Family Dinners Didn't Work For My Family, and That's OK
Parents magazine editor in chief Liz Vaccariello reflects on all the parenting must-dos she missed and why they don't matter as much as you may think.
I did not have a bag packed for the hospital. But that was okay because when a Doppler ultrasound three weeks before my due date showed that Baby A was taking more nutrients than Baby B, I was scheduled for a cesarean that evening. When my husband, Steve, asked me what I needed from home, I realized that I had my ChapStick, my phone, my charger, and him. I had everything I needed.
I did not breastfeed my babies. But that was okay because I pumped what breast milk I could into bottles that I fed equally to them for six weeks until my supply—and stamina—ran out.
I did not yell for my toddlers to stop running, even when they were gaining alarming speed. But that was okay because skinned knees are part of childhood and, metaphorically, life.
And perhaps most egregiously, Steve and I did not succeed at “family dinner,” the seemingly Single Most Important Thing parents can do. I grew up in a family that ate a meat-and-potatoes dinner six nights a week. Almost every conversation I recall from my childhood happened at the dinner table over canned fruit cocktail for dessert.
At first, Steve and I failed to have dinner-for-four-at-the-table because our babysitter fed the girls at 5:30 p.m. when we weren’t there. But that was okay because when I came home from work, the first thing I’d do was sit on the floor and dramatically peel string cheese with the girls. Olivia claims that’s her first memory of me.
We tried family breakfasts, weekend brunches, dinners that morphed into game night. The most we’d have was five minutes at the table before someone was off to the bathroom or to show us something. I’d make the other child stay, which would make her cry, and we’d give in to prevent a family meltdown.
But that was okay. I hated spending even 30 minutes of our precious evening time in a power struggle. So we let the babysitter feed them dinner, and when we got home from work, we started taking “talk-and-walks.” Eventually, those turned into “night drives” around our neighborhood. The radio’s off, and conversations can wander where they will.
Then two Harvard studies came out this year that put dinners into perspective. Greater “parental warmth in childhood” was associated, several years later, with better emotional well-being and a lower risk of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. “Other parenting practices, like family dinners, were also important,” the authors stated, “but simply not as important as parental love and affection.”
Ultimately, it’s not the togetherness, the talking, or the dinner that’s the barrier for us. It’s the table. Yes, another “parenting rule” that never worked for our family, but our family still works.
Mealtimes matter, but if you’re just not that family, that’s okay too. Because if you’ve got the love, things will be all right. Science and I say so.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Parents magazine as 'Parenting Things I Did Wrong, But Everything Turned Out All Right.'