every one of our dinner directives are preceded by a "hurry."
Hurry and eat your meat, so you can get a treat.
Hurry and finish your zucchini, then go get on your jammers.
Hurry, just three more bites of meat 'cuz your three.
Have you noticed that I'm meat and sweets obsessed? I'm known for making my kids eat a "bag of meat" during summer park days for lunch. It's true, I'm protein focused. So long as they get the turkey or pork chop or soy beans in their little bellies, I'm fine. After that, what do I care? Bring on the funnel cakes. The cotton candy. They need fattening up anyway.
What happens after dinner is worth a whole other post. Not necessarily one worth reading, but I could probably waste three paragraphs describing how T manages to sketch out a map for buried treasure on the bathroom floor. Night after night. In toothpaste.
No, this is about dinner. And how it involves a scarily fair amount of my weekly brain power and time, just to figure out what to cook, buy the necessities and fry them up in a pan. Then I spend some more of my rapidly depreciating life occupying the kids (often with T.V.) while I cook the meal. Thereafter, we actually sit down (or hover, in my case) and I nag the kids to actually put food to mouth. It's exhausting and overrated. And this is from a person who actually likes to cook. Really, I do. You should see my cook book collection. Or tape mindless conversations I have with friends over finishing salt.
Today, while engaged in this Ground Hog Day-esque routine, I recalled a time not so long ago. Barely before kids when Chris and I had settled into a suburban life in another city. We ere lulled to the "family centered" neighborhood by old friends, J&E. They were farther along in the settling down game, with three kids underfoot and the back yard play equipment to prove it.
After work, Chris and I would run along the creek amidst the saplings and prairie grasses featured in the new development. We cruised up and back along freshly paved concrete paths, stopping to say hello to J&E before the cool down and walk back to our house. Children were on the horizon. That was the hope. Our new track home had the space for them. We were ready.
Still, we had no idea.
We usually knocked on J&E's door around seven. Ever efficient, their kids were already tucked into bed. These dear friends always made it look easy and never - not even once - did they complain about the process of funneling kids through dinner to bed or remind me of my blissful ignorance. Instead, when Chis and I would mention that we better get on home to figure out dinner, they would only laugh, at our dwindling freedom, or in fond remembrance of their pre-kids lives.
Whatever was regularly on our menu, frozen pizza or no, I can tell you it wasn't stress. And usually it was preceded by a glass of wine. Or two.
Still, I remember feeling stressed those days, for other reasons. Often, an unfinished legal brief awaited me at the computer after dinner and the list of work tasks would whir like a Rolodex in my head during my morning shower.
These days, my kids often serve as my alarm clock. The soft sound of fleece over feet tell me the day has begun and their small voices trigger my internal recitation of the day ahead. Preschool and mom-and-me classes. Violin lessons, snuggles and stories on the couch before nap - and later - scooter rides to the park.
Funny, while the day unwinds and fatigue and repetition set in, evoking an almost unrivaled tedium at the dinner hour, the mornings are almost always fresh and surprisingly - for once in my life - all mine.