Finding Community on a School Night
Poor parental planning landed us at a hibachi grill an hour away and nearly 30 minutes before bedtime. The father from the other party that we sat down with — not to break bread, but to watch a chef break eggs on fried rice — whooped his approval at the two young first-timers we brought in.
It was my daughter's birthday, and we wanted to cross the border to see Dia de Los Muertos displays in Ciudad Juarez. Her candy-fueled party, complete with a horde of friends and a bouncy castle, was scheduled for the weekend. Since her birthday fell in the middle of the week and on a half-day of school, we thought we could make it this year. However, after school, a birthday playdate and the birthday girl requesting a burrito for the road, it was impossibly late, and we found mile-long lines on two different bridges that cross into Mexico.
Food is the balm we used to try and salvage our evening.
Three separate birthdays were being celebrated in our grill area. At our table, birthdays were shared between my daughter and the surly, mop-headed 14-year-old son from the other party. The birthday adult at a separate table, already a few drinks in, whooped, and my 10-year-old threw her hands into the air and cheered to the cheers of the adults.
The night was saved by big flames, an onion volcano and undivided attention, with my husband sitting on the edge of the table with my daughter while my son was attached to me on the long end. Next to me was the 7-year-old daughter of the other party, similar to my daughter in style and appearance but glued to a phone the entire time.
My son picked up on the game playing on the small screen next to us.
"When I was little, did you give me the phone so I wouldn't be bored?" he asked.
"I gave you sugar packets," I replied, thinking of all the bending down under the table to pick up gleefully tossed packets. "Your sister played with those before you, and then you got to play with the cut limes, the straw wrappers or even a tortilla chip or two."
I felt old at the memories that felt only a few months ago but had been years. What I didn't tell him was that we were selfish as a couple with a baby. We were selfish in that we hungered for more than the ceviche we didn't trust ourselves to make at home. We hungered for community as a small, young family — and didn't want to give up going to restaurants just because we now had kids.
But it didn't seem like the community wanted us as parents, or our children. That's where phones come in. That's where tablets come in. It's a sign of loneliness above "bad parenting." It may be a sign of giving up on finding community, an effect of loneliness that can trickle down to the connections within a family.
Community spaces can be too sterile and not allow for community in the elastic way children need to interact and learn to enter the world. The only way children can learn to be a part of a community is to be in it, even if it makes things slower, even if it makes it a little louder, or even if there needs to be an extra beat in the formulaic life we've created through adult routines.
Sometimes, on a school night, the lesson is about cheering the moments that make up a life in a community, no matter the age.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at email@example.com.