Yesterday I was cooking my son's favourite meal, without my son here to enjoy it. My daughters were delighted since it has been several months since I cooked this meal, and it is one that they enjoy too. When they expressed their glee, I had to keep my emotions balanced, "yes, it is sad that my son is not enjoying this food, and as much as that brings me sorrow, I must not let that over shadow the fact that this meal has brought joy to my daughters".
Food and meal times are an amazing part of life that do so much more than give us sustenance to stay alive. It evokes emotions and memories. It heightens our senses of not only taste, but sight and smell and touch. It can also be very symbolic in many ways, as simply as when you prepare someone's favourite meal, it symbolises the love you offer to them.
When family dynamics are dysfunctional and there are tensions in the household, many aspects of family life are affected, but particularly mealtimes. So much of our social learning takes place at mealtimes that can be very hard to unlearn later in life. For example, my ex husband was raised in a family in which talking at dinner was not the done thing. Children ate their food and remained quiet. Later when the family had a tv in the kitchen, the entire family remained quiet while they "watched" tv during meals. My ex husband found it extremely difficult to partake in polite conversation around the table, particularly when it was just us at home. The only time this would change is when there was alcohol involved in the meal, and since we did not drink at dinner with the kids, because it was more often part of celebrations, entertaining or going out, most of our family mealtimes were very quiet (except for the children being scolded for their behaviour).
Anyone knows that when there is any friction between people, even if it is short term from a bad day for example, it is very difficult to sit down and enjoy a meal together, and in fact you can't even digest properly! Well, when a family is dealing with ongoing and long term dysfunction, chaos or turmoil meals are a chore, a necessity that is dreaded and thoroughly unenjoyable.
I LOVE to cook and I LOVE food! I am, I have been told, a very good cook. To cook for my family was something that brought me joy; however, in controlling relationships even having dinner when your partner comes home can be cause for complaint. Whenever I tell the story of when my ex husband and I attended marriage counselling sessions and in one session my then husband complained that I have a home cooked dinner ready when he comes home from work and he does not like this, well most people just laugh! It took the control away you see, he argued that sometimes he does not want to have dinner when he comes home, maybe it is a nice evening and he would rather go for a walk or perhaps he has come home with work to do and would like to go into his study and finish work before dinner. How dare I control something as simple as meal times. The selfishness of his comment did not get past our therapist, who immediately had to remind him that we had three children and therefore routine and family meals are essential. Still, I should not be so bold!
Then my son, who only had his father as a male role model, began a few years ago to repeat some of the control around meal times. Despite his youngest sister being 10 years younger then him and therefore having to eat and go to bed much earlier than him, he insisted on having dinner later and later. Back then when it started I would do anything to "keep the peace" and I made dinner later and later, of course when I realised that I was only enabling his controlling behaviour and started to stand my ground, the pattern was already firmly embedded. I would make dinner when I wanted and then my son would keep us waiting 10-20-30 minutes or maybe even more. Eventually with time and many spoilt dinners later, we no longer waited for him. Eventually we stopped eating at the table all together, not only because of the control my son tried to have around meals but also because most of the times he would come to dinner completely stoned (to help give him an appetite!) and I could not eat while seeing him that way. We often had arguments at the table and no one enjoyed the experience yet the interesting thing is that though our son learned ways to try to control me and things such as meals, he did not emulate his role model with the "silence is preferred at meals" idea and would come down expecting and wanting to have dinner conversation. I would often be feeling anger toward him for "ruining" dinner, but simultaneously I would feel sorry for him because he wanted to act like a normal family and talk, yet no one wanted to talk because we were so angry at his behaviour and resented it as well.
My love for food and for cooking virtually disappeared. My son would also criticise my cooking, finding any small fault he could. Sometimes he would be so patronising and opinionated that I would take my plate up to my room to eat. His control, now looking back, was so strong, yet he was my son.
So, food and meals can also be a powerful time to evoke power and control in an unbalanced dysfunctional relationship. This is something that has now been eliminated from our family home. One of the things my daughters and I now do since it is just the three of us, is come up with a weekly menu, each of us having our choice of dishes twice in the week and then Sunday is roast day! This was decided as part of our plan to start rebuilding a more normal family environment. We sit around the table and we listen to music and we enjoy our meal, though dinner conversation is something my children still struggle a little bit with. The environment is so much more relaxed and the meals are prepared with more time and forethought, it has been the most successful part of our rebuilding so far.
Food also provides comfort and my youngest seems to be indulging in this comfort and enjoying the dinners so very much that she has in fact put on some weight! She nearly always includes our "lovely dinner" in her grateful book as well! Food seems to bringing her some much needed normalcy and enjoyment and it is a big part of her day, a part she now looks forward to rather then not knowing when and what is for dinner until the last minute and then the uncomfortable experience of eating it!
My visits with my son also involve food in one way or another. Taking him to eat, taking him shopping, discussing what he eats etc..Then that disastrous visit on his birthday when I brought him his favourite cake, it was for me a real gesture of my love for him and it symbolised not only my love but also that I remember all his birthdays with fondness and of course the cake is always a central part of birthdays. When he did not seemed pleased with the cake and criticised me for giving it to him, it was more than just about the cake, and it hurt me. I often wonder if he even ate the cake, or did it end up sitting there and eventually in the bin?
My son no longer has the privilege to be so particular about what he eats and I think that is a good experience for him. I hope that when he is in the situation that someone has prepared him a nice meal, he will be much more appreciative then he was during our difficult years at home. Eating well is also something that is not available to everyone and this too is a lesson my son is now learning. He is eating things he would have never dreamed of before!
We want to heal and comfort or express our love and affection through food. We want to give the people we love an enjoyable experience of tasting wonderful things, we want to help less fortunate people by offering them food, we want to cheer up our loved ones with special treats. We want to make our friends or family feel better when ill by offering them a bowl of chicken soup!
Months ago, my friend in the States sent us a wonderful gift of fruits and vegetables to help us, cheer us up and perhaps help bond us together again as a family with yumminess! It was such a heartfelt gesture and my kids were awe struck and it was so exciting and wonderful! She sent us a few of those boxes and it was magic every time. When my son left our home on his way toward the unknown of homelessness, I packed him up a big bag of food as if that would somehow keep him safe! When my aunt in Hungary sends us a package for birthday or Christmas, she always puts something edible in it that will excite us by bringing back memories of eating something we can only get in Hungary and we are transformed back there with the first bite we take! We remember, the food, the people, the love, the warmth, the memories! Food can do some wonderful things, and it most definitely is good for the soul!