Lifting the Burden of Family Mealtimes
Last time I introduced how, what the Catholic church calls the Corporal Works of Mercy, are very much what we do all the time as moms.
Today I’m sharing how the first Corporal work, Feeding the Hungry, plays itself out in our lives as mothers. Since the beginning of time we mothers have been providing meals for our children. From the first moments our children come into our lives we are the ones who feed them. If others feed our children (caregivers or school) we're usually the ones to check the menus, make sure they're meals are paid for, check that their meals are allergy free, etc. Most often it's mom who does most of the planning, and shopping for groceries, and cooking when home. As our children leave the nest, food is usually part of our reunions with them, as we cook for holidays, birthdays and other occasions. It's a lot ladies!
On the one hand, feeding our families is a real privilege that binds us together with our own families and also with each other as women. I felt this strongly this past Holy Week. I'm fortunate to belong to an online baking group that was created to celebrate the baking history of our local area. As the week progressed, mothers and grandmothers posted pictures of the the beautiful things they were baking to celebrate the religious and ethnic traditions that had been past on to them for Easter or Passover, that they were now creating and sharing again with their families. A love of God and family shone out of every picture. Seeing hundreds of us, and knowing millions more, were serving and loving at the same time, in the same way, and have been for generations, lifted my heart and brought deeper meaning and renewed energy to my own tasks that week.
On the other hand, being responsible for three meals a day plus snacks - on top of everything else you have to do - can really be exhausting and draining. For many of us feeding our children brings moments of stress with everything from worrying about health and nutrition, the cost of food, hassles with picky eaters, providing something everyone will eat, even, for some, dealing with battles with weight and body image (our children’s and our own). On top of that there is a lot of pressure on moms to “get it right” and there are a million different voices intruding into your life telling you what “right” is. All this can seem like anything but a Mercy for us or our kids.
When we get caught up in all the stressors of feeding our hungry families, we often miss the most important point of this Corporal work of Mercy. The nourishment of the body is imperative of course, but just as vital is the feeding of our children's souls, hearts, and minds through connection with each other while we share food. Consider the fact that it is considered a vial punishment to isolate a prisoner from all human contact and just push a plate of food through a slot to them. Their bodies may be minimally sustained by it, but their souls certainly are not.
Our children hunger for connection with us. This is a biological fact. They can only emotionally, spiritually, and even physically thrive when they experience connection to us. When we don't take advantage of the opportunity meal times create to connect and enjoy being with our children, we are missing a tremendous opportunity to capture their hearts, guide them, form them, create memories, and enliven the love between us.
If we look at the New Testament scriptures we see so many times when Jesus connected with people over food. When he shared meals with them he knew people would pause, eat, make eye contact, listen, talk and share their hearts.
For years I struggled with the story of one particular time Jesus shared a meal with people. The story of Mary and Martha (Luke Chapter 10) tells us of Jesus being welcomed into Martha's house. She busies herself as anyone would when having guests for dinner, while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. Eventually Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn't helping her and tells him to tell Mary to help her. Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Now I know Jesus wasn't an ingrate and that they did all share in the meal Martha worked so hard on, so I struggled with his reproach of Martha. I understood Martha. After all, as a mom, if I don't do this particular work of motherhood, we're all going to be starving in a filthy house pretty quickly! I was sure Jesus wasn't telling us to just sit around talking all day and never attend to these tasks.
Then one day in prayer a different emphasis struck me. The words “you are worried and upset” leapt off the page at me. I suddenly wondered if it was Martha’s negative, frustrated, put upon attitude that Jesus was correcting. After all, Jesus used food as a means of connection. Mary was engaged in connection, while Martha's attitude and words were threatening it. So often we end up undermining our connection with those we love by using mealtimes as a time to discipline the kids, argue about food, or discuss tense topics, or complain about each other's shortcomings. When we do this we lose so many of the benefits family meals are supposed to give us, and make our families less likely to enjoy each other, trust each other, or want to be together.
In a future blog/podcast I will talk more about how to deepen our spiritual lives, and the well being of our families, through this Corporal Work and how deal with some of the practicalities of feeding your hungry people. But I would like to offer this suggestion to begin: Discontinue negativity when you share food with your family. Make it a new rule with your family that whenever you share food -weather that's an extended meal, a snack, or nuggets in the car before the next after school activity - you will all work on being pleasant, and up building, focusing on being together and enjoying your time together.
Save conversations about difficult topics, correction, schedules, school performance, etc. for a time, when you're not sharing food. You can still catch up on the day. But make sure you talk about the positive things, as well as the struggles of the day. One way to do this is to use the Thorn and Roses game, where each person gets a bit of time to share a struggle of that day (a thorn), but also a positive part of the day (a rose), while the others listen attentively, support and encourage the person who is sharing. At the very least it will be better for your digestion. But it will also ease a lot of the dread and anxiety many families have internalized about family meals and even food in general.
This one practice may help you all draw closer, connect with each other more deeply, bring you more peace and even make pleasant memories that will make your family want to gather for family meals for generations to come.