I was feeling so despondent the other week. Actually, it’s been building for awhile. I used to think “Empty Nest Syndrome” started when all the children had left home, but in recent times I’ve discovered it starts when the oldest bird in the nest really starts flapping those ol’ wings of theirs! My children now range in age from 9 up to 18 (almost 19) and lately it has begun to feel at times as though I only have one or two children, because I often go to events with only that many (although I often have three or four extras! But only 2 of my own.) Of course, in the next moment I might be picking up a teenager from work, dropping them to a friend’s house, or taking them to the mechanic with a broken down car or…… or….. So it’s not that I don’t have plenty to DO! It’s more that the house sometimes feels somewhat empty. And I often find myself driving an 8-seater van, with only 2 children. Other times, of course, it is filled up with their friends, or my whole family, but more often than not it is just the three of us.
I recently read a fascinating article that talked about how mothers are biologically connected to their children in more significant ways than we once realised! Fetal cells migrate into the mother during pregnancy and the implications of this are very far reaching, sometimes staying with the mother throughout the rest of her life. This might help to explain why my heart sinks whenever my husband mentions in passing about a time ahead when one of our older boys leaves home. Or when my youngest child, my “baby”, dreams of living on a farm with her dogs, horses and ute when she moves out…. I mean, I KNOW this will happen, and it will be beautiful in its own way, but right now, I have to say I’m really not ready for it! I’m still enjoying having all my children together under one roof. Except that they’re often not!
I miss the days when they were younger and we spent more time all together. At one stage there were three shift workers in our family. Now there are only two, but it still means that it is rarely full house with everyone home at one time, although it is certainly a revolving door with LOTS of comings and going! One of the byproducts of this is that a shared meal in the evening gradually became a rarity. It was my fault in many ways. I would tend to only cook and serve a meal for us to eat all together when we were all home, which was pretty rare. Eventually it became standard for me to ask people if they would be home that night, before I’d decide whether to do a “proper dinner” or not. And so “proper dinners” became less and less regular. I got out of the habit. Now don’t get me wrong here; as a radical unschooler I don’t believe that family dinners are absolutely essential to family connection, good health or anything else. Forced family dinners with unhappy teens wishing they were elsewhere, or unhappy toddlers needing to run and play, etc, hardly create fond family memories! In an unschooling family, there are usually so many points of connection throughout the day that sharing the evening meal together becomes less of a necessary tradition. But in our case, with our family growing up and moving out more and more into the big wide world, I began to again crave that tradition of regular shared meals.
I miss the days when we gathered to eat, play and talk together more regularly. I was particularly grieving for those days this past week (probably something to do with a full moon, hormones and my husband being away on business again) but in the midst of my sadness, something really beautiful happened. On this particular day, realising that I needed to get back in the habit of pre-planning meals and being organised so as to make family connection over a meal more possible, I had made a big effort to prepare a meal in the morning before heading out for a big day. I knew I would be home late, with the usual pattern being either a super late dinner (by which time the teens would probably have gone out somewhere) or a “help yourself affair”. After my big morning effort, I walked in the door from my daughter’s dance class to the beautiful smell of a mexican meal in the crock pot, only to discover that one son was going out for dinner, another was at a friend’s house, and the youngest boy (who had a friend over) wanted to go to his friend’s house for a sleep over. My husband was away too, so it was going to leave just my daughter and I to eat together. I felt so despondent. I knew I had partially created this dynamic, and yet here I was trying to change my approach but having to face the music of habitual disconnect. By this time, my hormones were sky high, and my mood was down in the dirt.
But something suddenly clicked. I realised yet again that it all starts with me. The children were responding to this pattern where I was disorganised with getting dinner on the table, and often just not bothering unless I knew EVERYONE was going to be there. And everyone was there less and less of the time.
I decided that right now, in this very moment, I could do something different. Instead of dropping into the doldrums, I could choose a different path. I texted two sons who were at friend’s houses, to ask if they wanted to go out for ice cream, preparing myself to hold the plan loosely in case they didn’t want to. But they DID! They jumped at the opportunity. My youngest son even opted to give up his sleep-over. So three of my children and I went out for super delicious ice cream that cost me an arm and a leg, but was worth every cent.
The following night, my husband was still away but his mates came to our place anyway for their regular Friday fire bucket. They asked me if I wanted them to douse the fire at the end or put some more wood on. I was really busy, wanting to get the house cleaned up (it was a MESS after a huge week) before my husband returned from his trip the next morning. I had big goals for my evening, and all the miracles I was going to achieve in the house. I said we were “too busy” to sit around the fire, and then it dawned on me. Here was a moment with the potential for magic and connection, or tasks and distraction from what mattered more. I chose the magic. “Chuck another log on the fire!”
So after the guys left, the kids and I took our dinner out to the fire bucket and ….. we connected.
When we had finished, my daughter rushed inside to get snacks (hoping to prolong the pleasure of our time together). But what really surprised me was that my fifteen year old son kept putting more wood on the fire and just staying out there with us. He would normally have gone back to his room far more quickly. After relaxing around the fire for awhile, he then asked his younger brother if he wanted to play darts. More connection! My daughter wanted to join in, and then they all wanted me to as well. So I did. And it was awesome, although they probably regretted their invitation after I annihilated them in the dart game, “Killer”.
Two nights later was Father’s Day. So we did it all again! With all six of us this time. And it was amazing!
I plan to start preparing regular meals again, regardless of who will be home, and not waiting to find out if they will be, because lets face it: left-overs are awesome to have on hand or freeze anyway! Plus it also means there is additional food available if someone turns up unexpectedly. But I’ve learned that expectations really aren’t helpful. Rather than my children feeling like they “should” be home for dinner, my focus is on providing a warm and welcome home with a dinner prepared for whoever is here. It is far better to create an environment that draws and invites them, rather than “shoulds” them into being here. If it ends up that only two of us are home or feel like eating together, how lovely is that too!! Even if it’s just one person, it becomes an opportunity for solitude, reflection, meditation.
It’s about invitation, not expectation.
Another idea we have experimented with, is the idea of setting aside one night a week (or thereabouts) that is a SPECIAL family dinner. Something just for us. Perhaps not even just a meal, but a special family event that hopefully lingers into the evening with some game playing or movie watching or family photo nights on the big screen…. And what I love about this idea is that it is a tradition that could so easily (and WILL, hopefully) carry on to when our children do move out on their own. I love the idea of the kids being welcome to come and share a meal with us anytime, after they’ve moved out, but I also love the idea of a special weekly dinner that they’re all invited to. With girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, children…..
But again, I think the key is: invite, don’t expect. Better for our children to feel welcome and wanted, rather than pressured and pulled. Better to have only half of the family come willingly and happily itogether for food or fun, than to have the whole family there, but half of them wishing they were elsewhere.
One moment was transformed from sadness and negativity, to joy and positivity, with a little help from some ice cream. If I can do that in the next moment as well, and the one after that, and the one after that, life will be so much more delightful, one magical moment at a time.