A few days ago, I came home from an afternoon at the pool and said “screw it” to a formal dinner. The kids were starving and I had eggs in the refrigerator, so that’s what everyone was getting. I also decided that we’d all get in our PJs and then eat dinner while watching Kung Fu Panda.
Obviously, there’s a lot of “winging it” going on now that school’s out.
In any case, I sent Claire and Tommy up to take baths, and Austin begged to go over to see the next-door neighbor. I relented. He’d taken a shower (I think?) at the pool, or at least he told me that he did. It’s not like there was anyone in the locker room with him to report back. It’s one of the things that I didn’t realize I’d miss about Shawn that in fact I do – his ability to go in spaces with my boys where I’m not allowed, like the pool changing room. Instead, I just yell from the door, hoping everything is okay. Sometimes I send in a male friend or I ask some teenage lifeguard to help me. At times like these, I just hope my oldest boy is making good choices and using at least a little bit of soap.
Anyway, that night Austin went to the neighbor’s house, and Tommy finished his bath. He wanted to eat immediately. I figured it would be okay to just make each kid food as they came down and we’d eat in front of the TV. So Tommy got his eggs and a few minutes later, Claire got hers and I made some too. We sat down and watched the movie together and I sort-of forgot about Austin.
It was probably 45 minutes later when he came home. “Do you want some eggs for dinner, baby?” I asked him.
“Oh, I already ate,” he said. He explained that he had arrived at his friends’ house right before they were sitting down to eat dinner. They had texted me to ask if it was okay if he stayed, but I missed it. “They had chicken and Brussels sprouts and all sorts of things,” Austin told me, clearly impressed.
“God,” I thought to myself, “the neighbors are going to start worrying about me if I send a hungry kid over right at dinner time.”
I texted back to say thank you, and my neighbors were really sweet. Then I got all three kids to bed and nearly fell asleep before 9 pm.
As I was letting my mind wander, I started to think about Austin that night. The poor kid was probably starving, and I had brushed him off when he whined. Then he had arrived at his friend’s house and excitedly said yes when he was asked to stay for a meal. Was I really letting things slide that much?
Damn, were people starting to think they needed to make sure my kids were fed?
I remember kids like Austin from growing up. To be clear, no one in my hometown was starving, but there were certainly kids who ended up at my family dinner table with great frequency. I never thought that much about it, really. But when I think about it now, it strikes me that maybe some of the kids that often ate dinner at our house were doing what Austin was doing that night – just trying to find a place to sit down for a calm meal in the middle of chaos.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on myself. I know I’ve fed countless kids that aren’t mine throughout the years. It’s just that now that I’m a single parent, I feel this great pressure to do things “right.” I don’t know exactly why I feel that way, but I guess I have this idea that if I serve a great dinner and we all eat together at the table every night, then my kids will be okay.
Of course, reality – especially summer reality – means that I’m not really doing that at all.
There’s a million other things that I’m not doing that I wish I was doing as a single mom. For example, I never used to care if my kids’ socks had holes, because seriously, that is just a part of childhood. But now I see those holes and I think, “what if someone else sees the holes and starts to think that my children are being neglected? What if they think my kids will never be okay because their dad died and now they can’t even get hole-less socks?”
I know no one is actually thinking these things. Or at least I hope not. But those thoughts persist in my mind.
I’m trying to talk back to these negative thoughts. Yes, I ignored Austin’s hunger. Yes, I didn’t check up on him when he’d been gone for 45 minutes. Yes, he ended up intruding into another family’s dinner.
But – as I said to myself that night – Austin figured out what he needed and went to a house where he is loved. They asked him to join because they care about him. They fed him and they probably talked with him about his day. I am sure that they didn’t think twice about feeding him, just as I know I wouldn’t think twice about doing the same thing if the roles were reversed. Austin got a good meal with good people.
I’ve spent my entire time as a mother trying to show my kids the importance of community. I think Austin gets that, or at least he’s inadvertently building community in times like these. And so, I’m trying to stop myself from feeling guilty in these moments and instead feel grateful for the people that surround us.
Plus, he ate Brussels sprouts!
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.