Originally written for and published on I Love To Watch You Play
I’m not sure who we have to thank for putting The Family Dinner on an Everest-sized pedestal, but I’ve got a club soccer schedule I’d like to show them.
Sure, having the whole family sitting around the kitchen table — at the same time — eating a homemade meal and sharing witty, thoughtful, intelligent conversation is pretty cool. But so is winning the lottery, and parents with kids who play sports may have more luck with scratch-offs than made-from-scratch.
It’s not like I haven’t tried. Even with expert-level menu planning, disciplined meal prep, and an all-in-one air fryer/pressure cooker/vegetable chopper/dish washer/email responder appliance that fits neatly onto my countertop, I still couldn’t make dinner happen before 9pm on a good day. Between getting my kids to practices, games, tournaments, extra sessions, special sessions, and Mom-will-you-take-me-to-the-field-so-I-can-practice-my-latest-trick sessions, I’m rarely in the kitchen long enough to refill the dog’s water dish.
But as overwhelming as all that driving seems sometimes, a lot of those miles come with some pretty awesome perks. Turns out my car is the most fruitful place for meaningful conversations with my kids, important news alerts, and general life updates.
I’ve learned about their dreams of success and fears of failure, feeling lonely and fitting in. I’ve learned about their classes and friends, their favorite rappers, gamers, and YouTubers, and their favorite rapper-gamer-You-Tubers. I’ve heard about the book they’re reading, the movie that’s coming out, the playlist they love, and the app that has them hooked. I’ve participated in debates about local issues, like who has the best pizza in town. I’ve answered questions about politics, dating, when we’re ever going to go on vacation, where bacon comes from, why we can’t get another dog, what that button on the dashboard does, and why that kid in math class never gets in trouble even though he doesn’t do the homework.
Yes, my kids look at their phones while we talk. But I’ve learned to be okay with it, partially because I’m sure I’ve done it too. But when the stars — or maybe in this case, the traffic lights — align, a casual question can turn into them telling me a story I never would have known was lurking in them. Then I hold the wheel extra tight so that I don’t accidentally pump my fist in the air if I see the phone tucked away under their thigh.
I realized that car time now is a lot like diaper-changing time was when they were babies. Before I had kids I thought changing diapers was going to be the most unbearable task of parenthood. Yet, by the end of the first week with a newborn, not only did I realize parenthood had greater challenges than diapering, I’d also changed enough of them to realize they were no big deal. As the months went by I found that the pause we had to take to change his diaper every few hours opened up space for great (albeit nonverbal) moments. We’d laugh and play and bond while my body released enough oxytocin to carry me through 4 excruciating minutes of cleaning an up-the-back blowout.
Whether I’m changing my kids or chauffeuring them, these captive moments are special ones. Will I still complain about driving three hours each way for a 70-minute soccer game? Sure. Will I gripe about dropping him at the stadium at 4:45 am for high school practices? Definitely. Will I whine about getting on the outer belt every day at rush hour knowing that the 15-mile drive to practice could take anywhere from 25 minutes to 2 hours? You can put money on it. But I wouldn’t trade a single mile.
I’m just going to say it: the car beats the dinner table every time. You may never hear that from a parenting guru, but I’ve got a Jeep with well over 200,000 miles on it that will back me up. I get the goods on my kid and can still pretend-grumble about the traffic, the mileage, the abuse to my car, and the time spent waiting in unpaved, unlit parking lots scrolling social media until my eyes cross.
Dinner isn’t the only — and maybe not even the best — opportunity to connect with my kids. And the way I see it, I can fantasize about what I’m missing out on at dinner time, or just roll my eyes at my reflection in the microwave while I nuke a Lean Cuisine at 10 pm, and enjoy four uninterrupted minutes of Candy Crush.