The Meaning of a Dining Table

When our family is all at home, there’s really only one place where we come together.

We divide off into separate bedrooms and different beds. We take turns in the bathroom. In the living room we sometimes share entertainment, and maybe for a while we even share the couch, but that usually doesn’t last long.

There’s only one place where we all do the same thing at the same time. Our dining table. 

I’m not one of those people who believes that the dinner table is the foundation of society. There are times when we eat our dinner in the living room. I’ll come right out and admit that breakfast is almost always a living room affair as I sip coffee and catch up with news on my laptop and the kids alternate between playing, getting dressed, and eating a yogurt or some dry cereal. 

These days, when we do all sit at the table together, it’s certainly not the idyllic scene you’d imagine. There’s usually someone who won’t eat. There are negotiations and complaints. The kids aren’t quite old enough for us to have any deep and moving conversation. Conversations in our house rarely last longer than a minute or two, we’re still working on that.

One eater and one objector to our meal of split pea soup.

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Our evenings are a rush. I leave work early to get on the train and then get in the car and then pick up Tessa and then pick up Graham and then we get home and it’s already past 5:30 and less than 2 hours until bedtime. Only 2 hours! That’s all the time we have to talk and catch up, to play inside or outside, to get dinner ready and then to eat it. 

Occasionally I enlist their help, but they’re both too short for the counter so any work is done at their chairs at the dining table.

When their dad and I were together, we had a big-ish dining table. One with a fold-up leaf so we could expand it for company. One we got to fit our much bigger apartment before we moved up to Boston. I lost it in the split, so now the kids and I have a very small bare bones dining table. Hypothetically it can hit 6 but it would be snug. For now it sits up against the wall and has seating for 4. 

"This is hard work," says Graham. Let the child labor commence.

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Like most things in the house, the table is often cluttered. The fruit bowl may be full or may be empty, depending on whether the kids are actually eating things like apples and bananas or refusing them (which means I stop buying them). I have placemats but never both with them. Most of the tableware is small and brightly colored. 

We don’t always eat the same meal and it’s not always at the same time. But that’s now. I know that as they get older we’ll be around that table more and more. That meals will last longer, that conversations will start to happen. We’ll take that time we’re all sitting together to catch up, or I’ll try desperately to get tapped in to their lives. Time will be harder to come by, connection more of a challenge. Dinner together may start to be an exception rather than a rule. 

But we’ll always have those meals. Imperfect as they are and as they will be. We’ll have that one place where we try to slow down for a minute. 

Imagining my little ones as big kids and teenagers and even adults is still something I can’t manage. But that won’t stop it from happening. 

Someday they’ll leave. And then we’ll have that dining table to call us back together for holidays and celebrations. 

When the kids are gone, I tend to eat like a college student. Cheap food, on my couch, eaten hurriedly. I save the dining table for the times we’re all together, for the times when we’re a family. For whatever reason, that table, as small and simple as it may be, stands for just about everything.

Your Exception. My Rule.

I keep waiting for that time when I’ll be sitting down at a table with a bunch of my friends and be able to nod along and say, “Yes. Me, too.”

I don’t know how this has never quite happened, but it hasn’t. It has often felt like I’m just on the verge of achieving it. Or there are times when I think everything has aligned only to find myself at that table not able to nod along after all because everything has shifted. 

It can be a low key catch-up conversation with friends. Or it can be a parent support group at work. Talk of spouses, date night, sharing household management, children’s activities, birthday parties, and having no time at all for a book. I sit there, I listen, and I try not to get all in my own head about it but it’s a struggle. I can get stuck in my head, stuck in feeling different. It can remind me of everything that’s wrong with my life and everything I don’t have.

When I actually do have things in common with my friends, it tends to be something unusual for them. Extraordinary circumstances. I am guessing I am not the only single parent who feels a little bit rage-y when people talk about the difficulties of solo parenting for a few days when a spouse is out of town. Even when we are the same, it’s not the same. For me solo parenting is all about getting into a rhythm and following a schedule. For regular people it’s being thrown out of whack, being spread too thin, and feeling unmoored.

It’s a definite flaw, how much I dwell on that feeling of exclusion. I wish I had the ability to sit down at that table and say, “Yeah, none of that applies to me because I’m just so unique and badass.”

I think I’m inching closer to it little by little.

I don’t really want to be normal anyway, do I? My philosophy these last couple years has been to stop feeling like I have to follow a set of rules and simply do things as they come, to figure them out fresh, to stop trying to fit things neatly into a predetermined package, to not worry about meaningless little dramas.

Even in this big city full of modern and progressive people, I realize I am something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I look like I fit in, but actually I am something else entirely. 

I kind of like being the wolf most of the time. When people discover these things about me they either find it fascinating or withdraw a little because they don’t know how to react. I’m cool with either one. I like surprising people. 

Someone asked me the other day about majoring in Biochem when I was in college and I admitted that part of the allure was the response when I told someone my major. I liked seeing the surprise in their eyes. I liked seeing them intimidated. I liked being worthy of awe.

I’ve learned before that when I catch myself in this kind of mental trap, one that only causes me grief and isn’t useful that it’s best for me to actively push past it. I have to start to stop, recognize it, and remind myself of the decision I’ve already made. 

Next time I’m going to stop and remember. “None of that applies to me because I’m so unique and badass.” After a few times it’ll start becoming second nature. And that terrible doubting part of me that so desperately wants to be just like everybody else will once again be set right. 

Mother’s Day, Again

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This is my Mother’s Day jewelry. It’s the first year Graham has actually known what Mother’s Day is and while we were walking through Old Navy he said, “You know, Mother’s Day is coming up.” So I let the kids peruse the clearance jewelry rack and helped rein in some of their crazier choices until we ended up with a Mother’s Day ring. The kids insisted on a ring of their own. They actually stole my Mother’s Day ring from last year (which I helped them pick out at the clearance rack at Sears) and co-opted it as their “Power Ring.” 

It’s a five dollar ring that I bought for myself and the blue-painted glass is already a little chipped. But it means something to me.

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These are my Mother’s Day flowers. Tessa still has no idea what Mother’s Day is, but she brought them over to me with a big smile and when we came inside she put them all in a little cup. 

There’s never a guarantee that your kids will give you these moments. They can’t be forced and they never come when you’re expecting them. That’s how motherhood is, there’s no script, no plan, just things as they happen day by day.

I don’t really like Mother’s Day and I don’t really like writing about Mother’s Day. I have said it before but the day just keeps coming every year so I keep having to say it again. It feels like I want to say pretty much the same thing every year. I still feel ambivalent and strange and lonely and I wish it would just disappear as a holiday.

Happily, for the third year I have something that means something to me that’s tied up with Mother’s Day, and yesterday Boston had their second annual Listen To Your Mother show. It is a beautiful thing in my life and it’s beautiful to have it at this particular time. It’s a bright spot to bring people together, to help give voice to stories that need to be shared. 

Three years of Listen To Your Mother does a lot to help me feel less caught up in my own internal weirdness on this holiday. (As a sidenote, “Internal Weirdness” is really a defining characteristic of mine and could also make a great band name.) The show doesn’t magically fix it all; my three years of Listen To Your Mother have also been three years that I haven’t had anyone to give my comp ticket to. And each year when the cast disperses into the audience to hug their families, I quietly head off to get my things. I have friends there who care about me and our cast members. It is wonderful to see them and to feel their support. It’s still strange, though, to keep doing this without having that safe place in the audience where I know someone is waiting just for me. My piece this year was all about the distractions of mothering and how they got me through the first difficult days on my own. And I kept thinking this year that LTYM is a lot like that. I have the distractions of getting the show ready to keep me from dwelling on that missing piece. 

Today I will avoid social media, just like I do on those other holidays I hate, but I will also celebrate that I made it through my hardest six months of the year. Once again I made it through that roughest patch relatively unscathed. Now it’s Spring and I can’t help but feel that Spring means something special and wonderful when you’ve had a long, hard Winter. I know that all over the country people have had leaves on the trees for months, but ours have just barely started to appear and I feel absolutely certain that ours must be more beautiful and more loved than any other leaves. I’m hoping that metaphor applies to the difficult winters of life, too.

Thanks to our wonderful cast for stories that helped sustain me, it was an honor to stand next to you. Thanks to our thoughtful and kind producers for going on the LTYM journey with me again. Thanks to our sponsors who mean the show actually gets to happen: national sponsors BlogHer/She Knows and Luvs, local sponsors Improv Boston, Barefoot Garden Designs, The Fenway Group, Carvalho & Roth Orthodontics, Jamberry Nails Independent Consultant Jess O’Toole, and Sanela Salon.

And thanks to my friend Kathy who never forgets me on Mother’s Day, you can’t possibly know how much it means to me, dearest.  

East Coast, West Coast

I have lived a lot of places. My longest stretch anywhere is 7 years. But when asked where I’m from, I usually say, “Out West.” It feels like the right answer. I spent almost all of my childhood and much of my early adulthood in the Western US. It feels like the place that formed me. 

It will always have that distinction, but as I’ve spent time in places that are distinctly different from it, I see that it’s not exactly the place I’m most at home. 

When you move around a lot as a child, when being ready to leave is your default mode, when you say, “I’m tired of this room,” after you’ve been in it for a year, you tend to see things differently than people who settle down and stay in one place. You develop a certain skill at being at home anywhere. 

It’s an excellent skill, one that’s served me well all through my life. Whether I was changing apartments or moving across the country, I could quickly make myself at home.

Another thing I’ve learned as I’ve moved from the West to the South to the Northeast is that this is possible because everywhere is perfect for part of you.

Over the last two weeks I was in Arizona and Utah and got a chance to bask in the West. The geography is immediately recognizable. The roads are wide in a way only Western roads are, 8 lanes big enough for a freeway just for a plain old city street. Stop lights everywhere. Strip malls and parking lots. No one walking on the sidewalk. Large, clearly-lettered signs are impossible to miss at every intersection. People are mostly quiet, mostly polite, but don’t go out of their way. Relaxed is a better word for it than slow. They are migratory and curious and will drive all day without giving it a minute’s thought.

There is a part of me that’s perfectly at home here. A part of me wants it to always be dry and a little hot and drive everywhere and go about my business at whatever pace I like.

The South, where I lived last, doesn’t feel entirely different. But it is bolder, prouder in some ways and more humble than others. It is also slow and relaxed. Sometimes. It has more passion and more politeness. People talk to each other in the South, greetings are exchanged no matter what you feel like doing. The cities are complicated, often difficult to get around, neighborhoods are tucked in and hard to navigate. The South is often kind and often cruel and rarely easy.

There is a part of me that wants to live here forever. A part that wants to hear people say “Yes, ma’am” and “thank you” and make eye contact and invite people over. 

And, of course, there’s the Northeast where I live now. It’s pretty different from the others, moving here was the hardest adjustment. Here people are brittle and tough and don’t help you. They walk fast, they don’t look up, they go about their business, they get things done. They share the sidewalks well and the roads badly. They care but they don’t like to show it at first. Driving is awful and instead of trying to give you advice, they just tell you not to even try. (Which is probably the smartest advice they can give.) They complain bitterly but defend even more bitterly. And they never leave.

I get it now and so there is a part of me that is wholly happy here. The part that is impatient and solitary and down to business. 

All of these are me in part. And perhaps that’s why I can’t ever picture settling down anywhere. I’ve never been able to say I wanted to live somewhere forever or settle down somewhere. If you asked me where I’d live if I could live anywhere I wouldn’t have an answer for you. I just find my home, whatever part of me it is, and I adapt. 

Maybe someday there will be a settling down. Maybe there will just be more moving every few years, more adjusting, more discoveries. 

Either way, I always find home, whether it’s East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, or no coast at all. It’s not that home is what you make it. Home is just finding the part of you that belongs.

Hey, long time no see, Tuesday Free Write!

Tessa Observed

It is spring break and Tessa is too young for camp. So I work from my couch and she entertains herself.

It goes better than you’d think. Too young for camp is just right for her dollhouse and the train tracks and the coloring books and the puzzles and all these other toys we’ve managed to accumulate over the years. 

Her pretend play interests me to no end. There is lots of “Mommy” and “Daddy” and “Baby,” with plenty of animals and Frozen characters thrown in for good measure. Her chatter goes something like this:

“You want hot dog? Yes, Mom. I want two. Okay, two hot dog. You want hot dog, Kitty? Yes. Okay. Why you leaving? Because. Over there hot dog and train. Put on coat. Okay put on my coat. Aaahhh I falling! Oh, I sorry.” And on and on. 

It says a lot about where she is right now. There is lots of “why” and lots of “because.” Lots of “please” and asking politely. Lots of “hello” and “bye bye.” 

Being more aware of the world around her means sometimes she gets shy and quiet and even clingy. She still asks to be carried downstairs in the morning or picked up when we’ve walked for a while. But she’s also finally started talking about herself more as a “big” kid and less as a baby, which she pronounces “beebee.”

She has a silly disposition that Graham didn’t have at this age. He is just learning to love jokes, but she is already all about making funny faces. 

Two months into school and while I still don’t get anything resembling a reliable report of what happened from her, she does reference her teachers by name and takes great pride in her art projects. 

She does not sing at school but she will do hand motions. She will only sing at home if no one sings with her.

She often refuses to hold my hand even when she has no choice in the matter. But I usually let her hold Graham’s hand instead, and she’s always up for that. 

Like Graham, she went through a long period where she refused and avoided cuddling and hugs. But she’s getting past it. It’s not uncommon for her to hang on my leg when I’m sitting down and requests to sit on my lap are common. Even sometimes when she wakes up in the middle of the night, she just reaches out and waits for me to sit with her and hold her for a few minutes before she’ll go back to sleep.

Sick kid nap achieved! I'm 1 for 2 but I'll take it.

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Tessa is stubborn… but easily distracted. She’ll stand her ground for a couple of minutes, then you can almost always get her to do the thing she was so strongly against seconds before. 

She is not exactly toilet trained. She is happy to use it on her schedule, which is usually just once or twice a day. This morning, with both of us home for the day, I thought we’d give underwear a try. She was down with it for five minutes, then cried and asked for her diaper back. To her credit, she said maybe she could try again tomorrow. While I won’t miss the diapers, I will miss the little crinkly sound of her walk. Assuming we ever get there.

No longer an easy eater, but not picky either, she often just won’t eat her dinner at all. There’s not a huge fuss, she just won’t do it. And every success is usually followed shortly by failure. Like the pasta with cherry tomatoes I made on Sunday, which she ate enthusiastically (3 bowls!) only to reject it with tears on Monday.

She is still, in most ways, my easy kid. Graham cannot let 3 minutes pass without asking for something. Tessa does make requests, but there’s usually 20-30 minutes between them. She forgets about the TV, forgets about snack, forgets about a promised outing. It’s a pretty great deal for me, since 2 kids asking that often would probably make my head explode. 

Personal space. Nope.

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She likes pink and hearts and butterflies and princesses. She also likes dinosaurs, Spiderman, and trains. 

I used to think of her as bold and fearless. But she is becoming more cautious as time passes and I haven’t figured out yet if that’s good or bad. Graham offered to let her try his balance bike and she sat on it only to immediately get off. I think it’ll be a while before she tries again.

She still falls asleep in the car if it’s afternoon or evening and we drive for more than ten minutes. 

She calls Graham “Grammer” or “Graham Cracker.”

Some mornings she can be plagued by a funk of feelings, but it happens less and less. She can get stuck sobbing, but it happens less and less. I still have to say “Use words, please,” but it happens less and less.

 

Somebody's unruly hair got her a bob and bangs so many of us get at this age.

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This is the go-with-the-flow child. This is the child who doesn’t make requests about what we eat for dinner or where we go for the day. She is the classic younger child in that way. If she did get it in her head that she wanted one thing and then we end up doing another, she usually responds by thinking for a second and then saying, “Later?” I tell her, “Yes, we can do it later.” And then she says “Okay,” and she’s fine.

There is still a lot she doesn’t understand. She’s made so much progress in the last year that I forget that a lot. But I’ve officially made the switch from assuming she doesn’t understand me to assuming she does. 

She is called Tessa and Tessy and Tess. I’m still not quite sure which one she’ll feel most herself in, but for now, at 3, getting to be such a big girl, she is Tessa to me as long as she’ll have it.