by Abby Margolis Newman
I love the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times with a passion. I look forward to reading it every week, and I save it for last, like dessert. First, I read the news section, which habitually makes me feel helpless and depressed. Then I move on to the Week in Review, a summary of news from the past week (obviously) plus editorials--and I adore Frank Rich's columns with an intensity bordering on sick, according to my husband (if Frank Rich is on vacation, I sink into a deep funk, only to be roused by the Styles section.)
The Styles section is sometimes referred to as the Women's Sports section (yes, sexist), because it is sort of like a print version of a chick flick. It regularly includes voyeuristic articles about the rich and snobbish in New York: the competitive parents who buy $1200 strollers for their daily trips to Zabar's; who are rejected by East Side co-op boards because they're not quite rich enough; who can't sell their $5.5 million homes in the Hamptons in this depressed real estate market; who scratch and claw and bribe their way into Manhattan's most elite preschools. It's hilarious and fun. And then, of course, there are the Weddings pages, which I still read avidly even though most of my college classmates are way too old to be getting married--at least for the first time.
That's why this past Sunday's Styles section was so distressing to me: the featured story on the front page was entitled, "The Guilt Trip Casserole ," and frankly, it was too close for comfort. Instead of taking sneaky pleasure in the trials and tribulations of wealthy and whiny New Yorkers, this piece was a direct punch in the gut, to me. As a friend of mine put it, instead of being a guilty pleasure, this week the Styles section just made me feel guilty.
We've all heard about the studies saying that families who sit down to dinner together raise kids who are more well-adjusted, do better in school, are less depressed, less likely to be overweight, etc. But according to this Times article, the latest study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) also shows that "teenagers who eat with their families less than three times a week are more likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families five times a week."
FIVE TIMES A WEEK?! Wait, let me rephrase that: THREE TIMES A WEEK?!
I'm a mom of three boys: two teenagers (ages 16 and 14) and one 10-year-old who is becoming a teen prematurely (more on that in a future column). My husband is a CFO who, although he works 15 minutes from our home, is gone each weekday from about 7:30 a.m. until at least 7:30 p.m. The boys are at three different schools and are involved in sports and theatrical productions. This situation, needless to say, is not conducive to cozy family dinners during the week. Frankly, we're lucky if we even get one sit-down dinner per week—and I mean at the table, not on the family room couch while watching "The Simpsons" (more on that phenomenon later, too).
So, if my teenage and pre-teen boys get only one family dinner per week, does this mean they are five times as likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs? Holy crap. And do the chances of this bad behavior go up even higher if I, as the stay-at-home-parent, do not actually do any home cooking but rather buy the pre-marinated chicken breasts, the frozen (but organic!) oven fries, and never vary our vegetable choices? Does eating In n’ Out burgers in the car on the way to or from baseball practice—as long as the boys are all together!—count as a family meal (is there such a thing as partial credit)?
And what happens if we don't actually have meaningful conversations, but instead the boys yell over each other, trying to make their respective points about some incredibly unimportant topic, like who can best imitate Comic Book Guy from the last episode of "The Simpsons"? Do I get any points if the brothers eat together at the table, and then my husband and I scarf down a salad later (much later), after the kids are in bed, while we watch “Mad Men”?
I fear the answer is no. And like the Texas mother featured in the New York Times story, who also has three teenage boys and who wonders if Sonic Burgers on the way to football practice qualifies as an actual meal, I’m a little freaked out by this new data from CASA.
Guilt-trip casserole indeed. More like a guilt-trip store-bought roasted chicken. Amazingly, none of my boys have yet turned to alcohol or drugs and, as far as I know, my 10-year-old hasn’t yet taken up smoking. As for me, I’ll look forward to next Sunday’s paper; I’m counting on Frank Rich to get me out of my Sunday Styles-induced funk.