We fill our plates with spring rolls and noodles and rice and broccoli and sesame chicken and we settle in to watch the extended version of Lord Of The Rings. It is Friday. And this is all any of us wants: A Chinese takeout feast, 16 sweet-and-sour chicken balls per order (which means three each plus a fourth for one person). To sit and eat junk food cross-legged on the floor around our coffee table and then maybe change into our pajamas partway through. Junk food is how I love my kids and it is how they love me and never ever will I apologize.
I became a mom when I was 21 and I highly recommend it. When a person is 21 they are not smart enough to be scared about having babies; don’t even bother arguing, I know this to be true. When I found out I was pregnant I just thought, Yay! Baby! Cute! And I blissfully twirled through my pregnancy eating as much as I possibly could. For the first time in my kind of chubby life, everyone thought it was so very cute to see me eating a four-pack of Mars bars and I loved it. Really. I stood in the grocery store lineup once, my second-trimester baby bump looking the best it would ever look, eating from a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a woman in line behind me said, “You are just darling.” Me? Darling? With chips? This baby was already the best thing that ever happened to me.
When I gave birth, I sort of sobered up from a nine-month euphoria bender. Alone that first night in the hospital with my baby, I watched him sleep and thought, “I really want him to like me.” I knew the rule was that he would have to love me because I was his mom and his food source but he didn’t technically have to like me. I needed him to like me and I needed him to know I liked him.
Junk food has always brought us back together. No matter how mad they were at me or how scared I was of these strangers they were turning into, if I said “Do you want to get food?” we all knew what it meant.
I thought about my mom. I thought about how she was a bartender when I was a kid and the summer I was 13 she started to let me wait up for her to come home so we could split a sub. Not my little brothers, not her sisters, just her and me. I would have a disco nap with my windows open so that I would be fresh for her at 2 a.m., a time I forgot existed. She would come in with our assorted sub, extra cheese and pepper, and we would play Trivial Pursuit after she switched into her nightgown and washed her face. That 2 a.m. sub was how I knew she liked me.
And it was how I learned to show my kids I liked them.
Taking them to McDonald’s in the afternoon so they could split a Happy Meal and play in the playscape and I could drink a coffee and read a magazine before I worked my own night shift at the local pub. Sundae Fridays after a long week of school and work and our lives that were uncoiling from each other, little personal tales turning us all into our own people. Until sundae Friday brought us back together over the whipped cream, chopped peanuts, mini M&Ms.
Junk food has always brought us back together. No matter how mad they were at me or how scared I was of these strangers they were turning into, if I said “Do you want to get food?” we all knew what it meant. I love you. Come back. For cheap pizza and crazy bread from Little Caesars on a Wednesday. For breakfast at the local diner the Saturday morning after payday. For rainy Sundays spent playing Risk with teacups of mixed candy carefully counted out by one brother so that no one gets one piece more or less.
It also meant I’m sorry. My two older boys walking home from football practice in the rain because my car broke down again meant warm chocolate chip cookies on a big plate, two kinds of chocolate chips even. The night their dad moved out, taking them to the mall to get them a big bag of dill pickle Kernels popcorn and watch Ghostbusters on the TV in a bedroom that was now just mine.
Junk food meant I hear you. A coffee and a cruller and a walk through the park to mend one boy’s broken heart. Hot chocolate and a piece of raspberry cheesecake with two forks when another boy was bullied at school. Funnel cake at the beach when one boy, my middle, just wanted to feel like he was my only one. Just for a minute.
Junk food is our way back to each other. Every time. There’s this little uptick in energy that happens as soon as one of us says, “Do you want to get food?” that I will never apologize for. It means no one is leaving the group for a minute to cook. No one will have to clean. No one will have to compromise on the kind of potatoes they wanted to eat or whatever. We all get what we want. And I guess what we want is to eat chicken balls cross-legged on the floor around our coffee table and watch Lord Of The Rings. Again.
Because I like them. And they like me.
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