To my fellow diners in Orlando on September 7: Sincerest apologies for keeping my baby out past bedtime. It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last. Between throwing food on the floor, sobbing in his highchair, and fully exercising his loud voice, this tiny dictator made for a less-than-ideal dining experience for all of us. Rest assured that if you’re wondering why I brought him there in the first place, I was already asking the same thing myself.
But fellow diners, it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, my son was the best dinner date I’d never had an actual conversation with. As a first-time mom, who found that the hardest part of having a newborn was the unpredictability of our daily “routine,” I feverishly researched schedules to try to find a happy medium between “I need an itinerary ” and “newborns will be newborns.” The goal was for my partner and I to return to normal life as humans and not sleep-deprived zombies. And, thankfully, after a few persistent weeks treating the Moms on Call schedule like a lifeline, my son thrived on their suggested typical day that had him eating every three hours, napping regularly, and sleeping through the night.
So what did this magical, happily scheduled baby mean for us, his parents? Date night. With wine. We knew that after his 7 p.m. bottle, he’d fall into a milk-induced coma and mouth-breathe until morning. We learned which nearby restaurants were sympathetic toward new parents and would allow us to wedge the stroller between tables. A prompt 7 p.m. reservation, a baby already in his PJs, that evening bottle, a portable sound machine, et voila — parents’ night out, no babysitter required. We even took this foolproof plan on the road to Miami, where our then 3-month-old continued to crush the nightlife scene. He’d make googly-eyes and flash little smirks at the servers, shamelessly bask in all the compliments about how adorable he was, and then snooze right through dessert. We would transfer him to his crib when we got home, and all was right with the world.
But parenting has this funny way of not letting you get too comfortable. Just when you think you’re crushing it, the baby powers-that-be swoop in and gift your child with a sleep regression or a first tooth. Dare to think we got this and the universe will up the ante with a new, unsolvable bout of crying.
Our son did not want to join us for dinner anymore, and now we needed to be the ones to get on his schedule.
At 4 months, we continued our parenting dinner club with baby in tow. But each time it got a little bit harder. The restaurant’s light fixture caught my son’s eye and he was too distracted by the bright shiny object to fall asleep. A patron sitting next to us that was so loud even the portable sound machine couldn’t drown him out. Someone poked their head into his stroller to comment on the “cute baby out past his bedtime!” Finally, he started to get pissed. He was overtired and miserable every time we took him out. Suddenly, our date nights had us chugging our wine and asking for to-go boxes as our baby covered the restaurant floor in purees and angrily discarded toys. His big blue eyes were very clearly communicating to us that we had put him on this schedule and we better keep him on it, damnit.
What had started as my husband and I trying to maintain a piece of our pre-parenthood life suddenly started to feel very selfish. Our son did not want to join us for dinner anymore, and now we needed to be the ones to get on his schedule.
Fast forward seven months, and you’ll find us at many of the same neighborhood haunts… at 5:30 p.m. Our son sits in the highchair, enjoys some snacks, still shamelessly basks in all the compliments, and returns home promptly for bedtime. And hey, there’s a silver lining with the early bird special: you can pretty much get into any restaurant you want if you’re willing to go at 5:30 p.m. as a walk-in.
Of course, parenthood is all about being flexible, and we don’t expect our family and friends to jump aboard the late-afternoon dinner train just so they can dine with us. When we do go out past bedtime, we bring snacks. Tons of snacks. As long as our son’s hand is alternating between the table and his mouth, we can buy ourselves an hour to quickly catch up, devour a meal and get home at a reasonable time so we don’t pay for it the next day.
That said, we’re quickly approaching the toddler years where I hear that all bets are off, so to my future fellow diners: I’m sorry, but it might be easiest if you ask for a different table.