The biggest gift I am giving my family this year for Christmas wasn’t purchased in a store.
It wasn’t ordered online.
It wasn’t even anything they asked for.
Not directly, anyway.
But now that I’ve given them this gift, I realize it was something they wanted. And something they needed.
In fact, it was something we all needed…
Our house was built in 1787. It is old and cozy and it has a beautiful dining room with an original fireplace, nice big windows, and original wood floors.
In the center of the dining room is a reclaimed barn wood trestle table, and in the corner is a beautiful hutch, both handmade by my father.
It’s my favorite room in the house.
But for about 99% of the time we’ve lived here, the dining room has been used mainly as a dumping ground, and it’s looked more like this:
There have been many times I’ve cleaned it up and vowed never to let it get out of control again
But I’ve never been able to stick with it.
The clutter returns, and the morning (or afternoon) of a holiday or a birthday, we clean the room up, and eat one meal there.
Then, gradually, and inevitably, it returns to total disaster status.
This happened so often that every time Number 7 sat down at the table when she was two and three years old, she would automatically start singing Happy Birthday.
Because those were the only times we really sat around the table.
But this year at Thanksgiving, when we did the quarterly dining room clean out, I vowed to make a change.
A permanent one.
Because for some reason this year, I am acutely aware of how quickly time is flying by.
And I’m also much more cognizant of how chaotic our lives are.
With school and sports and concerts and practices and homework and whatever else comes along with so many people in one house, we need a literal home base. We need a place to get centered. We need to slow down.
We need connection.
So on November 23rd, I made a promise to myself.
Rather than cramming into the kitchen where there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit at the same time, rather than eating while standing up, rather than having the kids scarf down a snack in the car on the way to a practice, we were going to eat at the dining room table.
And not just dinner.
And that’s what we did.
On November 24th, we started eating all of our meals at the dining room table.
Whether it’s a school day or a weekend, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack, we eat in the dining room.
Sometimes the whole family sits down together. Other times, depending on schedules, it’s just a few of us.
It’s more work to eat this way. It takes a little longer to prepare and clean up takes a little longer.
But I am bringing back the family meals.
The rewards of sitting down together each day as a family (or mostly a family) make the extra work worth it.
We are talking. We are laughing. We are sharing.
We are still arguing and fighting sometimes. But not nearly as much as we were before November 23rd.
Eating around the table is changing our family.
The kids are nicer to each other.
Every morning I’ve been making hot chocolate for the kids. I fill a carafe with it, and I give the kids coffee cups.
And you know what they do?
They sit around the table, sip their hot chocolate, and they talk.
They look at each other. They make eye contact.
And they are learning things about each other.
“Mom! This is just like a diner!” they say.
They are right. It is.
Of course this new philosophy and practice requires an investment of time. I spend at least thirty minutes more each day on our new routine.
But I am also spending about thirty minutes less dealing with meltdowns and arguments and exasperating behaviors that are really just desperate bids for my attention.
This hasn’t eliminated all button-pushing behaviors.
But is has absolutely and significantly cut down on them.
This morning while I was cleaning stuff up in the kitchen, Number 3 and 4, who are eleven and twelve years old, sat across the table from each other, drank hot chocolate, ate a bacon, egg and cheese bagel, and talked for fifteen minutes before they had to get on the bus for school.
About twenty minutes later, I sat at the table and drank my coffee while Number 5, 6, and 7 ate their breakfast.
Number 7 proudly handed me her class newsletter (because she was the star student last week and her picture was in it) and I read it to the three of them while they drank their hot chocolate and ate their breakfast.
Number 7 had a smile from ear to ear as she explained some of the things I was reading about to her older brother and sister.
This kind of stuff almost never happened a month ago.
But now it happens just about every day.
Even on a Tuesday morning when all the kids have school.
We are all connecting.
For 26 days, we have been connecting.
I know not everyone has the ability to do this for every meal. I know work schedules and other things may make it next to impossible for many people.
But for one meal, or one snack, even a couple times a week, we can all find the find the time.
That kitchen or dining room table that’s buried under a pile of clothes and papers and who knows what else?
Clean that shit off.
You don’t have to make home cooked meals.
You don’t have to make hot chocolate.
But start somewhere.
Grab a couple of juice boxes.
Put a bag of chips in a bowl.
Order a pizza.
And sit down together to eat it.
Give yourself a home base.
If you can give your family one gift this Christmas, make it the gift of connection.
Your kids probably won’t ask for it. They may not know they want it. But they definitely need it.
We all do.