Health & Development
Sunday Dinner at Mary’s
Not long ago, I found myself with nothing do to on a Sunday afternoon. I defaulted to moping around the house – my kids were at their dad’s house, my partner was out of town and, frankly, I was a little lonely. I thought about inviting the kids and their dad to dinner, but quickly pooh-poohed the idea. Who invites their ex to dinner with the kids?
It was then that the spirit of synchronicity called. Actually, it was my friend Mary Yglesia who buzzed me, inviting me to Sunday dinner at her house.
I jumped on the offer. Besides being a great leader in the Seattle midwifery community with her position at Bastyr University, Mary is one of the best cooks I know. But, more importantly, I had been dying to see how this weekly Sunday ritual at Mary’s house – which now often includes her three kids, her granddaughter, her kids’ father from whom she was divorced in 2005, his girlfriend and Mary’s own significant other – played out. For this Seattle family, Sunday dinner is a valued commitment. It’s a way to stay connected in the wake of the divorce, in spite of adult children moving in and out of both parents’ homes and in the face of new relationships.
As I got ready to head to Mary’s that night, I thought about my own struggles to get my two teens and their dad in one room for more than the weekly pass off. And, I reminisced about the many warm and fun family dinners we’d enjoyed before divorce. At the same time, I wanted my new partner, who is not a biological parent, to experience the kind of joy that can come from a friendly shared family meal, rather than the refereed meals we’d come to expect with the teens at our table.
Mary had told me that her kids looked forward to Sunday dinner, and I really wanted to know how she pulled that off.
So I asked her.
SC: How did the ritual of Sunday dinner get started?
Yglesia: It began about a year after our divorce was finalized. My ex-husband had my daughter every weekend and would be bringing her back to me on Sunday around dinner time. I had dinner made and invited him to stay. My daughter didn't have a problem with it, and actually, it helped with the transition from dad back to mom. It was hard in the beginning, but after the first few times we got into a routine and he comes almost every week. It helps us stay connected and on the same page with what is going on in our family.
Over time I expanded it to include the two older daughters who were grown and out of the house, and my granddaughter. I think they thought the idea was weird and it took a while before they warmed up to the idea and started coming with any regularity.
SC: Was sitting down weekly for a meal tense at first? How did you melt tensions?
Yglesia: The girls were right. It was weird at first. Everyone felt awkward and conversation was limited to the weather and general news. But eventually, I stole an idea for a ritual from a friend by bringing a little chime to the table. When we are all seated I ask for quiet and to think of something to share. If it is a birthday we might share a funny story about the birthday person or perhaps we share the best thing that happened to us that day or something we are grateful for.
Someone rings the chime and we all remain silent until the sound can no longer be heard. Then we go round the table and speak our thoughts. It helps bring us all into the present moment and away from the chaos of daily life.
SC: How does food play into the evening?
Yglesia: Food can be a challenge. I have several different food needs to keep in mind – one is a vegetarian, others LOVE meat, two are gluten intolerant and one will not touch fruit. I try to keep meals simple. My ex always brings something to contribute.
SC: Why is the family meal important to you, over say, a weekly walk or meeting up at kids’ activities?
Yglesia: The gift of food can be the ultimate offering of sustenance to our loved ones. Meals don't replace the other things we do as extended family – we still stand in the rain at soccer games, show up at the concerts and have birthday parties in the bowling alley – but the meals are something we can count on.
SC: What are the benefits to your kids of this weekly gathering?
Yglesia: The kids get to see their parents modeling tolerance and love. By making the effort to show up and treating each other with respect we are showing them that we are still family – family that has more than one home, but family just the same.
SC: How has your routine of full family dinners helped you define or re-define your understanding of home?
Yglesia: Sunday dinner has helped me be a more gracious human being. I strive for my home to be welcoming and a place for loved ones to gather and share, laugh and cry and be accepted but also to get honest feedback and support. It isn't a place where anything goes. I certainly have opinions and I share them. So does my ex and so do my kids. But under it all, we know there is a foundation of love and that there is a safety net for all of us.
What I found around the table at Mary’s home that Sunday inspired me.
The house was warm, made cozier by the extended table snaking at an angle into the living room. Mary, pink from the heat of the oven, noodled around her tiny kitchen as her three daughters sat on the couch with their father and his partner, laughing, catching up. One at a time each of them, dad included, popped his or her head in to the kitchen to offer help and was handed plates to set, water to pour, something to stir. Rather than the tension I expected to feel as these two homes came together for the evening, Mary’s home was boisterous, busy and yet deeply peaceful.
Music fills the air around Mary’s table as different family members call out their new or old favorites. Every now and then Mary pulls out a piece of music that brings back intimate memories of an earlier life for her kids and their dad – like the annual playing of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant during Thanksgiving dinner (which, like Sunday dinner, brings the whole family to Mary’s table). And yet she is careful to make these moments welcoming and inclusive of those outside the biological connections of her family, asking her ex-husband’s girlfriend, for example, to share her first memory of the song.
That night I stopped stop pooh-poohing the dream of regular meals with my kids and their dad and my partner and, perhaps, some day, my ex’s new partner. Instead, I made the invitation. And to my delight, they agreed.
Sunday dinner at Mary’s, it turned out, was the first step in coming home to my own nuclear family, and committing to one evening a week where we make one home out of our two households.
Mary’s Top Tips for Weekly All-Family Dinners
1) Don’t make rules. Invite and let go of expectations. The fastest way to chase off your ex or your kids (especially the grown ones) is to make attendance mandatory. There will be times when the table is full and times when it is just a couple of you.
2) Plan a simple menu. Choose something that everyone can eat and make plenty of it. Send out reminder texts on Sunday morning. “Joining us for dinner tonight? Yummy taco bar!” Ask your guests to bring something to share.
3) Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum to avoid emotional outbursts.
4) Consider theme dinners to make it fun.
5) Leave big issues to another day. Sunday dinner is a time to relax, eat, and catch up on the week. The purpose is to give kids a sense of security that both of their parents are united despite divorce.
6) Share highs and lows of the week. Give each person five minutes and invite questions.
7) Have an agreement on when to invite significant others. Parents should agree first, and then ask kids if they are ready before issuing the invitation. Invite teenagers with SOs to bring them to Sunday dinner as well.
8) Find ways to make SOs feel included. For example, avoid overwhelming the conversation with stories of family past. Hold to the goal of this time being for family –both birth and chosen.
Mary Yglesia is a leader in the Midwifery Department at Bastyr University. She lives in Seattle with one teenage daughter, and sometimes three daughters.