I’m about to drop my oldest child off at a six-week summer program. We’ve been doing all the usual preparations, like shopping, packing, last-minute haircuts, and medical appointments. We’ve also been preparing in other ways for our first long separation. What will it be like? What will change in our day-to-day routines? One immediately noticeable change will happen at family dinner.
“This is what it’s going to be like,” my 13-year-old son observed recently, looking at the empty space beside him. His brother was only away from dinner for the evening, but already, it was sinking in that mealtimes would be a little lonelier very soon.
It’s not all glum. The boys have differing food preferences, so while the elder is gone, we can make more of the dishes his younger brother loves. And with a whole summer of focused parental attention ahead of him, the 13-year-old can look forward to grabbing more of the spotlight – choosing conversation topics, playing the dinner games he likes best, and getting his first pick of ice-cream parlor or takeout joint on special evenings. I haven’t pointed out to him that being a temporary “only child” also means he’ll be the only one available to take out the garbage, help with the dishes, or set the table. He’ll figure that out soon enough!
For our family, the changes to dinner are somewhat temporary. By the end of August, we’ll have our boy back, and he and his brother will be shoving for space on the bench seat as usual. But there are lots of families out there who are preparing for bigger changes to the nightly routine. Kids are going to college, or moving into their first apartments. Work assignments or military service might take a family member away from the table for many nights a week, or for months at a time. New faces may appear at dinner, too – a new marriage might blend families, an older relative might move in to give or receive care, or a new child might join the family.
Whether you’re facing sleepaway camp, college move-in, or another type of long-term change to your family dinners, any shakeup of routine can be difficult. Here are some tips to help you cope:
Life is full of transitions and turning points. But sharing meals with our loved ones is one of the most flexible, reliable rituals we can hold onto in the midst of change. If you’re facing a big transition – for a few weeks, or for the long term – remember that even though the faces around the table might change, the bonds you create there can remain.
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